The God Who Requires Honour

Exodus 20:12

The Reverend Bryn MacPhail / October 24, 2004


            If we were to consider the ordering of the Ten Commandments, most of us would admit to having a measure of bewilderment with the placement of the commandment to honour our father and mother at number five.


Most of us would likely place this commandment a bit lower on the list. However, since the commandment resides at number five, our attention should be sufficiently arrested by the fact that God has placed it there.


The high placement of this command would seem to indicate that honouring one’s father and mother is to be the first check upon human relationships. It’s as if our success at keeping the remaining five commandments will be partly dependent upon our ability to keep this particular command.


I was, both, surprised and delighted by something I heard from the candidates in the most recent U.S. Presidential debate. The focus of the final debate was domestic issues and, in answering different questions, both, President Bush and Senator Kerry identified the biblical command to “Love your neighbour as yourself” as a governing principle for solving these domestic issues.


Jesus gave this command, you may recall, as a follow-up command to what He identified as the “foremost commandment” to Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” (Mt. 22:37-38). Placed side by side, these two commandments are the hinges on which all of the other commandments turn (Mt. 22:40).


            Few people would argue with the wisdom of loving our neighbour as ourselves. Even the pundits at CNN refrained from criticizing this assertion. And yet, given that the context of their discussion was domestic issues, I would have been even more pleased if one of the candidates had identified the fifth commandment as the first step in applying the command to love our neighbour. I would have delighted to hear one of them say, ‘In order to have stability in our society, there must first be stability in our homes.’


            This is the testimony of Scripture. If you were to turn in your Bibles to Leviticus, chapter 19, you would find there a long list of commands given for the establishment of an orderly society. The list of commands follows the statement, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Lev. 19:2).


In this list, there are all sorts of commands: “do not steal” (v.11), “do not oppress your neighbour” (v.13), “do no injustice” (v.15), and so on. But, do you know which command heads the list? “Every one of you shall revere his mother and his father” (v.3).


            Be holy for I am holy.”

‘That’s quite a requirement. Such a requirement involves so much. Lord, where do I begin? Please, give me a measurable first step towards holiness.’

“OK, here it is: Honour your father and your mother.”


            Why is this command so high on the list? The command to respect parental authority is designed to teach us how to respect Divine authority. The command to practice submission to our earthly superiors is intended to serve as a training ground for our unqualified submission to the God of this universe.


            Having identified the purpose of this command, we need to take a minute in order to identify the scope of the fifth commandment.


Many people, when they look at the 5th commandment, imagine this to be an intermission for the adults. ‘Ah, look at this—a commandment for little Bobby and Suzy: “Honour your father and your mother.”—that’s nice. That will help them to be well-behaved children.’


            Yes, indeed, the 5th commandment is a help to young children, but it is also an exhortation to older children as well. As far as I can tell, there is no expiry date on the commandment to honour our father and mother.


Furthermore, we need to know that, in the Hebrew, there is no word for grandfather, or grandmother. That is why you often see occasions in the Old Testament where the word “father” is used in reference to someone who is clearly from a few generations back.


For this reason, it can be said that the command in Hebrew to “honour your father and your mother”, translates, for us, into a command to honour any relative who is older than we are.


The implications of this should cause us to pause in self-evaluation. As it is, not everyone has a good relationship with their parents, and if we widen the scope of this command to include grandparents, aunts, and uncles, it is likely the case that what was once a pretty basic command has now become for us a daunting challenge.


I confess to you that, as I consider the scope of the fifth commandment, I reckon that this is, for me, one of the more difficult commandments to keep. It is difficult to keep, on the one hand, because my family, like many families, is a complex family. And, on the other hand, the fifth commandment is difficult to keep because it is an unqualified command for respect for human authority.


No conditions are given. God does not say, “Honour your father and your mother if they treat you well.” No, God intends for us to treat our older relatives with respect without regard to any merit, or lack thereof.


Having identified the scope of the command, we now move to the application of the command. What are the ways in which we can demonstrate honour? Certainly there are many ways, but one way to honour our father and our mother is with our speech.


Depending on our age, how we speak to our parents, grandparents, and people of authority, will differ. Teenagers who dishonour their parents with their speech often do so through their insistence on arguing every subject. The subject may be how they adorn themselves, their Saturday night curfew, or whether they need to get out of bed on Sunday morning.  Their response to parental instruction is predictable: argue the contrary opinion of the parents. What should be the case, however, is what I learned the hard way at boarding school. The most appropriate and honourable response for a teenager to give to an adult is ‘Yes, Sir’ or ‘Yes, Maam’. No debate. Just compliance.


Unfortunately, even as adults, we do not entirely outgrow the inclination to speak to our parents in inappropriate ways. What usually happens, however, is that the manner in which we speak to our parents becomes more refined. As adults, we no longer speak to our parents with outright belligerence, but rather, what we need to guard against, instead, is speaking to our parents in a patronizing manner. This is because the 5th commandment requires that our speech be honouring to our parents, irrespective of our age or theirs.


A second way children can demonstrate honour is by heeding the instruction of their parents.


It’s not difficult to imagine how this is necessary to restrain unruly little children. How many of us have longed for the application of this command while on an airplane having our seat repeatedly kicked by a five-year-old? We soon realize that a resolution to our predicament is unlikely when we hear daddy reasoning with the little one, explaining the merits and demerits of kicking the gentlemen’s chair intermittently throughout the flight.


Or, how about the child that holds her parent at ransom in the middle of a lengthy grocery line demanding that she be awarded a particular package of candy. This example, I admit, hits close to home for me.


I suspect most parents would concede that the overwhelming temptation is to exercise diplomacy, wanting to communicate to the other adults standing in line that you are a composed and caring parent. The temptation for diplomacy is also strong in view that it is your best hope at preventing a public spectacle. And yet, if it is your conviction that a bag of candy is an unnecessary purchase, the articulation of this conviction to your child makes their compliance necessary. Because part of what it means to honour our parents is to be diligent to heed their instruction.


This holds true for children of every age. Now, I recognize that for many of you here today, your parents are no longer alive. And yet, this aspect of honouring your parents is timeless. The author of Proverbs writes: “Hear, my son, your father’s instruction, and do not forsake your mother’s teaching; indeed, they are a graceful wreath to your head, and ornaments about your neck” (Prov. 1:8, 9). Even if your parents are no longer alive, their instruction can still be heeded.


In preparation for this sermon, I remembered that I had a letter written by my late father, which I had tucked in the middle of one of my books. My dad wrote this letter to me when I was a little boy, shortly before he passed away. It is clear to me now, that my father, knowing that he would not live for much longer, wanted me to have a written record of his affection for me. The letter also contained many words of instruction—instruction worded for a nine year-old, but it was timeless instruction nonetheless. In his letter, my father exhorted me with phrases like: “Be strong in spirit”, “remember other people’s feelings”, “hard work is necessary”, “be kind to your mother”.


Beloved, we honour our fathers and our mothers when we continue to apply their instruction, long after they have left this world.


How else shall we apply this command? What else must me do in order to demonstrate honour?


Lastly, we must demonstrate, in as many ways as possible, that we love our parents. Love is the crown jewel of honour. To see this, one need only juxtapose the Westminster Confession’s answer to, ‘What is the chief end of man?’ with Jesus’ answer to the question, ‘What is the greatest commandment?’


The Westminster Divines assert that the chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever. Jesus declares that the greatest commandment is, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” (Mt. 22:37-38).


How shall we reconcile these two statements? Clearly, we reconcile them by saying that the chief way in which we glorify God is by loving God. In a similar manner, the chief way we demonstrate honour towards our parents is through our demonstrations of love.


Without love, our polite speech and our obligatory compliance will produce little more than a superficial kind of honor. But the 5th commandment aims for much more than superficial honour; the aim of the 5th commandment is honourable behaviour motivated by love.


Friends, this is how we are to treat our earthly parents and, most importantly, this is how we must approach our relationship with our Father in Heaven. May God be glorified in our lives, and may our service to Him flow from a loving affection for Him. Amen.