Honor your father and mother…
The Fifth Commandment seems simple enough.
Kids, respect your parents.
Plain and simple.
But how could we honor bad, ungodly, neglectful parents?
Many of us have parents who, if we gave them our full obedience and attention, would pull us away from the life God called us to live.
So how are we supposed to honor them?
Part of this is obedience. In the New Testament this is reaffirmed:
Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.” (Ephesians 6:1–3)
In the Colossian letter, the apostle Paul spoke similarly. Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord. (Colossians 3:20)
So long as I can obey my parents and God at the same time, I should.
But even if we can’t obey them, this command shows us there is still room for respect.
And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them, You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy. Every one of you shall revere his mother and his father, and you shall keep my Sabbaths: I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19:1–3)
Even bad parents can be respected. We don’t need to go out of our way to dishonor them.
In fact, we’re given all sorts of condemnations if we don’t respect our parents.
For anyone who curses his father or his mother shall surely be put to death; he has cursed his father or his mother; his blood is upon him. (Leviticus 20:9)
If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and, though they discipline him, will not listen to them, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gate of the place where he lives, and they shall say to the elders of his city, “This our son is stubborn and rebellious; he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.” Then all the men of the city shall stone him to death with stones. So you shall purge the evil from your midst, and all Israel shall hear, and fear. (Deuteronomy 21:18–21)
The law taught children to not kill their parents (Exodus 21:15), curse their parents (Exodus 21:17; Leviticus 20:9), steal from their parents (Proverbs 28:24), or treat their parents with scorn (Deuteronomy 27:16).
Notice that the Law never specifies “good parents.” The Israelites had many bad parents. That’s the story of the Old Testament. One generation rebels against God and their children and grandchildren have to overcome their bad parenting and turn back to Him. Yet, the Law never says that those generations of bad parents are exempted from the honor required by the Fifth Commandment.
In the New Testament, we have a teaching from Jesus about how the Law should be interpreted:
Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.” He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,” he need not honor his father.’ So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God.” (Matthew 15:1–6)
Jesus says that according to the 10 Commandments, even adults have obligations to respect and take care of their parents and we should be very careful finding excuses to avoid those responsibilities.
That principle still applies today. I don’t think there is any interpretation of Scripture that we should go around cursing our parents and deliberately avoiding helping them. Our society may be quick to write parents off, but God’s people shouldn’t be.
But this command is not designed to lock us into our parents’ foolish decisions. How many people do we know who refuse to follow Christ because their parents didn’t or their parents taught them differently than the Bible?
This command does not mean that parents should be the first priority in our lives.
God has always said that as important as it is to honor your parents, there are limits to that honor. Right from the beginning, in the first marriage, God says, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” (Genesis 2:24)
Adam and Eve did not have parents, so this command was given for all generations that the man will leave his father and his mother. Now this new marriage relationship becomes the primary concern for decisions and the parents become the secondary concern. That doesn’t mean that the man should suddenly start cursing their parents, purposely dishonoring them, and refusing to care for them, but they have a new responsibility that must come first.
So, by and large, here’s the takeaway: Parents should not be cast aside or neglected, but in the moderation of the Bible, we also see there may be instances for that where parents are destructive, invasive, or damaging to the marriage relationship or our relationship with God.
Again, many of us have parents who, if we gave them our full obedience and attention, would pull us away from the life God called us to live. So we can honor them (we don’t have curse them or hurt them), but honoring our parents should never stand in the way of honoring God.
That sometimes leaves us with some tough decisions. We can’t control our parents’ actions or attitudes, but the hope should be, even if we can’t change them, we can be the kind of parents worthy of honor and we raise honoring children.