A New Commandment Postmodernity Giveth Unto Thee
(A version of this blog post first appeared in Ligonier Ministries TABLE TALK magazine, June, 2015)
Honor Your Father and Your Mother
“No more of parental rules,” chortles Calvin as he and Hobbes strut north to be masters of their fate in the frozen Yukon. “Good riddance to those grown-up ghouls!” Life will be grand, so Calvin thinks, because there he won’t need to put up with—much less honor—his parents (Bill Watterson).
In a culture wearing itself out honoring youth, “Honor your father and your mother” (Exodus 20:12a) makes no sense. Isn’t honor something we seek for ourselves? So what’s all this about giving it to others?
Our tolerant culture has zero tolerance for aging, which has produced a cult of perpetual youth, with perfect teeth grinning at us wherever we turn. In the resulting frenzy to appear young, Americans annually spend an amount on cosmetic procedures sufficient to feed and clothe 54 million starving children.
Devoutly honoring the superficiality of appearance, we look with longing toward youth—and with loathing toward age and maturity. We desperately don’t want to grow up and give up childish ways (I Corinthians 13:11b), so, rather than honor, we ignore or neglect the aged.
Dishonoring maturity, however, is not just the problem of our image-driven youth culture. Seeing the tendency in 16th century Geneva, Calvin cautioned from his deathbed, “Let the young continue to be modest, without wishing to put themselves forward too much; for there is always a boastful character in young folks… who push on in despising others.”
HONOR OR ABANDON
Perversely, our culture makes it a virtue to “push on in despising others,” especially parents. Jared Diamond, UCLA professor and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, argues that with technology and inexhaustible access to information we no longer need the mature as a source of wisdom.
In his article “Honor or Abandon,” Diamond goes further: “It may under some circumstances be better for children to abandon or kill their parents.” Which flips the fifth commandment on its head, turning what is forbidden into what is required, neglecting and heinously acting against the honor of parents and others (WSC Q.65).
Going down to the heart, the fifth commandment extends beyond honoring parents. It “…requireth the preserving the honour, and performing the duties, belonging to everyone in their several places and relations, as superiors, inferiors, or equals” (WSC Q.64).
Enshrined in the fifth commandment is our entire duty to love our neighbor as ourselves—all our neighbors.
But honoring is hard; it requires us to suspend our self-worship, to give up the honor we imagine belongs to us and render it to another, to inconvenience ourselves for the benefit of others, to rise in the presence of the aged (Leviticus 19:32) and thereby honor God.
HONOR THE DISHONORABLE
Intractable lovers of self, we find honoring others too difficult—actually, impossible. So we cast about for a way out. Many have good reasons. An anguished young man once asked me, “How am I supposed to honor my father after what he’s done to my mother?” It was a good question. I knew what this father had done. He’d run off with another woman, leaving his pregnant wife to pick up the pieces of the domestic disaster created by his profoundly dishonorable behavior. Nevertheless, God tells this young man to honor his father.
Master finaglers, the Pharisees thought they had landed on the ultimate exception clause to honoring parents. They had cooked up a tradition that said when they declared their resources given to God they were off the hook on the fifth commandment. Jesus exposed the fraud: “So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you…:
“‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me…’” (Matthew 15:1-9).
Only hearts that have been brought near to God in Christ can truly honor—even a dishonorable parent. Just as “Children obey your parents,” does not include obeying their sinful commands, so “Honor your father,” does not include honoring his dishonorable behavior.
However, if Peter can urge 1st century believers to honor everyone, including Emperor Nero (I Peter 2:17), then the command to honor parents isn’t made void by having a dishonorable parent, any more than the command to love our neighbor is void when we have a neighbor who lobs beer cans into our yard. God’s commands still apply in a broken world of imperfect neighbors and dishonorable parents; they were gifted to us by our gracious heavenly Father for just such a world.
PERFECT OBEDIENCE REQUIRED
Unique in the Decalogue, the Spirit annexed to the fifth commandment an enduring consequence for obeying it, “that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you” (Exodus 20:12b).
Long life—Everlasting life! Unshakably secured by our elder Brother whose obedience did surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 5:20), who alone is perfect as His heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:48), who did what no one has ever been able to do: perfectly fulfill all the duties required in God’s Law. Pick your earthly hero; not one has truly honored his parents.
Except Jesus. Honoring His Father’s will, Christ prayed, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will but as you will” (Matthew 26:39). Forsaken by His Father on the cross, yet the Son perfectly obeyed and honored His Father—though it cost Him everything.
“Honor your father and your mother.” Jesus did. In Him, we can grow daily in the grace of honoring our earthly parents for the still greater honor of our heavenly Father.
Douglas Bond, author of twenty-eight books of historical fiction, biography, devotion, and practical theology; including his newest release God Sings! (And Ways We Think He Ought To); directs the Oxford Creative Writing Master Class, is a hymn writer, conference speaker, and church history tour leader. His books and hymns are available at bondbooks.net