A Chinese man once traveled across the United States for six months. When asked what impressed him most about America, he answered, “The way parents obey their children.” That, of course, is exactly backwards, but in many homes today, parents are not in charge. Their children rule the roost, and that’s a problem. Societal chaos is often the result, and we’re seeing this very dynamic play out across our nation today. Children should be taught to honor parents, just as the fifth commandment insists.
And yet, while all that is true, this command from God is not primarily directed toward young children. That’s an application of the command, as Paul teaches in Ephesians 6:1-3, but the fifth commandment is addressed primarily to adults, as are all of the Ten Commandments. That’s clearly the case, for example, with the fourth commandment, which prohibits making one’s sons or daughters work on the Sabbath. The same is true for the seventh commandment about adultery. Such regulations can only apply to adults.
Like so many other laws in the Mosaic corpus, this command serves to protect those who are disadvantaged in society. The social reality in the ancient Near East was that aging parents became less and less “useful” to their children as they grew older. As a result, they tended to become less valued by their adult children. Aging parents would gradually need more and more help because of physical weakness, mental challenges, increased sickness, loss of physical abilities, drops in income, etc. The fifth commandment calls for such individuals to be helped. In fact, the word honor can mean:
- providing financial support for a person
- showing a person respect; treating a person with dignity
- verbally expressing one’s respect or esteem for a person
- elevating a person to a position of respect and admiration
In short, God wanted Israel to be a good place for people to grow old. The same is true today in Christ’s church: God’s people are to honor and cherish their family. But what about those cases where a parent is extremely difficult or even wicked—an abuser, a physically agressive alcoholic, or an emotionally absent parent? How can God expect his children to honor such a parent? This message seeks to offer some guidance on thorny questions like these.
In the end, Jesus died obeying the fifth commandment. From the cross he said to his mother, who was standing next to the Apostle John, “Dear woman, here is your son,” and to John he said, “Here is your mother” (John 19:26-27). At the very end, he tended to family obligations as well as his own personal calling, seeing to the care of his mother after he’s gone. Quite significantly, Jesus died bringing people into new relationships at the cross. John is Jesus’ substitute with respect to family caring. Jesus is John’s substitute with respect to sin bearing. Do you know Christ by faith as your sin-bearing substitute?
Series: Carved in Stone: Some of God’s Ways for All of God’s People
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