Respect for Parents

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'Honour your father and your mother.' I guess different people will react differently to those words. For some, they’re exactly what we want to do: we feel fortunate to have had the parents we've had; it's easy to speak highly of them; it's a joy to visit them; and our relationship with them is a real strength. For others, it's not like that. We wish our parents had been different; we find it easier to criticise than to appreciate them; and relating to them feels more of a duty than a joy. For many, it's somewhere in between those two extremes which I’ve painted. And for still others, I’m aware that parents are no longer alive – and mention of them brings a mixture of good memories and maybe also painful ones.

Well, this morning we begin part 2 of a series on the Ten Commandments. And today it’s no.5: 'Honour your father and mother.' So would you please turn in the Bible to Exodus 20. Let me remind us of the background. God has just rescued his Old Testament people from slavery in Egypt. And he's brought them to Mount Sinai to speak to them – to tell them what he's like and what being in relationship with him will demand. So look down to Exodus 20, v1:

1 And God spoke all these words: 2 "I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” (vv1-2)

Now that's a reminder that God did not give his law so that by keeping it people would earn their way into relationship with him. The order is always that God first brings us into relationship with himself - through no merit of our own. And then he gives us his law as if to say, 'Now you're in relationship with me, this is how to please me and reflect my character.' And our ongoing failures to please him and reflect his character do not affect the security of our relationship with him. Because that depends on his ongoing forgiveness, paid for when the Lord Jesus died on the cross. And it’s important to hear that right at the start because whenever we look at an area of God's will for our lives, it inevitably makes us aware of our failures. The fifth commandment has done that for me, and if you're being honest this morning, it'll do that for you. So can I remind us right at the start that if we're trusting in the death of Jesus for our sins, we can listen to this part of God's Word not as condemned failures, but as forgiven learners.

So look on to Exodus 20.3, where the ten commandments start. It's often said that nos.1 to 4 are about our relationship with God while nos 5 to 10 are about our relationships with one another. Which is true, as far as it goes. But as we'll see in this series, our relationship with God stands behind all ten. So look down to v12:

12 "Honour your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you.”(v12)

And I've got four questions to ask about that commandment:
1. Does it still apply to us today?
2. What does it actually mean?
3. How are we to do it?
4. Why are we to do it?


Keep a finger in Exodus 20 and turn on in the Bible to Ephesians 6.1. The fifth commandment was given to old covenant believers before Jesus' first coming. Now here's the apostle Paul writing to new covenant believers today. And he says, Ephesians 6.1:

1 Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. [Why is it right? Well, because God commands it in the fifth commandment which he goes on to quote, v2:] 2 "Honour your father and mother" - which is the first commandment with a promise – 3 "that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth."(Ephesians 6.1-3)

So does the fifth commandment still apply to us today? Yes. So now keep a finger in Ephesians 6, and turn back to Exodus 20. And my next question about the fifth commandment is:


Look again at Exodus 20.12:

“Honour your father and your mother...” (v12)

It's been said that the ten commandments reflect God's scale of values – God – people - things. And in the first four, God says that our relationship with him is of absolutely first importance, above everyone and everything else. But in the next six, he turns to the area of relationships with one another. And the fact that no.5 tops those six surely means that in that area, God gives first place to our relationship with our parents. Because it's through our parents that God brought us into this world. And in his creation-ordering of things, God ordained our parents to be our primary carers and our primary teachers - and the married family to be the basic unit of society. And that's why we're told to honour our parents – because God stands behind them. And that holds true whether or not parents are Christians, because this is about God's creation-ordering of things, which applies to all people he’s created – believers and unbelievers.

So more specifically, what does it mean to honour our parents? Well, first and foremost it's an attitude that respects this God-ordained place and authority that they have. And how that attitude works out in action varies - according to our state in life and theirs. So, my next question about the fifth commandment is:


Shakespeare wrote about the seven ages of man. This Christmas I came across the three ages of man: ‘No.1, you believe in Father Christmas; no.2 you disbelieve in Father Christmas; no.3 you are Father Christmas.’ Well, I want to go over five states in life that the Bible recognises, which affect how we honour our parents.

State no.1 is childhood – when honouring parents means obeying them. Keep your finger in Exodus and turn back to Ephesians 6.1:

1 Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. [Why is it right? V2, because God says it is in his law. Now look down to v4:]4 Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord. (Ephesians 6.1,4)

So v4 shows that Paul is talking about children who are still dependants, growing up under their parents' roof. And in that state of life, honouring your parents, v2, means obeying them, v1.

Now where Paul says in v1, 'Children, obey your parents in the Lord,' he's clearly talking to children old enough to know the Lord Jesus and to know that they should obey their parents because he wants them to. Now it's a great shame that this isn't a Family Service, because most of the people to whom God is speaking in Ephesians 6.1-3 went out to their Sunday groups earlier in the service. Which begs the question: who’s going to teach them this? That's a question for overall leaders of our youth work: when and how will you regularly teach this command? But it's primarily a question for those of us who are parents. Because as we've already seen under God, you are the primary teachers of your children (you only ‘lend’ them for a relatively short time to the youth work week by week). So you need to teach your children Ephesians 6.1-4. You could do that formally some time by making it your Bible reading with them – you could talk about what the Lord Jesus expects of them in vv1-3 and then about what he expects of you in v4. But we’d also do well to drop this truth in, informally. Eg, you ask little Johnny to write a thank you letter to Granny for the Christmas present she gave. And, reluctant to tear himself away from his Lego, he says, 'Why should I?' And we need to say things like, 'Well, because I'm asking you to – and because the Lord Jesus wants you to.' Are you teaching your children to obey you ‘in the Lord’ – are you saying Christ-centred things like that when they ask you, ‘Why?’?

State no.2 is adulthood – when honouring shifts from obeying to listening and respecting. The book of Proverbs has a lot to say to adult children about seeking wisdom – not least the wisdom of parents. So, eg, Proverbs 4.1:

1 Listen, my sons, to a father's instruction; pay attention and gain understanding. (Proverbs 4.1)

Now what's different in adulthood is that we're now independent children. And parents, you obviously need to nurture that independence in your children and let them go. (As someone put it, 'There are two great gifts we can give our children. One is roots. The other is wings.') But having flown the nest, as adult children we should still have the humility to ask what parents think. We're no longer bound to obey; but Proverbs says we'll be wise to listen and to respect their thoughts - even if we ultimately disagree and go against them.

Now I've made it sound like childhood ends one day and adulthood begins the next. Whereas, obviously, they shade into one another as, in our terms, children get to CYFA age and then (for many of ours, anyway) into the semi-independence of student hood. And can I say that is one reason why the older youth work and student work here at JPC is vital. Because it's that delicate time when children are distancing themselves from parents and working out whether their parents' faith is really their own faith, too. And it takes real wisdom for leaders in those areas to keep those young adults engaging with the Bible in a way that gives them space to think, question and grow into their own convictions. And can I also say: if you've already started as a student – or remember this if you're going to, soon – don't listen to those who encourage you to throw over everything you've heard from a Christian home, or who make you feel you've had the most dreadfully square and restrictive time in life so far. Instead, listen to Proverbs 6.20:

20 My son, keep your father's commands and do not forsake your mother's teaching. (Proverbs 6.20)

I.e., as you cross the territory to full independence, hold on to what believing parents have taught you - and count it a privilege that they did.

So honouring parents as adult children means listening and respecting. It also means cultivating an adult friendship with them. The story's told of a wife talking to her husband about their son. 'When did we last hear from Ben?' she asks. 'I don't know,' he replies, 'I'll go and look up the date in the cheque-book.' But honouring parents as adult children means reciprocating, not just taking, and taking for granted. I remember one father I know saying, 'I've brought up my children in the hope that the person they had to have as a Dad they'll want to have as a friend.' And surely honouring parents as adult children means cultivating friendship with them. Whereas in our mobile society, where we mostly live at a distance, it's so easy to neglect the people we owe so much. So easy to tell myself I haven't got time to phone them while forgetting how they made time to feed me at 2am and change my nappy and teach me to walk and talk and cycle and swim and... We owe them. We owe them good communication. We owe them time in our precious holidays. And can I say: if at the moment, you have parents nearby, with the opportunity that brings for extended family, do think carefully about moves that would take you away. I know moves may be unavoidable, but that kind of family closeness is very valuable in God's eyes.

One other thing is that honouring parents as adult children means appreciating them. The Bible condemns the person who 'curses his father or mother' (see Exodus 21.17, quoted by Jesus in Mark 7.10). So positively, surely we're to express appreciation and gratitude. I know I'm glad that at certain key points of my life - like leaving home - I've written to my parents in a sense quite ‘formally’ to thank them for all they've done for me. So often after a parent dies, someone will say, 'I wish I'd thanked them more.’ Or, ‘I wish I'd said this or that.' Well, brothers and sisters, if you still have the opportunity, say it now.

State no.3 is marriage. I don't mean that inevitably happens to everyone. But it's another state of life which, if it happens, again affects how we honour our parents. Because back in Genesis 2.24 we're told that in order to marry:

... a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife and they will become one flesh. (Genesis 2.24)

Notice: 'he (and, by implication, she) will leave father and mother'. Ie, at marriage-point, parents cease to have priority – eg, they must no longer be the primary confidantes or advisers, if that's what they've been. And the relationship between husband and wife now takes priority. So married couples need, under God, to work things out for themselves – like how they conduct their marriage, their home, their parenting and so on - and to beware letting any parent be an inappropriately strong influence on those things. And parents need to respect that leaving and adjust their relationships with married sons or daughters - which isn’t necessarily easy for either children or parents.

State no.4 is conversion. Again, I'm not saying that inevitably happens to everyone. But if a child becomes a Christian and the parents are not, that raises issues about how to honour them. The most obvious one is when parents oppose the faith of Christian children and try to discourage serious commitment to the Lord and to church. But Jesus says in several places in the Gospels that loyalty to him must come above loyalty to parents (eg, Luke 14.25-27. NB, in these verses, where Jesus talks about ‘hating’ father and mother, he is not commanding ‘hate’ for father and mother. Jesus himself upheld the fifth commandment to ‘honour’ them in Mark 7.10. In Luke 14.26, Jesus is using overstatement to make his point. He’s saying, ‘Your love for me should take such priority as to make all other loves look like hate by comparison.’) Now that needs very wise and sensitive handling. And if you run into this issue, do talk to an older Christian about how to handle it, because it’s easy to handle it badly. But sometimes we will, painfully, have to go against the wishes or the dissuasions of non-Christian parents. And sometimes we may have to deal with the dissuasions of Christian parents. A friend of mine who was a doctor told his Christian parents that he was thinking of full-time Christian ministry, expecting they'd be positive. But to his dismay their initial reaction was: what a waste it would be of his education and medical training. Thankfully their reaction changed (it can take time for Christian parents to exercise the same faith as their children over a course of action). But it raises the question for all Christian parents here: do you really want your children to be so sold out for Christ that they'd jack in a good career to minister the gospel full-time here or overseas? Are you praying for children like that?

Honouring non-Christian parents also means being very wise and sensitive about how we try to share the gospel with them. That's a sermon in itself. Suffice to say, it's true of all our witness - but especially to parents - that a huge part of it is how we live. And with parents, more damage is done by saying too much - speaking when they clearly don't want to be told the gospel or invited to things - than by saying too little, and waiting and praying for opportunity.

State no.5 is the old age of our parents. In 1 Timothy 5, the Bible addresses the issue of caring for elderly relatives and says this:

4 But if a widow has children or grandchildren, these should learn first of all to put their religion into practice by caring for their own family and so repaying their parents and grandparents, for this is pleasing to God... 8 If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. (1 Timothy 5.4, 8)

That too is a sermon in itself - especially in our mobile culture where we so often live at a distance from elderly parents. Suffice to say, we need to make sure that whatever care arrangements we make, they genuinely are caring. The challenge is whether our care for parents at the end of their lives reciprocates the very great care they put in at the beginning of ours. That's a big issue in our often neglectful culture. And one where God calls us to stand out from the culture.

So last question about the fifth commandment:

Fourthly, WHY ARE WE TO DO IT?

Well, turn back to Exodus 20, one last time. Which gives two reasons why we're to honour our parents.

On the one hand, there's the reason in Exodus 20.1: 'And God spoke all these words.' Ie, we're to do it because God commands it – and commands it irrespective of how our parents have done or are doing. In his wisdom, God tells children to honour their parents - regardless of how they're doing’ And in other places in the Bible he tells parents how to treat their children – regardless of how they’re behaving. It's God's creation-principle that we play the role he gives us and respect the roles he gives others - regardless of how well they're doing. And that's designed to avoid the downward spiral of ‘tit-for-tat’ behaviour that we easily fall into (‘I don't think you've been a good parent, so why should I put effort into this relationship?')

Now, none of us has had (or will be) perfect parents. And this quotation from Oscar Wilde is helpful in alerting us to how we can react wrongly to that. He once said, 'Children begin by loving their parents; after a time they judge them; rarely, if ever, do they forgive them.' Which I think strikes a chord with most people. Now I realise that some of us have had painful relationships with parents – some very painful. And the Bible never minimises that. But the same applies.

The other reason why we're to do the fifth commandment is part of the commandment itself. Let me read Exodus 20.12 one last time – as Ephesians 6 says, 'the first commandment with a promise':

12 "Honour your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you.” (v12)

Or as Paul re-applies it for us in Ephesians 6.3, 'that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.' The fact is that few things bless or blight our lives more than the quality of our relationship with parents. If it's good, it’s very, very good. If it's bad, it can be very difficult. And we can't be responsible for our parents' side of the equation – for their contribution to the relationship, positive or negative. But we are responsible for ours. And the promise of this commandment is that if we seek to honour parents in the way we've been thinking, it will result in some blessing – at least, the blessing to us of doing the right thing (rather than succumbing to the temptation of ‘tit-for-tat’ behaviour) - and maybe transforming blessing to the relationship - even the most painful of relationships.

But from a New Testament point of view, the ultimate ‘land the LORD our God is giving’ us is, of course, heaven, where the Bible tells us there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain (Revelation 21.4), or even marriage, and by implication family units as we know them now (Mark 12.25) – partly because all our relationships will be equally, perfectly good and close. So to close, can I say that whatever our experience of father, mother, family, singleness or marriage in this life, we need to remember that our fellow-believers with whom we’ll share heaven are our ultimate family, and that the God who loved the world enough to give his only Son is our ultimate Father.

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