Topical Scripture: Exodus 20:12
Do you remember the game show Family Feud? 100 people were surveyed on a subject. Then two families, five members each, tried to guess the most popular answers on these surveys. Richard Dawson’s “Survey says . . .” was the “Is that your final answer?” of the day.
The game show aired from 1976 to 1985, was revived again in 1988 for one season, and aired again briefly five years ago. But the title describes our culture even more fully today than it did 25 years ago.
Children report that they spend less than thirty minutes per week in meaningful conversation with their mother, and less than fifteen minutes per week in meaningful conversation with their father.
A recent Harris poll asked Americans what they most want to do with their time. 30% chose reading; 21% chose watching television. Only 13% chose spending time with their family.
Listen to these frightening facts about youth today. Every day in America:
2,989 young people see their parents get a divorce.1,849 are abused or neglected.7,742 become sexually active.2,795 get pregnant.1,295 give birth.10 are killed in alcohol-related auto accidents.16 commit suicide.
Our families need help. Fortunately, God cares. That’s why he gave us the fifth commandment.
What does God say about families?
Let’s study our text together.
“Honor,” the commandment begins. The word means to respect or venerate.
“Your father and mother,” God continues. In a world which relegated women to inferior status, this inclusion is significant. And note that Leviticus 19:3 restates it this way: “Each of you must respect his mother and father.” Here the mother is even listed first.
“So that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you,” the commandment concludes. The first meaning of this promise is that the nation of Israel would be secure in her society and land if she kept this commandment. But there are other meanings as well, as we will see in a moment.
And note that God’s word makes this a binding commandment for all time.
Leviticus 19:3 says, “Each of you must respect his mother and father.” None of us are excluded, no matter the circumstances of our situation. We’ll say more about this in a moment.
The book of Proverbs adds, “If a man curses his father or mother, his lamp will be snuffed out in pitch darkness” (20:20); and also this gruesome hyperbole, “The eye that mocks a father, that scorns obedience to a mother, will be pecked out by the ravens of the valley, will be eaten by the vultures” (31:17). This commandment is important!
The New Testament is clear as well.
Jesus renewed this commandment when he told the Rich Young Ruler, “honor your father and mother” (Matthew 19:19), and he severely criticized the religious leaders of his day for not honoring and supporting their parents (Mark 7:9-13).
The epistles are clear: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord. Honor your father and mother” (Ephesians 6:1-2); “Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord” (Colossians 3:20).
We need to keep this commandment for the sake of our souls, our families, and our future. This is indeed how to “live long” on the earth.
Perhaps this brief tale from the Brothers Grimm will make the point. Once upon a time there was a little old man. His eyes blinked and his hands trembled; when he ate he clattered the silverware, missed his mouth with the spoon as often as not, and dribbled a bit of his food on the tablecloth. He lived with his married son, and this son and his wife soon decided that they could not have such a distraction at their table.
So they led the little old man gently but firmly by the arm to the corner of the kitchen. There they set him on a stool and gave him his food in a bowl. But one day his hands trembled even more than usual, and the bowl fell and broke. His son and daughter-in-law, in anger and distress, then made a little wooden trough and fed him out of that. It was terrible to see him eating as would an animal, but that’s the way things were.
One day the couple’s four-year-old son was playing intently with some bits of wood, so they asked him what he was doing. “I’m making a trough,” he said, smiling at them for approval, “to feed you and Mama out of when I get big.”
The man and his wife looked at each other for a while, then they cried a little, then they took the little old man by the arm and led him back to the table. They sat him in a comfortable chair and gave him his food on a plate, and from then on nobody ever scolded when he clattered or spilled or broke things.
We need the fifth commandment, for our lives, our families, and our future.
What about dishonorable parents?
But before we find practical ways to honor our parents, we need briefly to ask a hard question: what if our parents are not honorable? What if they try to keep us from following Christ or otherwise doing what is right? What then?
Sometimes we must choose which commandment to break. When Corrie ten Boom’s family was harboring Jews, one day the Nazis banged on their door and asked if they had Jews in their house. Which commandment will they break—the sixth commandment, not to murder, or the ninth commandment, not to lie?
Jesus made it clear that following him would sometimes cause conflict with our family. His own family misunderstood him early in his ministry. And he specifically told his followers, “Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37).
This happened often to the early Christians, who had to refuse their father’s order to reject Christ, even to the point of death.
In Jewish society as well, when a son turned from his father’s faith he became dead unto him. I had a student at Southwestern Seminary whose Orthodox Jewish family held a burial service for him when he came to Christ. There is a tombstone in New York with his name on it today.
Ephesians 6:1 is clear: “Obey your parents in the Lord.” Martin Luther had to refuse his father’s wishes that he become a lawyer, to become a minister. Thomas Aquinas’s family locked him in the family castle for a year in their attempt to prevent his entering the ministry. Francis Schaeffer’s father forbade his starting L’Abri.
Unfortunately, we must sometimes choose between our earthly father and our heavenly Father.
In these situations, the first commandment is clear: we can have no god but God. Not even our parents. But, these situations occur far less often today than they did in Jesus’ day. I’ve seen only a handful of circumstances in my years in ministry where a child really had no choice except to disobey his parents in order to obey God.
If this is your situation, pray. Ask God to show you what to do. And be patient. Perhaps your parents will change over time. Don’t give up on them. Honor them in every way you can. I liked what one Christian said. His father was a drunkard, and so he said, “I always want to honor the man I want my father to be.”
Insofar as we can honor our parents without dishonoring God, we must do so. This is the clear teaching of his word.
How can we keep this commandment today?
Honor our parents. Prize them, respect them, find ways to value them today.
Note that the commandment does not say, “Love your parents.” God’s word tells us to love God, the stranger, and our neighbor, but nowhere are we told specifically to love our parents. Why not?
Because the best way to show love for our parents is to honor and obey them. This matters far more than any words or material gifts we might give to them.
We act into feeling, we don’t feel into acting. Don’t wait until you feel love for your mother or father—find a loving thing to do. Find a way to honor him or her. When we honor our parents, we find that we feel a new level of appreciation for them. So, find a way to honor them today.
How? Thank them. Thank your parents for the life they have given to you, and for the ways they provide for you still.
Current estimates are that it costs the average parent nearly $300,000 to raise one child from infancy to age 18; that doesn’t count the costs of college, which often exceed $300,000.
Take the initiative. When parents have to ask their children to say thanks, it doesn’t mean nearly as much. Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are good, but not enough.
Bill Hybels tells about cleaning out his father’s desk after he died. He and his brother found note pads, files, stacks of legal documents attesting to the scope of his business responsibilities. But in the top drawer on the right-hand side, he found a collection of letters which seemed to occupy a position of honor. There, neatly grouped in rubber bands, were all the letters he, his brother and sisters had ever written to him.
What would you find in your parents’ home today?
Obey them in the Lord. As we have seen, the Scriptures are clear here.
Support them when you can. As the population lives longer than ever before, more and more children are parenting their parents. This is often hard, but always right.
1 Timothy 5:3-4: “Give proper recognition to those widows who are really in need. 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.”
1 Timothy 5:8: “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.”
Last, remember them when they’re gone. We continue to wear their name, and to reflect on them with our lives. We will bring honor or dishonor to our parents, as long as we live.
I really like something Janet tells our boys: we belong to everyone who loves us. This fact should affect our decision, as long as we live. For our parents’ sake, and for our own as well.
All of Dallas mourned this week the passing of Tom Landry. The television retrospectives were unanimous: while he was a coaching genius and a great football legend, his character was his most abiding legacy.
By now everyone knows his life priorities: faith, family, and football.
These can be our legacy today: God first, then family. Whatever is “football” to you, last. If he could do it, we can do it.
And we must.
I read recently a philosopher’s story about a spider who dropped a single strand from the top rafter of an old barn and began to weave his web. As the days, weeks, and months went by, his web grew. It did its work well, providing the spider with food as flies, mosquitoes, and other small insects were caught in its elaborate maze. The spider built his web larger and larger until it became the envy of all the other spiders.
One day this successful spider was traveling across his beautiful web when he noticed a single strand going up into the darkness of the barn rafters. “I wonder why this is here,” he thought. “It doesn’t catch me any dinner.” And so the spider climbed up to this single strand and severed it. When he did, the entire web slowly began to tumble to the floor of the barn, and the spider with it.
Don’t cut that cord.