Honor Your Parents (Fifth Commandment)

Photo by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Photo by Stephen W. Hiemstra

“Honor your father and your mother, as the LORD your God commanded you, that your days may be long, and that it may go well with you in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.” (Deut 5:16) [1]

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Who do you honor? Who do you honor most?

As postmodern Americans, we love the language of individual autonomy and freedom. Our laws limit the rights of almost all authority figures—parents, teachers, supervisors, police, politicians, even pastors.

Honoring one’s parents and the general use of father-son language of the Bible was common terminology in the Ancient Near East. For example, being created in the image of God implies a father-son (or father-daughter) relationship, which also appears when Adam fathers Seth in his image [2]. It also appears in the Lord’s Prayer, for example, in the phrase: “on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matt 6:10) The idea in the covenant with Moses, therefore, is that God is our suzerain (literally: King of kings or Father king) [3] and we are his vassals (subordinate kings) [4]. Vassals honor suzerains as children should honor their parents.

Oh well and good, you say, but why must we honor our parents?

The apostle Paul described the fifth commandment as the only one that includes a promise: “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.” [5] This promise implies that we do not always know what is best for us ourselves.

The apostle Paul redefined hierarchy. He wrote: children obey your parents; parents do not upset your children. Likewise, he redefined other relationships. Wives respect your husbands; husbands love your wives like yourself. Slaves respect your masters; masters treat your slaves as family (Eph 6:1–9). Paul later required elders in the church to manifest these new relationships (1 Tim 3:4). The principle here is: “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men [or women].” (Col 3:23)

If Christ is Lord of our lives, then hierarchy takes on new meaning. Two-way secular relationships are transformed into three-way relationships under God: every relationship is you, me, and God. Marriage transforms from a contract (two-way) into a covenant (three-way). Relationships morph from social transactions into opportunities to display Christ’s love for one another.

Jesus says: “Behold, I am making all things new.” (Rev 21:5) Transformed relationships allow the kingdom of God to break into a fallen world here and now.

[1]  Also Exod 20:12; Matt 15:4; Mark 7:10.

[2] e.g. Genesis 1:27 and Gen 5:3. Kline (2006, 62) writes: “And knowledge of what one’s Father-God is, is knowledge of what, in creaturely semblance, one must be himself.”

[3] Today most governments are not governed by kings so we use less personal language. Today, we talk about superpowers and client states. However, the concept is the same.

[4] We know this, in part, because the Ten Commandments were written on two stone tablets (Exod 24:12; Deut 5:22). In Hittite treaties, two tablets were routinely recorded, one for the suzerain and one for the vassal. Sometime people speculate that the first four commandments dealing with our relationship with God were on the first tablet while the last six commandments dealing with our relationship with our neighbors were written on the second tablet, as in the Heidelberg Catechism (PCUSA 1999, 4.093). It is more likely, however, that the first and second tablets were identical. These treaties were written on durable materials, such as stone, to prevent fraud (Kline (1963, 19).

[5] Deut 5:16; Eph 6:2–3.

REFERENCES

Kline, Meredith G. 1963. Treaty of the Great King: The Covenantal Structure of Deteronomy—Studies and Commentary. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers.

Kline, Meredith G. 2006. Kingdom Prologue: Genesis Foundations for a Convenental Worldview. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers.

Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PC USA). 1999. The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)—Part I: Book of Confession. Louisville, KY: Office of the General Assembly.

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