I recently had a long conversation with a friend about honoring your parents, and it got me thinking about what this means. The command to honor your father and your mother is first given in Exodus and then repeated many times throughout the Bible. So clearly the concept is important. But do we actually understand it the way Jesus meant it?
“Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the LORD your God is giving you.” ~Exodus 20:12~
First let’s ask the question: What is honor exactly?
as a noun
1. honesty, fairness, or integrity in one’s beliefs and actions: a man of honor.
2. a source of credit or distinction: to be an honor to one’s family.
3. high respect, as for worth, merit, or rank: to be held in honor.
as a verb (used with object)
13. to hold in honor or high respect; revere:
to honor one’s parents.
14. to treat with honor.
(Oxford Languages) Honor
1. high respect; great esteem
2. adherence to what is right or to a conventional standard of conduct
3. regard with great respect.
4. fulfill (an obligation) or keep (an agreement.)
When we look at the instruction to honor someone else it can be seen in two different ways. One way is how we respond to someone else. Are we giving them honor? Another way is how what we are doing ourselves reflects on the other person via their connection to us. Are our actions bringing them honor?
To learn more about God’s intended meaning, I think it’s important for us to look at the context of where we first encounter this verse. This command “Honor your parents” comes in the middle of the Ten Commandments.
It should therefore be able to be assumed that these commands can and should all be able to be upheld and followed simultaneously. For example, honoring one’s parents should be able to be done by not lying and in not lying one should be able to honor one’s parents. This should also be true of everything else in the ten commandments: Having only one God before you. Not making or serving idols. Not taking the LORD’s name in vain (which means not claiming to serve Him when you aren’t serving Him, not just not swearing). Keeping the Sabbath day holy to the LORD. Not murdering. Not committing adultery. Not stealing. Not lying to or about other people. Not coveting other people’s things. (Exodus 20:5-17) In following all of these commands we should also be able to honor our parents and in honoring our parents we should be able to follow all these commands. We see the connection of “Honor your father and mother” to this list of other commands remain true when Jesus also speaks of it in Mark 10:18-19.
A parent who asks you to lie on their behalf is asking you to violate a command in the same list of commands that tells you to honor your parent. A parent that asks you to steal or obey/serve their commands over God’s command, is a parent who is, in that moment at least, not serving God.
When Jesus talks about the greatest commandment, it is not “Honor your father and mother.” Nor is this even the second greatest commandment.
Jesus replied: “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” ~Matthew 22:37 (NIV)~
Ephesians 6:1-4 tells us, though, that “Honor your father and mother” is the first commandment to have a promise attached to it. There is a blessing when you honor your parents, but . . . There is no place where it says that this verse should supersede God’s other commands. In fact, we see the reality of this context clarified somewhat when we encounter this command later in Deuteronomy, where we see the word “as” which tells us the extent or degree it is to be done.
“Honor your father and your mother, as the LORD your God has commanded you, that your days may be long, and that it may be well with you in the land which the LORD your God is giving you.” ~Deuteronomy 5:16~
We see a similar clarification in Ephesians.
“Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.” ~Ephesians 6:1~
Note: This passages says, “obey your parents in the Lord.” It also says, “for this is right” When honoring and obeying your parents is done “in the Lord” it is right! But obeying and honoring your parents does not necessarily remain right if you are violating the LORD’s other commands by obeying your parents.
Also in Ephesians, right after this verse, just to give a bit more context, there is an instruction to the fathers of these children that they should be bringing up their children in the training and admonition of the Lord. (Eph 6:4 ) Which implies that these fathers know the training and admonition of the Lord and are capable of bringing up their children in them. Notice as well that they are to bring up their children in the Lord’s admonition and training not their own admonition and training?
Why do I bring up this distinction? Well, because when dealing with people, there is a big difference between treating them with honor versus meeting their definition of what they consider treating them with honor to mean. In other words, a parent’s or culture’s perception of what honor means can in fact be different from what God meant by honor in His command to “Honor your mother and father.”
How do we know this? Because we can see it in Scripture. Let’s go look at some passages that illustrate this.
The way God instructs the children of parents who are not walking faithfully to Him.
“But I said to their children in the wilderness, ‘Do not walk in the statutes of your fathers, nor observe their judgments, nor defile yourselves with their idols. I am the LORD your God: Walk in My statutes, keep My judgments, and do them; hallow My Sabbaths, and they will be a sign between Me and you, that you may know that I am the LORD your God.’” ~Ezekiel 20:18-20~
The way Jesus responds to His own parents.
As a boy when Jesus and His family went to Jerusalem, Jesus goes off to spend time at the temple and apparently does not communicate His departure to His parents. Joseph and Mary head out of Jerusalem, not realizing He is not with their family or friends, and travel for a whole day only to discover that Jesus is not with them. They then return to Jerusalem and search for Him for three days. Note what happens when they find Him.
“So when they saw Him, they were amazed; and His mother said to Him, ‘Son, why have You done this to us? Look, Your father and I have sought You anxiously.’ And He said to them, ‘Why did you seek Me? Did you not know that I must be about My Father’s business?’ But they did not understand the statement which He spoke to them.” ~Luke 2:48-50~
Now, I cannot say for absolute certainty that Joseph and Mary felt dishonored during their search for Jesus, but Mary’s words give the implication that they are at the very least quite upset by it. And Jesus’s actions do seem rather dis-honoring, unless of course you place them in the context of Him serving His Heavenly Father.
How about Jesus response to a form of culturally honoring one’s parents?
“Then another of His disciples said to Him, ‘Lord, let me first go and bury my father.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Follow Me, and let the dead bury their own dead.’” ~Mat 8:21~
“Going on from there, He saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets. He called them, and immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed Him.”~ Mat 4:21~
Not exactly what I would guess their parents would have considered very honoring behavior. However, these children were being asked to honor their Father in Heaven by following Jesus right then and there. And by honoring God, they were honoring their parents.
In Matthew 10:35 and Luke 14:26, Jesus also opens some pretty big wholes in the argument some people make that to “honor your father and mother” is to obey them regardless of what they are asking of you.
“For I have come to ‘set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law’ and ‘a man’s enemies will be those of his own household.’ He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me.” ~Matthew 10:35-38~
“If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple. . . . which of you, intending to build a tower, does not sit down first and count the cost, whether he has enough to finish it—” ~Luke 14:26-28~
“And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My name’s sake, shall receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life.” ~Matthew 19:29~
Jesus is making a clear commentary on the fact that there will at times be division among even families in regard to following Him. These divisions are not going to be solved by following whatever your family’s definition of honoring them is. Rather some people in order to follow Jesus will need to count the cost of losing their family as an honoring of what their Heavenly Father has asked of them. Because in honoring God first and aligning our behavior to Him we will honor our earthly parents as well even if they do not perceive it as such.
In a way, Jesus also actually redefines family to those who do the will of God.
“For whoever does the will of My Father in heaven is My brother and sister and mother.” ~Matthew 12:50~
“Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven.” ~Matthew 23:9~
And, in case there is still any question of honor maybe meaning obedience, let’s pause and realize where else this command to “honor” shows up.
“‘Honor (timaō) your father and mother,’ which is the first commandment with promise” ~Ephesians 6:2~
“Honor (timaō) widows who are really widows.” ~1Titus 5:3~
“Honor (timaō) all people. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor (timaō) the king.” 1Peter 2:17
Honor clearly cannot mean “obey all people” or even “behavior in such a way that all people feel honored.” We cannot make all people happy nor can we always make them feel respected or honored. Trying to do so would lead to absolute chaos, because it is not possible to please everyone and to have no one ever perceive your actions or behavior as disrespectful. But we can honor everyone, specifically our parents, by and in the way the Lord commands.
“ . . . Peter and the other apostles answered and said: ‘We ought to obey God rather than men.’” ~Act 5:29~
“Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly . . . ” ~Colossians 3:12-16~
“Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” ~Matthew 5:16~
Challenge: Live out what it means to follow all the Lord’s commands, which will mean behaving in an honoring way toward everyone. Because in honoring our Heavenly Father we bring honor to our parents and the world.