Forever Children

Exodus 20:12

June 28, 1992 | Ray Pritchard

We have two problems with this Commandment, and perhaps a third:

1. Many of us have negative memories associated with this Commandment.

2. It seems to be meant mostly for children.

3. It seems to describe a family situation many of us never experienced.

The last one is the kicker. How do you obey this Commandment …

—If you are from a broken home?

—If your parents abused you?

—If you are adopted?

—If you and your parents don’t get along?

—If you don’t even know who your parents are?

—If your parents are dead?

These are difficult questions that reflect very real concerns and much personal pain. On one level the Fifth Commandment appears to apply mostly to families that resemble Leave It To Beaver or Ozzie and Harriet. It doesn’t seem to fit the dysfunctional families of the 90s.

Yet the Commandment stands and has not been repealed.

As we jump into this discussion, let’s begin with two crucial observations:

1. Since this Commandment comes from God, there must be a way to obey it no matter how difficult or painful it may be.

2. Since God has our best interests at heart, obedience must be in our own best interest.

It is in that spirit that we approach the Fifth Commandment.

I. The Basic Command

The words are very simple: “Honor your father and your mother.” Nothing tricky there. The key word is “honor.” The Hebrew word is kabod, which means “to be heavy.” The basic sense is “to treat someone with respect because they carry a heavy weight of authority. Sometimes we speak of certain dignitaries as being “heavyweights.” That’s exactly the sense of the Hebrew. It means to treat your parents as VIPs because they carry a heavy weight of authority. To “honor” means to treat with dignity, respect and deference.

You are to honor your parents because of the heaviness of their position. You are to treat them with respect because of their position as parents over you. In society, your parents may have little or no authority and they may be considered “lightweights” by the world. But your parents bear a special relationship to you. You “honor” them when you recognize that special relationship.

Note please. This Commandment to “honor” is in force wholly apart from the way your parents perform. You may have had lousy parents; unfortunately many children grow up with parents who are absent, or abusive, or unkind, or cruel. Your parents may have split up when you were very young. One or both of your parents may have had a drinking problem. Any of those facts will obviously affect your relationship with your parents but (and this is a huge but) … your parents’ failure to be all they should have been does not excuse you from obey-ing the Fifth Commandment.

—It does not say “Honor your parents if they were honorable.”

—It does not say “Honor your parents if they deserved it.”

—It does not say “Honor your parents if they treated you right.”

The Fifth Commandment says, “Honor your father and mother.” Period.

The way your parents performed will certainly affect your relationship with them and it will certainly affect the way you obey this Commandment and the motivation you bring to the task. But it does not affect the central reality that you must obey it whether they were good parents or not!

Plato and the Rabbis

In William Barclay’s treatment of the Fifth Commandment, he discusses how the ancient Greeks felt about the duty of children toward their parents. Plato, for instance, writes that the honor due to parents was second only to the honor due the gods:

Every honest man, he says, pays his debts, and there is no debt so primary, so essential and so universal as the debt which every child owes to every parent for the love and the care which gave him life, and which preserved his life. (p. 51)

Plato goes on: “And throughout all his life a man must diligently observe reverence of speech toward his parents above all things … Wherefore the son must yield to his parents when they are wroth, and, when they give rein to their wrath either by word or by deed, he must pardon them, seeing that it is most natural for a father to be specially wroth when he deems that he is wronged by his own son. The son should see that his parents are fittingly buried when they die and he should forever cherish the memory of them.” (p. 51)

The Jewish rabbis taught the same thing. Barclay quotes a rabbinic passage on this subject:

“In what does reverence for a father consist? In not sitting in his presence, and in not speak-ing in his presence, and in not contradicting him. Of what does honor for parents consist? In providing food and drink for them, in helping them enter or leave the house.” Rabbi Eliezer said, “Even if a father ordered him to throw a purse of gold into the sea, the son should obey him.” (p. 53)

“Dr. Pritchard’s Son”

Behind this Commandment is a great reality: A special relationship exists between the parent and the child, a relationship that is not shared with anyone else. Often when I am speaking to one of my boys I will use the word “Son.” I do it without thinking or premeditation because my Dad called me “Son.” I have three children and they all have their own names, but when I am speaking affectionately to them I won’t say “Joshua” or “Mark” or “Nicholas.” I’ll simply say “Son.”

In the small town in Alabama where I grew up my father was a well-known and greatly loved physician. There were four of us Pritchard boys who grew up in that small town. Outside of our circle of friends, we were known as “Dr. Pritchard’s sons.” In those days, that meant a certain responsibility was laid on our shoulders. We had to live up to the good name our father had established. And we knew—boy, did we know!—that if we ever got into trouble our misbehavior would reflect badly on our father.

My father has been dead for 18 years. But when I go back to visit that small town, someone always recognizes me as “Dr. Pritchard’s son.” Such is the power of a good name; such is the enduring relationship that lasts long after a father has died. And to be truthful, the sweetest, most wonderful compliment anyone can ever pay to me is to say, “You father would be proud of you.” The thought of that brings tears to my eyes even as I write these words.

I am still my father’s son though he is dead and gone. I will always be my father’s son. That relationship will never change and the burden to honor his name will never be lifted from my shoulders. It is a heavy burden, but a sweet one, and I would never want to be freed from that sacred obligation.

God’s Not Fooling About This

But there’s more to this Commandment than sentiment. Consider what God has to say about those children who disobey these words:

“Anyone who attacks his mother and father must be put to death.” Exodus 21:15

Deuteronomy 21:18-21 gives the following instruction for a “stubborn and rebellious son.” First, the parents bring the son to the elders at the gate of the town. Second, they testify against their own son—that he is stubborn, rebellious, profligate and a drunkard. Third, “then all the men of his town shall stone him to death.” Why such a harsh punishment? “You must purge the evil from among you. All Israel will hear of it and be afraid.”

“He who robs his father and drives out his mother is a son who brings shame and dis-grace.” Proverbs 19:26

“If a man curses his father or mother, his lamp will be snuffed out in pitch darkness.” Proverbs 20:20

“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.” Proverbs 30:17

These are serious words which must be taken seriously. God is not kidding when he says, “Honor your parents.” Those who take this Commandment lightly will live to regret it.

In the Place of God

There is a great reason behind these serious warnings. You ought to honor your parents because your parents stand in the place of God in your life. They represent God to you. Though they are far from perfect, and even the best parents fail in many ways, your Dad and Mom represent God in your life. When you get down to the bottom line, this Commandment matters to God because the way you respond to your parents is the way you are likely to respond to God.

—If you are hostile and angry toward your parents, you are likely to be hostile and angry toward God.

—If you honor your parents despite their faults, you are likely to honor God with your life.

And that’s why this Commandment is fifth on the list. The first four Commandments deal with your relation-ship to God. The last six deal with your relationship with other people. The Commandment to honor your parents is the one that makes it easy to obey all the rest. Learn to honor your parents—to truly treat them with the respect they deserve—and you will probably not have many problems with things like murder, adultery and theft. But if you do not honor your parents, you are not likely to honor the Commandments of God.

So the Fifth Commandment is crucial and fundamental. Get this one down and the others will be made much easier.

II. The Four Divine Reasons

We’ve seen the serious warnings about neglecting this Commandment. But what about the positive side? Are there any rewards for those who obey? Indeed there are. Scripture offers four reasons why children should be careful to honor their parents.

A. It is the Right Thing to Do.

Ephesians 6:1 says, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.”

B. It Pleases God.

Colossians 3:20 says, “Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord.”

C. It Leads to Long Life.

Exodus 20:12 says, “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.” What is the connection between long life and honoring your parents? Those who honor their parents will enjoy three benefits that tend to produce long life:

—They will be less conflicted on the inside.

—They will experience inner peace instead of anxiety.

—They will be free of damaging hangups from the past.

Beyond that, when parents are honored the family tends to stay intact. When families stay intact, society is strengthened. When society is strengthened, people tend to live longer, happier, more productive lives.

D. It Insures Good Success.

Deuteronomy 5:16 says, “Honor your father and mother, as the Lord your God has commanded you, so that you may live long and that it may go well with you in the land the Lord your God is giving you.”

Do you recognize the name Shaquille O’Neal? He’s the humongous center from Louisiana State University who just became the first pick in the NBA draft. In a few weeks, the young man will sign a pro contract worth $20-30 million. Although he is barely 20-years old, Shaquille O’Neal is set for life.

How did it happen? His father, Army Staff Sargent Phillip O’Neal, wept as he thought about it. Speaking of his father, Shaquille said, “I walked into the hotel and found him crying. I asked him what was wrong. He said, ’You listened to me. You listened and obeyed. That’s all you had to do.’”

The young man then added these heartwarming words. “Thank God, I listened to my father. I would have been dead otherwise. He raised me the old-fashioned way. He taught me how to play basketball. He taught me about life. He loved me. He whipped me when I needed it. And things have turned out good.” (Chicago Sun-Times, June 24, 1992, p. 93)

It is happening to Shaquille O’Neal exactly as God promised. He listened and obeyed. That’s all he had to do. Now he is about to enjoy the success that comes from honoring his parents.

A Trough For My Parents

If you need a little more convincing, just ponder this old Grimm fairy tale. Once upon a time a young couple with a son was forced to take in the husband’s aging father. The young wife, being a modern sort, didn’t like the idea, but agreed to do it for her husband’s sake. She told the old man, “We eat at such-and-such a time. If you want to eat, you’d better be at the table when the meal is served.” At first the old man came right on time. But eventually he came late, and to teach him a lesson, the young wife had the old man eat in a corner by himself. More time passed and the old man began having trouble with his food. He couldn’t seem to properly handle a knife and fork. After enduring the situation as long as she could, the young wife in exasperation had her husband buy a feeding trough, the kind you use to feed pigs. “Now then,” she said, “If you are going to eat like a pig, you’re going to have a trough like a pig.”

Everything seemed to go well for a few weeks until one day when the young couple couldn’t find their 4-year old son. Bam, bam, bam came the noise from the shed behind the house. Walking to the door of the shed, they discovered the young boy busily nailing boards together. “What are you doing sweetheart? asked the young wife. “Oh,” said the boy, “I’m making a trough for when you grow old.”

The moral of the story: Your children will treat you the way you treat your parents. One generation teaches another, and our children learn to honor us precisely as they see us honoring our parents. If you want to be remembered with kindness when you are old, treat your elderly parents with the respect they deserve.

III. The Application

A. For Parents

We can sum up the application to parents in a single sentence: Make it easy for your children to obey this Commandment. There is a sense in which if you want your children to honor you, you yourself must be honor-able!

How do you make it easy for your children to honor you?

1. By Praising Your Children

When was the last time you hugged your children? When was the last time you said, “I’m so proud of you.” When was the last time you bragged about them in their presence? Nothing can take the place of praising your children. It’s hard enough to be a kid in this world. You need all the support you can get—especially from home.

2. By Listening to Your Children

Most of us fathers fail miserably in this area. Our children talk but we don’t listen. We’re too busy reading the paper or watching TV. Usually we expend so much energy on the job that we have nothing left for our children.

It’s amazing how much wisdom we will discover in our children if only we’ll stop to listen to them. All you have to do is ask. Your children will be delighted to tell you what they think!

3. By Setting Limits and Saying “No”

Bishop Fulton Sheen said it well: “Every child needs a pat on the back so long as you give it low enough and hard enough.” As we have already noted, praising your children is absolutely crucial. But just as crucial is the determination to say “No” when necessary. Even more important is the determination to back up your words with appropriate action.

4. By Spending Time with Them

The current issue of People magazine contains a poignant story about George Wallace, Jr., son of the legendary governor of my home state of Alabama. George, Jr., is running for congress this year—and they say he stands an excellent chance of being elected. At the age of 40, he has already been married and divorced three times. His third wife Angela believes that his upbringing produced scars that have left him emotionally crippled. She said, “He spent his entire childhood alone. He was raised by state troopers.” That statement was confirmed by George, Jr., who described his father this way: “He was always on the go, always busy.”

Did George Wallace love his son? Of course he did. Did he intend to let the state troopers raise him? Of course not. It just worked that way.

When will we learn that the best present we can give our children is our presence? Nothing else can take the place of you spending time with your children. No gift you can give is as crucial as the gift of yourself. Your kids will forget the things you give them; they will never forget the time you spend with them.

5. By Modeling the Right Kind of Life

Our children copy everything we do. That’s one of the most terrifying truths of parenthood. I discovered that years ago when I noticed Joshua dipping his egg roll in some macaroni and cheese. Although he couldn’t have been more than 2-years old, he saw us dipping our egg roll in sweet and sour sauce so he decided to dip his in macaroni and cheese. The power of example!

My childhood friend Ricky Suddith used to say, “I’m not sure the world is ready for a bunch of Ray juniors walking around with big feet and thick glasses.” But that’s what I’m afraid I’m producing.

On Friday our lunch included seedless white grapes. For some reason I decided to show the boys how I could throw a grape up into the air and catch it in my mouth. After a couple of successes and a couple of misses, Mark and Nicholas decided to try it. Then they decided to practice throwing grapes to each other. Then they decided to throw grapes at each other. Then we had an all-out grape war right at the table. Then Marlene came in and said, “Look what you started” Joshua grinned and said, “Yeah, Dad, you’re a great role model.”

The power of example!

To Any Daddy

Years ago I clipped a little poem out of a religious paper. It sums up—with convicting clarity—the power of a father’s example:

There are little eyes upon you,

And they’re watching night and day;

There are little ears that quickly

Take in every word you say;

There are little hands all eager

To do anything you do;

And a little boy who’s dreaming

Of the day he’ll be like you.

You’re the little fellow’s idol;

You’re the wisest of the wise.

In his little mind about you,

No suspicions ever arise.

He believes in you devoutly,

Holds that all you say and do,

He will say and do, in your way,

When he’s grown up like you.

There’s a wide-eyed little fellow

Who believes you’re always right.

And his little ears are open,

And he watches day and night.

You are setting an example

Every day, in all you do,

For the little boy who’s waiting

To grow up to be like you.

A few days ago I attended an open house at the junior high school my oldest son attends. There on the wall was his picture and underneath a series of questions he had answered. One of them read: “My hero is … My Dad because he’s a great father and I want to be like him when I grow up.” I can never even begin to say how I felt when I read those words. Joy, amazement, and fear—fear lest I should somehow fail my son. I’m his hero. Is there any greater reward in this world?

B. For Grown-Up Children

At long last we come to the principle meaning of the text. For too long we have relegated this Commandment to young children and sometimes even used it as a club over their heads. But God never intended that this Commandment be aimed primarily at young children. After all, how many young children were present at Mt. Sinai? Most of the people who received the Ten Commandments were adults.

This Commandment is primarily for grown-up children. It is God’s way of telling us how to treat our parents!

Four Ways To Honor Your Parents

But how can we honor our parents when we no longer live under their authority?

1. By Speaking Well of Them

Sometimes I hear adults saying terribly disrespectful things about their parents. They speak with bitterness and anger over things that happened many years ago. That raises a question: How do you speak well of people who hurt you deeply? Here I think we’re left with some advice we all learned as children. “If you can’t say some-thing nice, say nothing at all.” There is a true sense in which you honor your parents by refusing to speak evil of them.

—Speak well of your parents if you can.

—If you can’t, you can still refuse to speak evil of them.

That, too, is a way of honoring your parents.

2. By Obeying Them

I know as soon as I say that some people will think I’ve lost my mind. For many people the whole point of moving away from home is so that you won’t have to obey your parents anymore. Most of us have heard it said that while you don’t have to obey your parents, you always have to honor them. That’s true enough, but it doesn’t grasp the full biblical implication of the Fifth Commandment.

Our modern attitude of moving away so we don’t have to obey would have shocked Moses and Paul. In their eyes, children were always to obey their parents—with the only possible exception being when the parents ask the children to do something that violates God’s law. In the biblical mindset, the older your parents get, the more wisdom they attain, and the greater your responsibility to obey their instruction.

Does that mean a grown-up child should obey his elderly parents? Yes, that’s what it means. If that sounds shocking, it’s only because we’ve drifted so far from the biblical mindset. In God’s eyes we are forever children, always under obligation to honor and—as far as possible—to obey our parents.

3. By Forgiving Them

Here we come to the heart of the problem for many people. How do you honor parents who have hurt and abused you? How do you honor an alcoholic father? How do you honor a mother who left you? How do you honor parents who neglected you?

Here is a simple answer: We must not use the hurts of the past as an excuse to evade this Commandment. To be specific, here are some things we must not say:

“My parents were not lovable, therefore I will not love them.”

“My parents were not wise, therefore I will not respect them.”

“My parents were not kind, therefore I will not admire them.”

“My parents were not patient, therefore I will not be patient with them.”

So many of us waste years playing the “if only” game. “If only my father had loved me.” “If only my mother had been kind to me.” “If only my parents had stayed together.” The “if only” game is destructive because it teaches you to live in a fantasy world—instead of in reality.

You will make a major advance in your spiritual life when you conclude that your parents are sinners just like you!

—Are they unlovely? Love them anyway.

—Are they selfish? Love them anyway.

—Are they too possessive? Love them anyway.

—Are they too old, too contrary, too weak, too mean, too silly, too hard,

too foolish? It matters not what they are. They are still your parents.

Love them anyway!

Psychologists have told us for years that we tend to marry people like our parents. Sons tend to marry women like their mothers; daughters tend to marry men like their fathers. Often we think we’re marrying the opposite of our parents but how often it turns out in later years that we have “returned home” and recreated our parents’ marriage without realizing what we have done.

Here’s a thought. When we refuse to forgive our parents, we tend to carry that resentment and bitterness over into our own marriage. And thus are dysfunctional patterns passed down from one generation to another. The very best thing you can do for your own marriage is to forgive your parents for the things they did to hurt you. If you don’t, those mistakes are likely to be repeated and the inner resentment will eat away at you.

Think about it this way. By forgiving, you cut yourself free from the past. When you refuse to forgive, your parents win twice—once in the past when they hurt you and once in the present by your refusal to forgive. By refusing to forgive, you are still allowing your parents to control your life in a negative way.

As Terry Strandt told me, “Thank God, it doesn’t have to be that way.” He’s right. Forgiveness sets us free to build a new life and to establish a healthy marriage.

4. By Not Forsaking Them

At this point we have the example of Jesus who, while hanging on the cross, took time to remember his aging mother. To his mother he said, “Woman, behold your son.” To John he said, “Son, behold your mother.” Think of that! While dying for the sins of the world, he took time to keep the Fifth Commandment!

How do you “not forsake” your parents?

—By writing them

—By calling them

—By caring for them

—By supporting them financially

—By speaking well of them

—By remembering them after they are gone

The Commandment in Reverse

If you doubt the validity of my words, try working this Commandment in reverse. Honor not your parents and see what happens. D.L. Moody said, “I have lived over 60 years, and I have learned one thing if I have learned nothing else—no man or woman who dishonors father or mother ever prospers.”

At the beginning of this message I said that this Commandment is the one that helps you obey all the rest. Why is that? Because the first place where you can show the reality of your religion is at home. To say it another way, religion that doesn’t begin at home doesn’t begin at all.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?