Exodus 20f – Honor and Respect
Sermon Transcript by Rev. Ernest O’Neill
We’re studying what’s known as the fifth commandment if you’d like to look at it in Exodus 20:12.
And it seems to me we need to pray for light from the Holy Spirit to see God’s word in this
commandment to us because it’s so well known to us that the mind can go to sleep very easily.
Exodus 20:12, “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land which the
Lord your God gives you.” It might be good in fact, to start with the Hebrew word for honor; it’s
“Kabad” and it actually means to be heavy, or to make weighty, or to give weight to. So you might
even translate honor your father and your mother, as give weight to your father and your mother.
That is, give them weight that is beyond what you give to other people, because this commandment is
placed by God on the same level as the one regarding the Sabbath that we’ve just studied and you’ll
find that in Leviticus 19:3, so God sees it as being just as important for our respect and our trust
in him, and we’ll see in a moment what that means. Leviticus 19:3, “Every one of you shall revere
his mother and his father, and you shall keep my sabbaths: I am the Lord your God.” So God puts it
on the same level as the importance of observing his day, the Sabbath, because he hallowed it. It’s
as if he also hallowed the position of fathers and mothers. And that, we’ll see in a moment,
extends beyond our human fathers and mothers, “But every one of you shall revere his mother and his
If you knew Latin you’d know that “vereor” in Latin is actually a verb that means “to fear”, and
the Hebrew word for “revere” is “tria” and it actually means fear. And of course, we’re all very
reluctant to use that word, because we have an unbalanced attitude towards it. We think, “Oh no,
you shouldn’t fear your father or mother. That idea of a terrifying father is now gone; my father
is my older brother now.” So we’ve lost a lot of the right respect for fear and one of the right
respects for fear is we should fear to sin. We should be afraid of hurting God or offending God in
any way, and so we can glimpse there is a right side to fear and then that is part of what it means
in regard to our father and mother. We should have an extreme respect for them and an extra fear of
offending them in any way. So that’s part of what honor means: it means respecting and it means
giving more weight to these people than you’d give to other people.
Now that has to be viewed in connection with our general obligation to all people which is in
Leviticus 19:18 and we need to make a distinction there because many of you think you just have the
same attitude to them as you have to others. No, it’s more than that. Leviticus 19:18, “You shall
not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your
neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.” We are to love our neighbors, so our responsibility to all
men and women is to love them, but our responsibility to our fathers and our mothers is to honor
them; to give them more weight than we give to others, to give them more respect, and in some cases
more fear than we give to other people. So that’s the commandment that God has given.
Now, it’s interesting that he pays so much attention to it because you’ll see in 1 Samuel 2:30 the
words that Eric Liddell supposedly used or read just before he ran his Olympic race. It’s 1 Samuel
2:30, “Therefore the Lord the God of Israel declares: ‘I promised that your house and the house of
your father should go in and out before me for ever’; but now the Lord declares: ‘Far be it from me;
for those who honor me I will honor, and those who despise me shall be lightly esteemed.” And here
God is saying if you honor those that I tell you to honor and if you honor me then I will honor you
and in fact, they will honor you. But if you do not honor me and you do not honor them then they
will in fact, not honor you and they will despise you.
So the basis of honoring our fathers and our mothers is the same as the basis of observing the
Sabbath. We observe the Sabbath not just because it’s useful to us for rest and recreation, but
because God hallowed the Sabbath day. Honoring father and mother has the same element in it; it’s
honoring someone, not because they are inherently worthy of honor — and it’s so important to see
that. I frankly think we lost it in the 60s and probably it was being lost even partly through the
World Wars, but certainly in the 60s we lost it completely because we took the attitude, “If this
person isn’t worthy of honor, I’m not going to honor them,” so you almost had to win a place of
honor before anybody would honor you and of course, that isn’t what honor is.
You observe the Sabbath not because it’s pragmatically useful to you for recreation but because God
said, “I have hallowed this day.” And we said that by that means he brought a grace into life;
observing the Sabbath day is a gracious thing that we do because God has said, “This is important,”
so we obey him, as it were, blindly. Not because, like C. S. Lewis’ dog, we have thought it over
and we sometimes agree with him, but we obey him. God said this is the day that he hallowed and he
rested on it, so he’s made it holy. Good, that’s enough for us, we honor it then, and that brings a
grace into life.
I tried to find some analogies or metaphors for it and the closest I can come to it is it’s the bow
on the dress. The bow that doesn’t actually tie the dress together, it’s an extra on the dress,
it’s a gracious touch; it’s a touch of beauty that adds an extravagant graciousness to the dress
that it doesn’t really need. It’s like a vase of flowers in a room; it’s not essential for being
able to go into that room, it’s not essential for the room to operate but it’s a gracious touch, and
it brings a sense of extra beauty into the world.
God gives the same emphasis to honoring our fathers and mothers. It’s as if he says, “They won’t
always be brighter than you. They won’t always be cleverer than you. Eventually, they’ll be weaker
than you, you can almost be sure of that. Your parents are sooner or later going to be weaker than
you. Eventually, most of you will probably put them into their caskets or see them buried in the
ground. So in actual fact they are not powerful people over you and at times you will outstrip them
in your understanding of the world and in your understanding of things. But despite that, you’re to
honor them. You’re to honor the Sabbath day not because the Sabbath day has something in itself
that is worthy of honor but because I say so. Now, you’ve to honor your parents for the same
Of course, many of us in the 60s lost the whole meaning of honor and respect because the meaning
inherent in honor and respect is this person often doesn’t deserve your honor; this father could be
a drunk, the mother could be incompetent. But you’re to honor them and respect them because God has
designed that you would come into the world through them and so you have to honor them even though
that isn’t necessarily justified by any inherent value that they have. The best illustration I have
is the one I’ve mentioned to you before, but it is the best example that I saw when I was traveling
on the Metro, the underground in Paris, traveling out of Paris early in the morning at six or so to
The only other people in the metro at that time were the street sweepers and the laborers who made
Paris work, the little nobodies. I happened to be sitting at the end of one of the carriages and so
I was near the door and it just amazed me to see these little men who were obviously people like
street sweepers or the laborers. They looked like the people who would work under the escalators in
the tube station and keep the dust away. They looked like the lowest level of Parisian labor that
made the city work and as each one of them got onto the carriage all the others stood up and
stretched out their hands and shook hands and said, “Bonjour monsieur” as if they were meeting the
president of France. As if they were meeting the president of America. They treated each other
with respect and with honor.
It seemed to me that was a good picture of what honor and respect is. They didn’t need to respect
each other, they didn’t need to honor each other, probably most people looking at them and those
people eventually burying them would say, “These people have no particular value. They’re not
bright, they’re not clever, they’re not wealthy, and they don’t have power.” And yet there was
great honor and respect that they showed to each other for the positions that they had. And usually
the greetings actually varied according to the age of the person that got on the train. But still,
all of them got up and shook hands with each other. And it seems to me that that’s part of what God
is getting at. He’s saying, “This father and mother, I want you to honor them, I want you to
respect them even though they themselves may not have any inherent value that makes you feel you
should respect them. I want you to honor and respect them. And if you do, your days will be long
in the land. Your own life will have a freedom from strain in it and a peace in it.”
What does honor mean? Well obviously, first of all we can see a plain example of it in Jesus coming
into the city of Jerusalem. All the people saw him coming on a donkey and they threw down palm
branches in front of him, so obviously honor means giving special attention to a person. It wasn’t
that he could benefit them, it wasn’t because he could be profitable to them, it was simply them
giving him attention for the person that he was, and it was simply showing respect for him and it
seems that that’s perhaps the heart of honor. Its awareness isn’t it? Its awareness of the
relationship that exists between you and the other person, it seems that that’s what it is.
If you see a son or daughter that doesn’t honor their father or mother you feel they don’t really
know the relationship that exists between them and their father or mother. They don’t actually
understand social relationships, and it makes you a little scared actually, you feel a little
fearful. You feel this is a little wild animal here that doesn’t seem to understand the various
relationships between people. So it seems to me that the heart of honor is an awareness of the
position or the state or the experience of the other people in relationship to yourself and when you
have that, it gives to the rest of humankind a confidence in your own sanity. When you don’t have
that mankind gets a little frightened and that’s what was so dreadful I think, in the 60s.
There was such a shaking because talking as we’ve been talking of the whole change that’s taking
place in Eastern Europe, my mind went back to where that whole idea of the great leveler came from.
I know it came into English life and Irish life after the Second World War when we looked at the
Chinese all wearing the same Mao uniform and everybody in the same drab grey look. And the emphasis
came over from Russia, especially in some of the novels that were written about communism, the
emphasis came over that if you were in the secret police, you could destroy anybody. It didn’t
matter if it was the wealthiest person in town, it didn’t matter if it was a famous person, and it
didn’t matter if it was a great writer. You had the right because of communism, the great leveler;
you had the right to destroy that person if you wished.
We all read story after story of the Lubyanka and the KGB and the way they treated the prisoners and
it seemed to us unbelievable that they would treat not only first of all the Czar, whom they shot
along with his family, but that they would treat writers, and famous people, and they would imprison
people like Sakharoff — great scholars, and they would treat them despicably. People who hadn’t an
ounce of their brain power would treat them as if they were nothing and it seemed to me that it was
during that period following the Second World War that the idea came strongly over to Britain, I
presume it was the same in America, but the idea came strongly over to Britain that there’s a great
leveler at work that said “We’re all the same, nobody is different from anybody else and you don’t
need to treat anybody different from anybody else, just treat them all the same.” That came in and
took a dreadful hold of life in America in the 60s where nobody would listen to anybody else because
of their position. There was an extreme emphasis on “Let’s throw all the authority over; unless you
can tell me why I should do this thing, I’m not listening to you.”
So in fact, we toppled the whole basis of the progress of civilization which depends on the respect
of the younger inexperienced for the older and experienced because that’s how knowledge and
understanding and insight into the world is passed down. But we threw all that over in the 60s; the
great leveler came in and everybody believed it was right to treat everybody the same. And it was
quite interesting, the man whom I shared a room with in seminary in Ireland, I visited him up in the
northwest territories just a few weeks ago, and he has two fine boys and you remember I told you the
situation that they’re really fluent German speakers and had been brought up part of the time in
Germany and part of the time in Canada.
One of the boys is Sven and the other is Sean, they’re now 20, 24 year olds and Sean has just
recently come from Germany. They’re big, well built and fine looking young men and the 20 year old
Sean came over and joined Sven and his father in Canada. One day Sean said to his father, and you
can imagine why, because Sven had been living with his father for years and Sean had been living
with his mother in Germany, so now he’s joined his father and brother and he said to his father,
“Dad, do you treat us both alike?” And I’m almost programmed by our society to say the right
answer, “Yes of course, of course I treat you both exactly alike.”
But Dick replied, “No, no, I don’t son. I don’t treat you both alike. I love you both and I treat
you each as you need to be treated at each moment” which of course was the right answer. But I
suddenly realized how far we’ve gotten off the whole truth of respecting people for themselves; how
far we’ve gotten away from that. We’ve brought in this attitude of the great leveler where nobody
is different; nobody deserves any more respect or any more honor than anybody else. And of course,
we’ve begun to lose any sense of any esteem for each other at all. It’s troublesome that at this
time when we’ve emphasized how no one is due any kind of honor that another person is not due, we’re
all having such trouble with self-esteem. It’s amazing that we’re all having trouble with a sense
of honor for ourselves at this time when nobody is ready to honor anybody else just because of what
And of course it’s what God said “If you honor your father and your mother then I will honor you.
Those who honor me I will honor and those who don’t honor me I will not honor.” For so many years
now many of us have honored nobody but ourselves, and it’s funny that when you honor nobody but
yourself, and you won’t honor anybody else or respect anybody else, eventually you lose all sense of
honor in everybody else’s eyes and you eventually lose it in your own eyes.
So it’s strange but if you don’t respect others; if you respect only yourself and nobody else you
eventually lose that respect for yourself. Everybody else loses respect for you and you lose it for
yourself. If you honor, then God honors you and actually other people honor you. But if you don’t
honor anybody but yourself, God will not honor you, other people will not honor you and you’ll
eventually be forced into losing a sense of honor for yourself. So it’s amazing how God has
arranged it. And of course, when we honor our fathers and mothers we show our obedience to God
because the truth is actually, we did not pick our parents and the fact is our parents did not pick
us. They didn’t.
You’re really only left with one person whom you can then lay that responsibility on and of course,
it is true; God picked our parents. God chose our parents. God chose our fathers and mothers, so
when we honor them we show our obedience to God and just as when the Israelites honored the Sabbath
in regard to the manna, trusting him to provide the manna for the Sabbath even though it didn’t fall
on the Sabbath, so we show our trust in God when we honor our fathers and mothers even though we
can’t see very good reasons for honoring them. It contrasts completely with the whole attitude that
we’ve been brought up with and it is significant. I just thought of it today that it is
significant that now with the collapse with what obviously has been a great hoax of communism that
everybody is the same and nobody is any different than anybody else, now we have an opportunity to
catch back again some of the world of honor and respect and chivalry that in fact, to some extent
has disappeared even in our own society.
It applies of course beyond the fathers and the mothers, it’s Keil Delitzsch that pointed this out,
I won’t quote it, but he says this of course applies not only to the fathers and mothers that have
originated our physical life but it applies to the founders and the protectors and the promoters of
our spiritual life; to the prophets and the teachers. And you find that in 2 Kings 2:12, “And
Elisha saw it and he cried, ‘My father, my father!’” He was speaking to Elijah who was his mentor,
who was the senior prophet that had taught him all he knew and had brought him his knowledge of God.
“And Elisha saw it and he cried, ‘My father, my father! the chariots of Israel and its horsemen!’
And he saw him no more.” So honoring our fathers and mothers applies not only to our physical
fathers and mothers but also to those who have in some way promoted and protected and founded our
spiritual lives; the prophets and the teachers.
You find it in 2 Kings 13:14 again. 2 Kings 13:14, “Now when Elisha had fallen sick with the
illness of which he was to die,” so now Elisha was in this position; it was his attitude to Elijah
that made him call him father. “Now when Elisha had fallen sick with the illness of which he was to
die, Joash king of Israel went down to him, and wept before him, crying, ‘My father, my father! The
chariots of Israel and its horsemen!’” So the king regarded the prophet as his father and as
someone therefore to be honored and respected.
And then it’s Keil Delitzsch that point out too that it is not only the spiritual fathers that we
are to honor but actually the guardians of our bodily life, the powers that are ordained by God, the
government and the people who are responsible for authority in our land. And in Genesis 45:8, you
catch that, “So it was not you who sent me here, but God.” This is Joseph speaking, “and he has
made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt.” “He
has made me a father to Pharaoh.” In other words he was an advisor, a counselor, a guide, a first
minister, a prime minister. So when we honor our fathers and mothers it means honoring our
spiritual fathers and mothers and actually even honoring our civil fathers and mothers.
There’s one more verse that sets that forth clearly in Judges 5:7. “The peasantry ceased in Israel,
they ceased until you arose, Deborah, arose as a mother in Israel.” Deborah was a judge in Israel.
So those civil rulers and governors of our land Keil-Delitzsch puts it this way, they say, “We are
to treat as fathers and mothers the powers ordained by God since all government has grown out of the
relation of father and child and draws its moral weight and stability upon which the prosperity and
wellbeing of a nation depends from the reverence of children towards their parents. This
commandment therefore lays the foundation for the sanctification of the whole social life in as much
as it teaches us to acknowledge a divine authority in the same.” And so of course, it brings a
whole grace into life.
The beauty of it is it takes our emphasis off the tree of knowledge — what you know. If you know
more than I do, I’ll respect you because I need the knowledge. It takes life a notch or two up from
the miserable scrubby fighting in the gutter level of “Okay, you can do me good so I’ll respect
you.” It lifts us into a princely and royal realm where there’s something beyond the pragmatic “I
can get something from you so I’ll respect you”, or “You have some power over me so I’ll respect
you.” It lifts it into a higher realm where we honor because God tells us to honor and that brings
a sweetness to life in a strange way — a sweet fragrance to life.
It lifts life above the substance level. It lifts life above the animal level and the savage level
and brings us into a mysterious kind of attitude to each other where we begin to see, not the
person, but what God is doing through the person. And we start to look at each other as agents and
officers of God rather than as just little human beings. So then what we do is we begin to see God
behind the person and we respect the person because of God being behind him.
What it does is bring a gracious fragrance to life and a beauty to life and it comes back on you and
brings a beauty to you. It brings a great stability to life. I remember being confused almost when
I was 22 and was back at my old grammar school teaching. We all wore our gowns and were dignified
young masters, but if you were teaching a senior class, the girls in my senior class were 18, so
they were only four years younger than me. I remember going down a corridor, I was of course a
strong disciplinarian, and one of the girls said to me, “Sir, I have two tickets for this famous
hypnotist that is coming to Belfast. Would you like to go?” I was horrified! I thought, “This is
incredible. I appreciate you liking me, but I’m a teacher and you’re a pupil.” And I remember it
seemed just utterly panicky and confused; it threw all the positions and the relationships into
chaos. And that’s what happens when there isn’t that honoring and respect; it throws everything
The only thing that keeps us human beings back from the chaos and anarchy that Satan wishes is God’s
order. That’s the only thing that holds us back. It’s the only thing that enables us to live above
the animal level and it’s the only thing that enables us to catch a little piece of heaven. It’s
the one thing that lifts us into where God has actually placed us — in Jesus at God’s right hand.
But wherever that honor or that respect is lacking, then humanity collapses into a great leveler
society where you just treat each other as useful to each other and the beauty and the wonder goes
from life. And you sense it; there’s a richness that disappears from life.
What I would say that I have noticed is honor and respect is shown more in your attitude, your tone
of voice, your ways of dealing with people. Eric Wallace was my senior English teacher when I
studied at grammar school and he was also the head of my department; he hired me when I went back to
teach there. Eric Wallace drank, I would say half a bottle of whiskey a day anyway, and had no
Christianity in him and smoked like a chimney and was in every way what we would probably call a
dissolute old Englishmen. But I had no doubt in my mind that he was the head of my department, that
he was my former teacher, and I honored him and respected him and would not have dreamed of doing
anything else. And I would show it in all kinds of little ways.
I suppose every society has its different way, but if he was speaking to me, I, even as a young
master, and I was by that time in the Methodist ministry which he then respected, he would respect
me as a minister even though he had little Christianity in himself, he would respect me as a
minister. And when he asked me to go to speak with his dying mother, he asked me in my position as
a priest to go. So there was a mutual respect and honor. But when he was speaking to me I wouldn’t
look in other directions — I would have my eyes on him. It was important to listen to him and I
would not have dreamed of yawning or kind of laying back. He was the person that I honored and
respected and I wanted him to see that in every way within me.
And it was there probably from the earliest days that I learned that showing honor and respect was
not a matter of just doing; it was being, it was what you were, you showed it in your body language,
you showed it in your attitude as people were speaking to you, you showed it in the way your eyes
went. Those were all important; by all those things you measured a person’s honor or respect. And
it’s strange because it ties in with real spiritual life; you minister spiritual life through your
whole being. You don’t just measure it through the words that you say – Christ shines through the
way your eyes look, the way your hands look, the way your mouth looks, everything comes over as
either Christ like honor or as a kind of animal like disrespect. And the one brings a beauty to
life and I don’t know I would almost say a peace to life.
We know where we are, and it’s interesting that those who are honored in that way aren’t dumb; they
aren’t fools; they know they don’t know everything. When we honor them, it has the effect of
actually enabling them to bend over as God does to us, and not to take advantage of the honor or to
think that they are anything. In fact the more we give honor, the more they keep their right
position and don’t get a bloated idea of their position. But the less we honor, the more we throw
everything out of position and out of harmony.
So it is interesting that honoring fathers and mothers is, even though in some ways it’s the least
utilitarian commandment, it is perhaps one of the most beautiful and it’s one of those that bring
the greatest grace to life, and the greatest beauty to life.
Let us pray.