Description: Giving respect to one another brings not only esteem and attention to God, who is behind each of us, but it brings a gracious beauty to our lives.
What is the Heart of Honor?
Sermon Transcript by Rev. Ernest O’Neill
What’s known as the Fifth Commandment and if you’d like to look at it, you can read it yourself in
Exodus 20:12. It seems to me what we need to pray for is 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 just the Hebrew word for honor, it’s the word “cabed,” you’d
put it in English letters “cabed” 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, you might even translate
it, give weight to your father and your mother. That is give them weight that is beyond what you
give to other people because actually this commandment is placed by God on the same level as the one
regarding the Sabbath that we’ve just studied.
You’ll find it in Leviticus 19:3, so he 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’s also hallowed the position of fathers and mothers and that we’ll see in a
moment or two, extends beyond our human fathers or mothers. But every one of you shall revere his
mother and his father and if you knew Latin you’d know that, “timor” is actually a word that means
to fear and the Hebrew word for revere is “tiyrau” and it actually means fear.
Of course, we’re all very reluctant to use that word because we have a non-balanced attitude towards
it. We think, “Oh, no, no you shouldn’t fear your father and 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. 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. So, we can glimpse there a right side to fear and then
that is a part of what it means in regard to our father and our mother. We should have an extreme
respect for them and an extra fear of offending them in any way.
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. We need to make a distinction there because
many of us think, “Oh yeah, you mean 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.”
So, we are to love our neighbors; 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.
That is the Commandment God has given.
Now, it’s interesting that he pays so much attention to it because you’ll see 1 Samuel 2:30, the
words that Eric Liddell supposedly 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.’” 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.”
It’s interesting that the basis of honoring our fathers and our mothers is the same as the basis of
observing the Sabbath. We observe the Sabbath not simply because it’s useful to us for rest and
recreation but because God hallowed the Sabbath day. Now, honoring the father and mother has the
same element in it. It’s honoring someone not because they are inherently worthy of honor. It’s so
important to see that you know, we – I frankly think we lost it in the 60s and probably it was being
lost even partly through the World Wars. 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.” You remember we said that by that means he brought a grace into
life. Observing the Sabbath day is a graciously 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.” God, that’s enough for us, we honor it then. That
brings a grace into life.
I tried to find some analogies or metaphors for it. The closest I can come to 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, and
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.
It’s interesting that 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 sooner or
later are 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 out strip 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 them.
You’re to honor the Sabbath day not because the Sabbath day has something in its self that is worthy
of honor but because God says so. Now, you’ve to honor your parents for the same reason. Of
course, many of us lost it in the 60s, we 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 just 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’ve 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 that I’ve mentioned to you and I’ll just tell it very
quickly because I’ve mentioned it quite often before. It is the best example that I saw when I was
traveling in the metro underground in Paris, traveling out of Paris early in the morning, six or so
to the airport. The only other people in the metro at that time were the street sweepers; the
laborers who made Paris work, the little nobodies. I happen to be sitting at the end of one of
these carriages and so I was at the door and it just – it just amazed me these little men who were
obviously, obviously people like street sweepers or the laborers, they looked like the people who
would almost work under the escalators in the tube station and keep the dust away.
They looked like the people, just the lowest level of Parisian labor that made the city work and
each one of them got onto the carriage and all the others stood up and stretched out their hands and
they 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
and 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
most people who eventually buried them would say, “These people have no particular value. They’re
not bright, they’re not clever, they’re not wealthy, they don’t have power.” Yet there was great
honor and respect that they showed to each other for the positions that they had.
Usually, of course you can guess, they 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’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
What does honor mean? Obviously, first of all, a plain example of it we can see in Jesus coming
into the city of Jerusalem. All of the people saw him coming on a donkey and they threw down palm
branches in front of him. So, honor means giving special attention to a person, giving special
attention to them. 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. It was simply showing
respect for him. And it seems that that’s perhaps the heart of honor.
It’s in an awareness, isn’t it? It’s an awareness of the relationship that exists between you and
the other person. But, that’s what it is. If you see a son or daughter who doesn’t honor their
father and mother you feel, “Boy, they don’t really know the relationship that exists between them
and their father and mother. They don’t actually understand social relationships.” It makes you a
little scared actually; you feel a little fearful. You feel, “Boy, this is a little wild animal
here that doesn’t seem to understand the various relationships between people.” It seems to me the
heart of honor is an awareness of the position, or the state, or the experience of the other people
in relationship to yourself.
Of course, when you have that, it gives to the rest of human kind a confidence in your own sanity.
When you don’t have that mankind gets kind of a little frightened. That was what was so dreadful I
think in the 60s. I mean, that there was such a shaking because when I – 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 all looked at the Chinese all wearing the same Mao uniform — everybody
is the same; the same drab grey look.
The emphasis came over from Russia, especially in some of the novels even 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 doesn’t matter if it was a famous
person, 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, of the KGB and the way that they treated the
prisoners and it seemed to us unbelievable that they would treat not only, first of all, the Czar
whom they just shot with his family, but that they would treat writers and famous people. They
would imprison people like Andrei Sakharov, [1921-1989, Russian dissident and human rights activist]
obviously great scholars and they would treat them despicably. People who hadn’t an ounce of his
brain power, they would treat them as if he was nothing. 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 is a great leveler at
work, “We’re all the same. Nobody is different than 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 because 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 the experienced and that’s how knowledge, understanding
and insight into the world is passed down.
But we threw all of that over in the 60s and the great leveler came in and everybody believed its
right to treat everybody the same. I was quite interested, the man that I visited 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. I told you the situation and they are really fluent German speakers and
have been brought up part of the time in Germany and part of the time in Canada. And one is Sven
and the other is Sean.
Sean has just recently come from Germany, they’re now 20, 24 year olds, big well built and fine
looking young men and the 20 year old Sean came over and has joined Sven and his father in Canada.
And one day, Sean said to his father, and you can image 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?” I’m almost programmed
by our society to say, “The right answer is yes. The right answer is yes, of course, of course I
treat you both exactly alike.” And it was interesting, 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 each moment.”
Which, of course, was the right answer.
But I suddenly realized how far we’ve got off the whole truth of respecting people for themselves.
How far we’ve got 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. Of course
we’ve begun to lose a sense of any esteem for each other at all. It is so interesting while it’s so
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 in trouble – 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 they are.
It’s what God said, “Look if you honor your father and your mother than I will honor you. Those who
honor me, I will honor and those who don’t honor me, I will not honor.” It’s interesting that for
so many years now so many of us have honored nobody but ourselves. 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. It’s
strange 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. Of
course, when we honor our fathers and our 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.
It is true — God picked our parents. God chose our parents. God chose our fathers and mothers and
so when we honor them we show our obedience to God just as when we honored the Sabbath. When the
Israelites honored the Sabbath, in regard to the manna, and trusting him to provide the mana 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 our mothers even though we can’t see very good reason for honoring them.
It contrasts completely with the whole attitude we’ve been brought up with and it is significant
that now with the collapse of what obviously has been a great hoax, that everybody is the same and
nobody is any different than anybody else. It’s interesting now that we have an opportunity
presumably 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 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 the 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
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 really, 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 get 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,” 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!’”
And so the king regarded the prophet as his father and as someone therefore to be honored and
Then it’s Keil Delitzsch that pointed out 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. In Genesis 45:8 you catch
that. Genesis 45:8, “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, really an advisor, a counselor, a guide, a first minister, a
prime minister and so when we honor our fathers and mothers it means honoring our spiritual fathers
and mothers and actually even honoring our civil father and mothers.
Then there is just one more verse that says that clearly. 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 and therefore considered a mother in Israel. So, those civil rulers and governors of our
land were honored. Keil Delitzsch puts it this way, “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.”
Therefore, 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 “Ok, you can do me good, so I’ll respect you.” It lifts us into a princely and royal realm where
they’re 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 you into a higher realm where we honor
because God tells us to honor.
Of course, that brings a sweetness to life in a strange way — a sweet fragrance to life. It lifts
life above the sustenance 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. Then we start to look at each other as agents and officers of
God rather than as just little human beings. So, what we do is we begin to see God behind the
person and we respect the person because of God being behind them.
What it does is it brings a gracious fragrance to life and a beauty to life. It comes back on
yourself and brings a beauty to you. It brings a great stability to life. I remember being just –
and I think I’ve mentioned this to you before — confused almost. When I was 22, I was back at my
old grammar school teaching, we all wore our gowns. We were dignified young masters. But of course
if you were teaching a senior class, really the girls in my senior class were 18 so they were only
four years younger than me and I remember going down a corridor, I was of course a strong
disciplinarian, and a student said to me, “Sir, I have – I have two tickets for this famous
hypnotist that is coming to Belfast, would you like to go?” And I mean, I was horrified, I just
thought, “This is incredible. I mean, I sure appreciate you liking me and all that stuff, but I’m a
teacher and you’re a pupil.”
I remember it seemed just utterly panicky and confusing. It just threw all the positions and the
relationships into chaos. It’s interesting that that’s what happens when there isn’t that honoring
and respect. It throws everything into confusion. 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
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. You sense 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. And 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 really when I went
back to teach there. Eric drank, I would say, half a bottle of whiskey a day anyway, and had no
Christianity in him, and smoked just like a train, and was in every way what we would call probably
a dissolute old Englishman. 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 of dreamed of doing
anything else. I would show it in all kinds of little ways.
It just so happens, and I suppose everyone has their different ways, every society has it’s
different way, but I mean, 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 to his dying mother, he asked me as 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
mean, 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 – it was from the earliest days that I certainly 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, all those things you measured a person’s honor
or respect by. It’s strange because it ties in with the real spiritual life. You minister
spiritual life through your whole being. You don’t just measure it through the words 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 animalish disrespect. The one
brings, I think, a beauty to life and I don’t know I would almost say a peace to life. We know
where we are and it is interesting those who are honored in that way aren’t dumb, I mean they aren’t
fools, they know they don’t know everything.
When we honor them it has the effect of enabling them to bend over as God does to us and not, of
course, to take advantage of the honor or to think that they are anything. In fact, it is very
funny but 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.