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Description: Why Honor Your Parents?
Why Honor Your Parents?
Sermon Transcript by Rev. Ernest O’Neill
We have talked about Ephesians 6:1-2 –Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.
And we may even have done verse 2 “Honor your father and mother (this is a first commandment with a
promise).” I don’t think we have done Ephesians 6:3, “that it may be well with you and that you may
live long on the earth.”
I’ve been stuck on this verse for 3 months because I felt I had to expound it as that’s what God
gives me to do. I have to expound it whatever I think of it. And that’s why I kept at it. But I
never was very enthusiastic about it so I did it by sheer obedience which is probably the best way
to do it.
What concerned me was this, “Honor your father and mother.” That’s what you ought to do. Every boy
and girl ought to honor their father and mother. And even though I was probably that kind of a son
inside, I didn’t like the whole conventionality of it. I wasn’t too happy with the idea of what
happens when your father and mother aren’t exactly “with it” or aren’t exactly the best examples of
godliness. What do you do there? I felt there was that defending the conventionality of human
beings. The family is important and you ought to obey your parents. I felt too often the verse was
used to reinforce that conventionality and I couldn’t quite see a way through that. You can’t very
well be a minister and oppose obeying your parents.
But I did see in my own experience that there came a time in my life when it was very clear to me
that God was saying, “if you love father and mother more than me you are not worthy of me.” I saw
that there came a time when I had to go with what God was guiding me as far as the ministry was
concerned whether my mother was for it or against it. And obviously I certainly felt the same about
But early on in my own life at age 17, before I went to university I had a call from God. But as
life went on and I got nearer to the university situation I saw that I needed to get a scholarship
to university and to do that I needed to get into teaching etc. etc. But there came a time when it
became clear to me that whether my mother agreed or not (my father was always a dear and helpful) I
had to do what was right.
So I did in that way resolve the thing personally. You honor your father and mother but it is “in
the Lord”. In other words you can’t do what is against God’s will. We must obey God rather than men.
I settled that in my own life. But I was never too sure of how you expounded that besides Jesus’
plain statement that “if you love father and mother more than me you are not worthy of me.” How do
you deal with the honor your father and mother and in what sense was that God’s word?
You’ll have to indulge me as I share with you some of Karl Barth’s writings as he helped me to see
it. He is dealing with “honor thy father and thy mother”. He gets into it actually right away. He
says, “Cuervaine is probably right when he maintains that this generalization of the commandment
carries with it the danger of overlooking its concrete character.”
He’s saying that this commandment had a specific meaning but it’s been generalized into an ethical
law that all human beings respect. We see it carried to its extreme in China where they virtually
worship their parents and are anxious that they’ll take good care of their parents because they will
be in heaven praying for them. So in China and in some of the other religions you can see that
respect for parents is carried to an extreme. So, there is truth in that.
But particularly in our own western civilization it’s hard to find anybody who doesn’t say, “You
ought to obey your parents whatever they’re like.” And we’re brought up in that general attitude.
He’s saying there’s a generalization. I would add there is also the danger of a legalistic
understanding of this particular commandment. It’s the first commandment with the express promise,
“that thy days may be long in the land which the Lord thy God gives thee.”
Barth is saying that it’s so easy for that to be given a general meaning and to be given a
legalistic turn. That’s what I was unhappy about. I felt that this is not being used in the way that
God originally meant it. Though I don’t know which way he meant it, it’s being used by our western
civilization to encourage obedience to parents — whatever.
Obviously Jesus himself implied that there are times when that isn’t so. Indeed he as a young boy
said, “Did you not know that I must be about my father’s business?” as he got lost on that day in
Jerusalem. He was the little wandering boy and not at all respectful of his parents in that sense.
And so Jesus has given us some encouragement to see that parents are not the final word.
But still I thought, what is the meaning of this verse? And here is what Barth says, “The authority
of the parents proclaimed in the fifth commandment is not that of a power posited and exercised as a
right.” That’s what I was unhappy about. It seemed like it was being given as a right, even if a
parent was an atheist or a homosexual, you had to obey him. He says, “The authority of the parents
proclaimed in the fifth commandment is NOT that of a power posited and exercised as a right, but
that of a spiritual power.”
And then you’ll find as I did when you read on that it echoes in your heart, “… but that of a
spiritual power. The honoring of parents required of children does not mean the outward and formal
subjection of the will of the younger to that of the older generation.”
That echoed with me. When we had the barricades up on the university I was on the good side and I
generally was working for order in the midst of the chaos. But probably there is something that God
witnessed to all the rebels in the society. It was some kind of sense that there is something of
ourselves in this guy. There is something of ourselves in those days when we talked of Jesus as the
“And the honoring of parents required of children does not mean the outward and formal subjection of
the will of the younger to that of the older generation but the respecting of the later (that is the
respecting of the older generation) as the bearer and mediator of the promise given to the people
with regard to its existence.” And he immediately ties it into what of course is the context of
Deuteronomy 5 – the covenant that God made with the Israelites and the covenant that God makes with
the brothers of Jesus Christ.
“…..but the respecting of the later (the parents) as the bearer and mediator of the promise given to
the people with regard to its existence. That children should honor their parents means that they
should receive from them this promise and themselves live under this promise in Canaan until the
meaning of the existence of Israel in this God given land is revealed and the son towards whom the
whole succession of generations is tending has come.”
In other words the commandment was given in close connection to the fact that God had chosen the
Israelites as the people in whom his son would be born and the parents are passing that onto their
children. And that’s where they get their weight and their position of respect and their honor.
“Without the honoring of parents there is no life under this promise. There is also a law of
subordination to the power of authority trained and exercised as a right. But this belongs to other
connections. The one analogy (and here it ties in with ourselves) to what is meant in the fifth
commandment is the relationship of the elder to the younger. (So he says there is an analogy in the
Christian fellowship of the attitude to our leaders). In general terms this is the human, relative
and limited authority, yet serious because it’s spiritual, of predecessors and leaders in the
community of the saints — the importance and dignity of witness, confession, teaching and other
traditions for all who succeed them.”
I would say gratefully it’s more or less your attitude to me. I’m not the perfect person who makes
no mistakes. But generally I am someone that you love and you’d kindly listen to. “Here we can and
may recall the fifth commandment and so speak of the fathers who as bearers and mediators of the
promise are to be honored – not as gods but as God’s representatives.” So he is saying that that is
the heart and meaning of “honor your father and mother”.
He goes on and elaborates. “When the command of God is heard in this sphere it means the children
are directed to assume a very definite attitude of subordination in relation to their parents. But
the fact that these are two human beings, who in the manner suggested, are set over their children
and to whom the children are invited to adopt this attitude. It is not with this physical
relationship as such that the command is concerned.”
And that helped me a bit. I saw that the normal teaching of society is that this couple got you into
the world and so by virtue of that they have an authority over you that you have to respect. And of
course what he’s saying is that it’s not based on that physical relationship. It’s based on the
degree to which they understand what God has put us here to do and be. And to the extent that they
pass that onto the children that’s what it’s getting at.
“It is not with this physical relationship as such that the command is concerned, but with a certain
oversight and responsibility with regard to the children which this physical relationship implies
for the parents. This oversight and responsibility does not belong to the physical but broadly
speaking to the historical order. It consists in the fact that the parents are really the elders in
relation to the children. And that they are their particular elders. Those who have lived before and
longer than they and are therefore wiser and more experienced.”
To that extend it’s good where we have received from our fathers and our mothers insight into life
and understanding about life – better than we have. In that sense it is true that it is a guard to
you. In that sense it can help you to live long because you can avoid the things that they tell you
to avoid and do the things that they tell you to follow.
“And in relation to their children they do not merely represent their own knowledge and experience
but that conveyed to them by their own predecessors.” What he is saying is that where our parents do
pass onto us the wisdom of the ages then it’s on that basis that they should be obeyed. What came
home to me was it sets certain limits. It’s not a carte blanche that you obey your parents whatever
they tell you to do. If they tell you to kill, then you kill. But, in so far as they pass onto you
the wisdom that God has given down through the years.
“The command is concerned with the two-fold distinction of the parents.” (i.e. not the biological
basis, but the spiritual basis) “but the children must subordinate themselves to the later means
that they are to regard and comport themselves as those who are less experienced and less wise…..”
(In other words we’re young and there are some things we do not know as to what to do in a certain
situation. In that situation our parents do know and if that is the case it’s best to listen).
“….they must give heed to them. They must learn from them as those who have greater knowledge. They
are not by nature their property, subjects, servants or even pupils but they are apprentices who are
entrusted and subordinated to them in order that they might lead them into the way of life.” And
he’s very good on that – that’s the responsibility of parents. He talks about it not just as
Christian parents who go to the local church but he says that’s the responsibility of all parents.
That’s what they are supposed to do – lead them into the way of life.
And so you can see what he’s saying. Where that is NOT the situation the “honor your father and
mother that your days may be long” is not applicable.
It is not applying to the physical parents who therefore by virtue of their physical connection with
you have some kind of mystical right over you.
“The children must be content to accept this leading of their parents. What the fifth commandant
(Exodus 20:12) demands when it speaks of honoring is to be understood in the light of the fact that
the Greek word, used intransitively, means to “be heavy, to have weight and have gravity. Thus to
honor someone really means to ascribe to them the dignity which is due.
It would also appear that the first important subordinate meaning of the word father is that of
teacher and counselor. And that this connotation is not foreign to the word “mother”. To honor one’s
father and mother thus means to give them their due importance as teachers and counselors.
And what else is meant by the further clause ‘that thy days may be long in the land which the Lord
they God gives thee’ but that the parents convey to the children that knowledge and wisdom in the
conduct of life, without the observance of which, the dwelling of the people and therefore these
children in the land would be pointless and would have no permanence.
The children are thus to allow this indispensable knowledge of life to be mediated to them by their
parents is called wisdom in the book of Proverbs and therefore to show them the respect and honor
which is their due. Thus the man that let’s himself be instructed and guided by his father and
mother, who inquires about what has happened in Israel (you remember the verse in the Bible “why
this memorial?” and you as a parent will explain to them that God at this point led us across the
river Jordan) who is ready to accept his parents answers and in so doing allows himself to be
instructed by him in the way of life, in which alone Israel both present and future can be Israel,
this man honors his father and mother and treats them with the respect which is their due.”
Then he quotes Jesus several times. “From this standpoint it is obviously no mere figure of speech
in Biblical thinking that Paul in First Corinthians calls the Corinthian Christians, “his beloved
children to whom he has given birth through Christ Jesus in the gospel” and Timothy his “beloved and
faithful child in the Lord” or this “true child in the faith”. As also Titus and Onesimus whom “he
has begotten in his bonds”.
And so he says that this mission of the older to the younger can seriously exist and be fulfilled.
It is thus to be honored even apart from physical parenthood and every man must fear his father and
mother in that sense. And then he goes to what I think is the dearest part of the whole thing. “The
necessity and divine compulsion of this demand is rooted in the fact that from the standpoint of
children, parents have a God ward aspect and are for them God’s primary and natural
representatives.” So there’s a sense that the attitude to the parents has a God ward side to it. It
hasn’t the side that we’ve just discussed – they are my biological parents so I have to obey them
before God. It’s not that. But he’s saying that it has a God ward aspect.
“The superiority which entitles them to this specific respect from their children really consists in
their mission. Not an inequality inherent in them nor in their character as physical parents. We
shall know it gives rise to a vital, emotional relationship to them on the part of the children
which has nothing to do with this respect — nor in any particular moral quality possessed by them
which may again produce a special attachment on the part of the children.”
So he’s saying as they do in old philosophy, “It’s not this or this”. “The superiority which
demands this respect consists rather in the correspondence of their parenthood to the being and
action of God. It does not belong to them either as a physical or a moral quality. It is the
brightness of a light which falls and rests upon them from outside, from above. The light of the
free grace of the Creator turned towards them as parents because of this divide grace their children
are challenged to submit themselves to them. They are necessarily resisting the grace of God if they
refused to do this. We can clarify the basis of this command along various lines.”
And now here’s the heart of it. “No human father but God alone is properly, truly and primarily
father.” Our own fathers are not our real father. Our real father is God himself.
“No human father is the creator of his child or the controller of its destiny or its savior from
sin, guilt and death. No human father is by his word the source of his temporal and eternal life. In
this proper, true and primary sense God and he alone is father. He is so as the father of mercy as
the father of his son of the Lord Jesus Christ. But it is of this father’s grace that in
correspondence to his own there should exist a human fatherhood also. And the fact that the later
may symbolize the fatherhood of God in a human and creaturely form is what lends its meaning and
value and entitles it to respect.”
In other words, even our dear fathers are worthy of respect only because they are reflections of our
real father. That’s how they get their importance. But we have only one father and that’s really
what he’s saying. “According to Ephesians 3:15, God is the father of whom the whole family in Heaven
and on earth is named. Hence in Isaiah 63:16, appeal is made to him beyond all human fathers that
‘thou art our father, though Abraham be ignorant of us and Israel acknowledge us not, thou Lord art
our father, our redeemer and thy name is from everlasting’.
He’s always so good in that he surrounds his commentary with Biblical quotations so that even though
the whole truth is new to you suddenly you realize that it’s everywhere.
“Hence the warning of Jesus to call no man your father upon the earth, for one is your father which
is in heaven (Matthew 23:9). Notice the hyperbole in Isaiah 49:15. Can a woman forget her sucking
child that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? Yeah though they forget, yet I
will not forget thee.’ And Psalm 27:10, ‘when my father and my mother forsake me then the Lord will
take me up.’ And if we read in Isaiah 45:16 ‘woe until him that says to his father what begetteth
thou or to the woman what has thou brought forth?’
And the meaning is obviously that it’s even more out of the question to try to call God to account
concerning his sons and to prescribe to Him concerning the work of his hands. Yet the fact remains
that human fatherhood is set alongside and compared with the incomparable fatherhood of God. And
human parents stand in the light of this analogy.
It is this which entitles them to receive honor from their children.
And then he goes the Einstein way though he never talks about Einstein or parallel universes. “Again
the former time which parents have to present to their children is naturally suggested only by the
few years and the rather longer stretch of memory and tradition which they have the advantage over
them. No father or mother in virtue of seniority, even though it include age long human experience
can represent the true ‘before’ from which the life of their children derives. What are even history
and traditions which has links in the chain they use to instruct their children in the ways of
wisdom (your parents have a relatively short history to pass onto you) if God Himself was not the
‘before’ of his children and his being and activity the content and meaning of the earlier times of
history how could the authority of the parents have any justification of force?”
In other words they derive whatever force they have not from their own past which is short but from
the “before” of God Himself – the father – the ancient of times.
“But every child of man because Jesus Christ is his brother, is primarily and truly the child of
God. Hence God truly precedes him and prepares his paths. God is the real source of his life. His
divine action of the Lord of the Covenant and Lord of the World, his eternal counsel of grace and so
the slight superiority of parents over their children can remind the later of the eternity and prior
time of God from which they come. It is this which gives them a dignity which children must honor.
So it’s quite interesting that he still holds that you honor his parents but he certainly makes it
very clear that their right to honor is not from themselves, either from their biological
relationship to us or even their experience of life. It is simply a symbol of our dear father.
What is seems to me to do is not only explain “honor your father and mother” but also brought home
to me again my father is here. My dear dad is behind him. My father is here. My father is the father
of our Lord Jesus Christ and he is my father. Then for a short time on earth my father showed
something of himself at times through my dad. But it helped me to get things into perspective and to
see them scripturally. Of course you’ll have your own thoughts because our fathers are always dear
to us but it certainly shows as you read the scriptural verses that we have finally one father.
It was interesting to hear Barth’s comment because as miserable old protestants we would quote that
verse “call no man father” which is silly. The way we call a priest “father” has no deeper meaning
than to call a minister “reverend”. But we used this to prove that Catholicism was wrong. Well in
fact the verse is significant but not in that regard. It’s not concerned with the chance choice of
that English word by a church but the importance is “regard no one on earth as your father. You have
I don’t know about you but it certainly brings home to me that He’s pretty close to me. I haven’t
got it right when I think of him as “he’s the Father of all” and me too. But this somehow makes it
clear he is your personal Father, your real Father. So it’s a blessing.