last update Dec. 2, 2001
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Honor your father and your mother,
that your days may be long
in the land which the Lord your God gives you
Exodus 20:12 (RSV)
Arrangement of topics largely from chapter 5 in Broken Tablets : Restoring the Ten Commandments and Ourselves. Ed. by: Rachel S. Mikva. Jewish Lights Pub; 1999.
“Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land the LORD your God is giving you.”
(Exodus 20:12 NRSV)
“Honor your father and your mother, as the LORD your God commanded you, so that your days may be long and that it may go well with you in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.”
(Deuteronomy 5:16 NRSV)
“You shall each revere your mother and father, and you shall keep my sabbaths: I am the LORD your God.”
(Leviticus 19:3 NRSV)
No inter-human relationship is more basic.
Note the implied equality of father and mother.
The Commandment speaks to:
The authors of Exodus are particularly concerned with the safe transmission to all generations of the story of God’s liberation of his people from bondage in Egypt.
There are three partners in the making of a human being:
God is involved!
God often describes his relationship with us in filial terms:
Command may in part reflect the God’s divine concern and authority exercised through the parent
4.1. Honor versus Fear/Revere
honor (Exodus and Deuteronomy versions) - Hebrew kabed
revere or fear (Leviticus version) - Hebrew tira’u
The New Testament "transposes" the relationship of the Fifth Commandment, emphasizing the mutuality, the give and take of the relationship between parent and child. In the Angel Gabriel's announcement to Zechariah that his wife Elizabeth will have a son John:
“With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1:17 NRSV)
Part of this mutuality is implicit in the notion of honoring:
“ ‘Honor’ is a more delicate, transitive maneuver, whereby both parties grow in dignity through the process” (Brueggemann)
4.3. Fear and Revere
4.4. Father / mother versus Mother / father
Our tendency is to honor mother (who tends to be more nurturing), fear/revere father (who tends to be more authoritarian). This ordering emphasizes we should also honor our father, fear/revere our mother
Not really a “promise” or a “warning” (note language “may”: It "may" go well with you, your days "may" be long).
The Reformers extended the Fifth Commandment to other authorities; in particular, state and judiciary. Their argument was based on two passages:
“My child, fear the LORD and the king, and do not disobey either of them. . .” (NRSV)
I Peter 2:13-17:
“For the Lord’s sake accept the authority of every human institution, whether of the emperor as supreme, or of governors. . . Honor everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honor the emperor.” (NRSV)
The validity of such an extension is controversial. The argument is perhaps strongest when such authorities take on “parental” role (care of the elderly and mentally handicapped parents, for example)
7.1. Parent and child: a mutual relationship
The New Covenant (see quote from Luke 1:17 above) contains both:
This mutuality of relationship is reflected elsewhere in the New Testament. Ephesians 6:2-4:
“ ‘Honor your father and mother’ -- this is the first commandment with a promise. ‘so that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth’ And fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” (NRSV)
A child’s honoring of his/her parents should evoke a response of the parent to be worthy of the honor of their child.
7.2. Tasks of "Honorable" Parents
The tasks of “honorable parents” (from Timmerman)
To perform such tasks without failure would require a godlike wisdom and discernment. We all fail. Marion Wright Edelman (head of the Children's Defense Fund) wrote this letter for forgiveness of those inevitable failures to her sons (quoted in Broken Tablets):
"I seek your forgiveness for all the times I talked when I should have listened; got angry when I should have been patient; acted when I should have waited; feared when I should have been delighted; scolded when I should have encouraged; criticized when I should have complimented; said no when I should have said yes and said yes when I should have said no... I often tried too hard and wanted and demanded so much, and mistakenly sometimes tried to mold you into my image of what I wanted you to be rather than discovering and nourishing you as you emerged and grew.”
“For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law . . .” (NRSV)
Certainly part of what this disturbing passage tells us is that:
There is no simple answer to how we should "honor" our parents in such situation. In such a struggle, we should keep in mind:
In such a situation, honor can still involve positive acts to help them, improve their lives, to the degree we are able. Revere/fear can still involve not interfering with the esteem due them from others.
Honor may also involve forgiveness.
Broken Tablets : Restoring the Ten Commandments and Ourselves. Ed. by: Rachel S. Mikva. Introduction by Lawrence Kushner. Afterword by Arnold Jacob Wolf. Jewish Lights Pub; 1999
Do We Still Need the Ten Commandments? : A Fresh Look at God's Laws of Love & Changing Perspectives. John H. Timmerman. Augsburg Fortress. 1997.
Exodus. (Interpretation. A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching.) Terence E. Fretheim, John Knox Press, Louisville, 1991
The Book of Exodus. Walter Brueggemann. In: The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume I. Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1994