Tuesday, March 19, 2019

What Does It Mean to Honor My Parents?


Today, the spirit of the age is autonomy. In other words, each person wants to create his or her own identity apart from external influences or authorities. Whether it is in a Disney movie or a presidential debate, we are told to look inside ourselves for guidance, and that once we make up our mind, we can be whoever we want to be. We create our identity by pure willpower, by sovereign choice. At the same time, our culture has an epidemic of people trying to find themselves. We feel lost, disoriented, searching for purpose and identity. Our culture resonates with lyrics like that of "A Place in This World":
“I'm alone, on my own,
and that's all I know.
I'll be strong, I'll be wrong,
Oh but life goes on.
Oh, I'm just a girl,
Trying to find a place in this world.”
Finding ourselves on our own, digging deeper into the self, is like trying to find the essence of an onion by looking for its core. We keep peeling and peeling until nothing is left. And in case you think this only applies to the people “out there” or to the music on the radio, I think Christians sometimes have the same problem. Sometimes they dress it up in the language of “finding God’s will.” While Christians have always needed guidance on decision making, the need to “find God’s will for your life” seems to be much more a problem today than at other times in church history.

Not only would our fathers in the faith point to God’s word, prayer, and the fear of God, but they would also point to our callings and the authorities in our lives. Among other things, listen to your parents! What do they counsel? What is your family’s vision and place in life? We are not isolated individuals, making a sovereign choice ex nihilo, out of nothing. But as a culture, we have cut ourselves off from many sources of counsel, calling, and inheritance – no wonder we are so lost when it comes to our identity and work! I bring this to our attention to introduce the subject of honoring our parents. Honoring our parents is actually beneficial for us, since it helps us find our identity, calling, and vision. It is the way we have been made to live. It is desirable.

So what is it to honor your parents?

1. Honor. At its root, the command, "honor your father and your mother" (Ex. 20:12), binds us to an attitude of respect. Leviticus 19:3 repeats this command but instead of "honor" it uses the word "fear" or "revere." This is a humble attitude of respect which does not treat one's parents lightly. The same chapter goes on to apply this principle more broadly to one's elders, and places it in parallel with our fear of God: "You shall stand up before the gray head and honor the face of an old man, and you shall fear your God: I am the LORD" (Lev. 19:32). Notice this verse also connects honor with physical acts that demonstrate honor. We see this practiced by King Solomon in 1 Kings 2:19. When Bathsheba his mother came to see him, he - the king of Israel - rose from his throne, bowed to her, and had a seat brought for her, placed at his right. While our gestures of honor may vary from culture to culture, some tangible expressions ought to be used (and even in our culture, rising from our seats and even bowing are still understood as giving honor and respect).

2. Obedience. The command to honor parents is quoted by the apostle Paul to support his command, "Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right" (Eph. 6:1). The exhortation to obedience is also found in Colossians 3:20, "Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord." One way to honor parents is to do what they tell you to do. Now this is particularly binding on children, those under their parent's authority at home. That seems to be the focus of the commands in Colossians and Ephesians. There comes a time when a young man "leaves" his father and mother in some sense, in anticipation of cleaving to his wife, who in turn also leaves her father's house and joins her husband's (Gen. 2:24, Num. 30). In biblical Israel, men reached the age of majority at age twenty and were then responsible for military service, voting, and the head tax (Num. 1:2-3, 1 Chron. 12:38, Ex. 20:13-14). Yet, there are positive examples in the Bible of adult children obeying their parents, such as the sons of Jonadab (Jer. 35). While the obligation is different than that of children, obedience is still a way to show honor. (The obedience of adult children deserves a closer look at another time, especially with an eye to how different economic arrangements influence this obligation.)

3. Internalizing Commands. Part of the transition from the obedience of a young child and the honor from an adult child is the internalization of the parent's commands and instructions. The Bible exhorts children not only to obey their parents's commands, but also to adopt them as one's own principles. Proverbs 6:20–22 says, "My son, keep your father's commandment, and forsake not your mother's teaching. Bind them on your heart always; tie them around your neck. When you walk, they will lead you; when you lie down, they will watch over you; and when you awake, they will talk with you." Since this passage clearly reflects Deuteronomy 6:7, it is assumed that this parental instruction is based on God's word. But as long as their instruction does not conflict with Scripture, there is a duty to humbly receive what is taught, to hold fast to what is good, and to make it your own. The greatest joy of a godly parent is to see their children walking in truth and wisdom not merely because the parent tells them to do so, but because it has become part of their character (Prov. 10:1; 23:15, 24; 3 John 1:4).

4. Seeking Counsel. Another way to show honor to parents is to seek and cherish the counsel of parents. This should not be done as a replacement for internalizing their instruction, but neither should the greater independence of an adult child prevent him from seeking and listening to counsel. Proverbs 23:22 says, "Listen to your father who gave you life, and do not despise your mother when she is old." Why? Because wisdom and counsel is valuable. The next verse follows up this exhortation by saying, "Buy truth, and do not sell it; buy wisdom, instruction, and understanding." Your parents' counsel should be treasured. This shows honor for the ones who gave you life. This obligation does not cease then they (and you) get old.

5. Covering Disgrace. Part of showing honor to parents is to cover their disgrace. There are limits to this - this does not require you to be dishonest or to hide crimes which ought to be reported. But, it does mean you should refrain from speaking to others of what brings shame or embarrassment to your parents unless it is truly necessary. Genesis 9:18-29 recounts how Noah, after the flood, planted a vineyard, became drunk with its wine, and lay naked in his tent. While Ham disgraced his father by spreading a report and leaving his father in this state, Shem and Japheth honored their father by covering his nakedness, walking backwards so that they would not see their father in this state.

6. Caring for Elderly Parents. A very important part of the command to honor parents is the care of elderly parents. Just as parents are responsible to care for their children when their children are incapable of caring for themselves, so children are responsible for caring for their parents when their parents are unable to care for themselves. To ignore this responsibility is quite serious (1 Tim. 5:8). Jesus asserts this aspect of the commandments in Matthew 15:1-9 where he condemned the Pharisees for excusing people from this responsibility through their extra-biblical traditions. Jesus himself, when dying on the cross, cared for his mother. Mary was probably widowed at this point, and Jesus as the oldest son would have been particularly responsible for his mother's care. Thus while He was on the cross he gave John the responsibility to care for his mother: "he said to his mother, 'Woman, behold, your son!' Then he said to the disciple, 'Behold, your mother!' And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home" (John 19:26-27).

7. Receiving Your Heritage. The honor of parents comes with promise (Deut. 5:16, Eph. 6:2-3). This promise is not only generally offers long life and prosperity on an individual level, but also on a corporate level. In other words, the honor of parents brings continuity and inheritance. Not only will you live long in the land, but you all (as a family or people) will live long in the land. This continuity, receiving the heritage of your parents, is both a duty and a blessing, while dishonor of parents is both disobedience as well as self-defeating. Even when your parents are unbelievers, your family’s heritage is reborn and reformed, not obliterated. All of us are part of a multigenerational project which includes receiving, respecting, reforming, and giving. R.J. Rushdoony insightfully comments on this aspect of honor,
"This brings us to the first general principle inherent in this law: honor to parents, and to all older than ourselves, is a necessary aspect of the basic law of inheritance. What we inherit from our parents is life itself, and also the wisdom of their faith and experience as they transmit it to us. The continuity of history rests in this honor and inheritance. A revolutionary age breaks with the past and turns on parents with animosity and venom: it disinherits itself. To respect our elders other than our parents is to respect all that is good in our cultural inheritance. The world certainly is not perfect, nor even law-abiding, but, although we come into the world naked, we do not enter an empty world. The houses, orchards, fields, and flocks are all the handiwork of the past, and we are richer for this past and must honor it…The basic and central inheritance of culture and all that it includes, faith, training, wisdom, wealth, love, common ties, and traditions are severed and denied where parents and elders are not honored." (Institutes of Biblical Law, p. 166)
"To despise one’s parents, or to hate them and dishonor them is to despise the immediate source of one’s life; it is a form of self-hate, and it is a willful contempt for the basic inheritance of life. From pastoral experience, it can be added that those who, when rebuked for their hatred of and dishonoring activity towards parents, arrogantly say, 'I didn’t ask to be born,' have a limited life span, or, at best, a miserable one. Their course of action is suicidal. They are saying in effect, 'I’m not asking to live.'" (p. 168)
The honor of parents, as with the rest of the commandments, is the way of life. Our heavenly Father is pleased when we honor our parents. It may be hard. Sin might get in the way. Forgiveness and love is necessary. If we realize how much we have been forgiven, we will willingly show forgiveness to our parents. If we fear and honor our heavenly Father, we will seek to reflect that in our fear and honor of our parents. If we are thankful for receiving eternal life, we will be thankful to those who gave us life. If we truly want to know God’s will for our life, we will look to the sources of guidance that He has appointed. And if we honor our parents, we will cover their disgrace, care for them, seek their counsel, internalize their commands, and joyfully carry on the heritage they have given us. May we treasure the talents they have given us, and invest and increase them with confidence in God’s promise of life and prosperity to all such as keep this commandment.

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