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Presented at Trinity Fellowhip on 03/02/1997
"Honor your father and mother, that your days may be prolonged in the land which the Lord your God gives you."
Let me tell you a story of two neighbors. A man named Max Jukes lived in colonial New England. He was not a particularly evil man, but was simply profane and irreligious. Since he lived, he has had a total of 1,026 descendants. Some 300 of them spent time in prison; 190 were prostitutes; 680 were alcoholics (some of these numbers may overlap). They cost the state hundreds of thousands of dollars, and made no contributions to society at all significant enough to be recorded in history. Living at the same time and nearby was a man named Jonathan Edwards. He was not only the greatest Christian thinker of his period and a leader in the First Great Awakening, but a genuinely godly man whose love of Christ was reflected in his marriage and in his home. He has had 929 descendants (again, some of the following numbers probably overlap). 130 were pastors, 86 were university professors, 13 were university presidents, 75 wrote books, 5 served in the house of representatives, 2 in the senate, an one served as vice president of the United States. They have never cost the state one red cent, but they have contributed immeasurably to every area of public well being. (Finding these statistics somewhat unbelievable, I checked them with John Edwards, a direct lineal descendant of Jonathan, who is a librarian at Yale University. He confirms that they are essentially accurate). Now, one would not expect to get such dramatic results from every comparison, but they do illustrate the fact that the family, the influence of godly parents, is a matter of the utmost consequence. It is certainly one reason why it is important for us to pay close attention to the Fifth Commandment: "Honor your father and mother, that your days may be prolonged in the land which the Lord your God gives you."
[ NOTE: Since this sermon was delivered, certain information has come to light suggesting that some details about Max Jukes in the story above are not completely accurate. I was indeed somewhat skeptical about what smelled like an urban legend initially, but when the Edwards material was corroborated I assumed that my source was equally reliable as touching Jukes. Let that be a lesson to all of us! While the basic point of the story is unaffected, simple honesty requires us to set the record straight. Please visit the following website and make up your own mind: http://www.rfrick.info/jukes.htm. D.T.W., 8/19/04]
The importance of this commandment is signaled to us not so much by arresting statistics as by its position in the Decalog, the Ten. We have seen that the Ten Commandments are organized into two Tables, the First dealing with our relationship to God, and the Second with our relationship with our fellow man. The commandment to honor our parents thus stands at the head of the Second Table--or perhaps we could better see it as a transitional commandment between the First and the Second. Why is this so? Because this is the first place the rubber of submission to God meets the road of relationships. Why? Because God's authority is delegated in a limited way to the parents in the home, to the elders in the Church, to the teacher in the school, and to the magistrate in the state. But the family is the place where the pattern of love, respect and submission to God, which is the basis of order in all these other areas, is first set.
Partly, our parents are the first of these authorities we have to learn to honor in time, the first we encounter chronologically. But it is more than that. They are also the ones who are most like God. Like God, they brought us into existence without our advice, consent, or aid. They sustained us, through nursing, diapers, etc., when we were totally helpless; in this they are a picture of Grace. They are the first and primary source, by their instruction, their discipline, and their example, of our ideas of right and wrong; in this they are a type of God as judge. Even poor and imperfect parents--all but the most evil--function in these ways and portray for us this symbolism, however imperfectly. And therefore it is no accident that the most basic and important title for God in the Christian faith is Father.
Therefore it is absolutely crucial that we respond to our parents properly. If we do not honor our father and our mother whom we can see, how shall we honor God whom we cannot see? Or anyone else to whom honor and submission is due? Show me a person who does not honor his parents and I will show you a person who does not relate properly to God and live for his glory, either. And most likely he will be a person who got into trouble in school, looks at the Church (if at all) as a religious cafeteria that exists solely to meet his own needs, and keeps the law of the land only when it seems expedient. I am not saying that without good parents you are doomed. I am saying that if you do not honor God in your parents as his representatives, the concept is not suddenly going to dawn on you down the road without (a) a miracle and (b) a great deal of unnecessary grief.
So, parents, while this commandment may seem to be directed at our children, it is important for us too. We must by God's grace and enabling (and it can only happen thus) be people to whom our children can naturally learn to give honor. Therefore, you cannot be a good parent without being a godly parent: immersed in Scripture, faithful in the Church, leading by example. (Not that any of this is a guarantee of success. The story is told of a Dad who was receiving pieces of apple pie being ferried out from the kitchen by his son and passing them on to the guests, modeling wonderfully the virtues of courtesy. Finally the boy tugged on his sleeve and whispered, "It's no use, Dad. They're all the same size!" So examples do not always communicate, but without them we have nothing.) If you are immersed in Scripture, faithful in the Church, and leading by example, you may then receive honor from your children and direct it on to God. Being a parent is an opportunity to lead your children to faith in Christ and begin discipling them that is unparalleled in life. As the poet says,
I took a piece of plastic clay And idly fashioned it one day, And as my fingers pressed it still, It moved and yielded to my will. I came again when days were past: The bit of clay was hard at last. The form I gave it still it bore, And I could change that form no more. I took a piece of living clay And gently pressed it day by day And molded with my power and art A young child's soft and yielding heart. I came again when years had gone: It was a man I looked upon. He still that early impress bore, And I could fashion it no more. (Anon.)
By God's grace, none of our mistakes are irremediable or irreversible; human hearts are more than inanimate clay. But the point of the poem is a valid one: there will be no opportunity like the one we have now.
As we look more closely at the meaning of the Fifth Commandment, one of the first things we should notice is that it is not just directed at little children. A little girl came home frustrated from Sunday School. "I don't get it," she complained. "It's always the children of Israel did this, and the children of Israel did that. Didn't the ADULTS ever do anything?" Well, yes they did. One of the things they did was get this commandment commanded to them.
What happens when we think of this commandment is that we often confuse it with Eph. 6:1--"Children, obey your parents." But that is not merely a repetition of the commandment, but rather a specific application of it to childhood. Obedience is the form that honor takes when one is a child. There will come a time when one's parents no longer have to be obeyed. But the requirement of honoring them never ceases; it just takes a different form. When is that time? Is it the age of 18? of 21? The Bible knows nothing of any such criterion. The principle is laid down in Gen. 2:24. "For this cause shall a man leave his father and his mother and cleave unto his wife." Now, this does not mean you must obey your parents forever if you never get married. The point is that you are no longer under their authority when you leave home, start paying your own way, and set up you own household. If you move back in with them at the age of 30, 40, or 50, they are still the heads of that home and have the right to set the rules. (On the other hand, if they move in with you to be cared for in their old age, YOU are the one in authority. You must do so respectfully, of course, but it's your house so you set the rules. The question is, who is the head of this home?) It has nothing to do with how old you are. Authority is transferred in the leaving and cleaving process.
While obedience is required, it is "in the Lord" (Eph. 6:1). This means that what we are obeying is God's authority delegated to our parents. If any human authority were to order us to disobey God, we are to obey God rather than men, as Peter explains in Acts. While it is very awkward and not very practicable for small children in such a situation, parents are not exempted from this principle. Remember, it is not a command you dislike, or even one that is unfair, but one that would require you to disobey a clear command of God that is at issue. There might come a time for an older child--or wife--or student--or citizen--to say, "I'm sorry, but I just can't do what you are asking." But if he does, he had better be able to say, "You know I always obey you in the Lord; you know this isn't just rebellion." With any human authority, the principle is that it is only submission to right authority that can give you the right to refuse to obey wrongfully wielded power. And so you must remember that God will judge you if it is only an excuse to get your own way.
When you leave home and set up your own household, the requirement of obedience ceases. But the necessity to honor your parents does not cease; it just takes on a new form. We are still to show them respect, reverence, and love. It does not matter whether they deserve it! We treat them as we should because we do it unto the Lord. It is Him that we honor by honoring them. Honor involves paying practical attention to them--not ignoring them, which is easy to do with the pressures of our own careers, kids, etc. It may involve supporting them in their old age. They supported us when we were helpless! The government may provide social security, but spiritually the buck stops with us.
Let's think about the practical implications of all this, first for those children and young people still living at home. So let me start by saying something obvious: It means we are to obey our parents! It is said that there are four ways to get something done. If you don't want it to get done, you form a committee. If you want it to get done, you do it yourself. If you want it to get done right, you hire a professional. But if you REALLY want it to get done, you forbid your kids to do it! You all know what I am talking about.
But what does it mean to obey? It is not enough simply to comply. We should obey cheerfully, and before we have to be threatened with bodily mayhem and destruction. Otherwise, we may be keeping the letter of the law, but the spirit of disobedience is what is actually being expressed. God is not dumb; he sees the heart. Delayed obedience is (for a while at least) disobedience.
Then we should prepare for our later lives when we no longer must obey by practicing respect for our parents and other elders. Phrases like "Yes/no sir" and Yes/no Ma'am" should be heard a lot more frequently than they are. "Oh, that's just a Southern thing," somebody says. Well, then, the South is right.
Finally, be patient with them. I know they are hopelessly old fashioned and out of it, they tend to lecture, and they don't listen as well as they might. But they also love you and want the best for you and have learned a few things through bitter experience that could save you a lot of trouble and sorrow. More importantly, they have been given by God the responsibility of being your leaders until you are on your own. So listen to them anyway, and just let some of their irritating mannerisms pass. Then submit to them as unto the Lord--for it IS the Lord that you are ultimately obeying and honoring when you do.
Then, for those of us who are parents: we can make it easier for our kids to honor us. How? First, by cultivating our own walk with the Lord, including faithfulness to the Church, regular family devotions, etc. Even more important than formal family devotions, let your kids see Bible reading and prayer as a normal part of your life.
Second, be careful not to resent the demands having children makes on us. This is I think especially an issue for modern parents, who have been given a very false set of expectations by the media. "I'd give my life to have polite children like that," a woman was overheard saying. "That's exactly what it costs," her friend replied. Now, you need breaks and you need your own time, of course--that's common sense. But some of us need to make a conscious decision to accept from God the mission field he has given us.
Third, always make it a point to discipline from principle, rather than out of anger. Have rules and consequences for breaking them and enforce them even handedly, so that the child connects the punishment with the offense, not with the fact that you were short-tempered that day. Children will never admit it to you, but they actually want reasonable boundaries enforced in love (even if they push them). It is one of the things that gives them security.
Fourth, put more conscious effort into listening to your kids. Students at a Georgia high school had to write papers on "what I wish my parents would do." Listen to some of the points that kept coming up over and over again. ("Let me have my way all the time was actually not one of them!): Be more dedicated to the Church, and go as a family. Treat my friends like they are welcome. Tell me right from wrong without being harsh. Be interested in my activities. Admit it when you are wrong. Don't fuss at me in front of others. Answer simple questions without giving a lecture. Ask my opinion about things once in a while.
In short, be biblical; be consistent; be reasonable but firm; and above all, do not be intimidated by the way the world is going. If our families are not different, whose will be? It may well be that the spiritual revival our country so desperately needs will start right here: "Honor your father and mother, that your days may be prolonged in the land which the Lord your God gives you."
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams