Marian Anderson was born into a humble, African-American family back in 1897. Her father was a laborer who died when Marian was only twelve. Marian’s mother then had to support Marian and her two sisters, which she did by cleaning homes and taking in laundry – washing other people’s dirty clothes.
Marian Anderson also had one of the most beautiful contralto voices of the last century. As an African-American singer, she shattered many racial barriers, especially during the first half of the last century.
Once Marian Anderson was asked by a reporter to name the greatest moment of her life. She had many great moments to choose from; she had sung all over the world, even before royalty. She could have said the greatest moment of her life took place in 1939 as she sang on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial before 75,000 people while millions more listened on the radio. She could have mentioned the day when President Franklin Roosevelt invited her to sing at the White House as he entertained King George VI and Queen Elizabeth of England, or the day she sang for the inauguration of President Eisenhower, or for the inauguration of President Kennedy. She could have pointed to the day in 1955 when she became the first African-American to sing with the New York Metropolitan Opera, or the time when the great conductor Arturo Toscanini said that a voice like hers comes once in a hundred years. She could have said the greatest moment of her life was in 1963 when President Johnson presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, or in 1986 when President Reagan awarded her the National Medal of Arts.
But Marian Anderson did not mention any of those occasions. Instead she said to the reporter, “The greatest moment of my life was the day I went home and told my mother she wouldn’t have to take in washing anymore.”Marian Anderson understood and lived out the fifth commandment.
The fifth commandment, as found in Exodus 20:12, declares, “Honor your father and mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.” The remaining commandments state negatively what we are not to do – don’t do these bad things like murder, adultery, stealing, and lying. This command states positively what we are to do – we are to do the good thing of honoring our parents.
With this commandment we come to a shift in the Ten Commandments. The first four commands all dealt with our relationship with God, our vertical relationship. Now the focus shifts to our relationships with other people. This emphasis on our horizontal relationships begins with our parents, and rightly so, for they are the ones who gave us life. Beyond this, if we don’t learn to live together rightly in the family, it’s not likely we will live well with others in the wider community.
If we are to correctly understand this command we must know what is meant by the word honor, for that is obviously the key word in the passage. In the original Hebrew the word is coben, which in its most literal sense means “to weigh heavy.” We are to weigh heavy our father and mother. It also has the sense of precious or valuable.Think back to that ancient culture. Scales would have been very important in the market and in conducting business transactions, for that is how the worth of something would be determined. Whether it was a precious metal like gold or silver, or something like grain, the means of determining its worth was to weigh it. The more it weighed the more it was worth, the more valuable it was.
To weigh heavy our parents sounds a bit odd in English, but we use a similar expression today. We may say, “Her opinion carries a lot of weight.” What we mean is that because of who she is and the knowledge she has, her opinion weighs heavy – that is, it is of great value and thus should be listened to and respected. So when this commandexhorts us “to weigh heavy” our parents it is saying we should consider them of great worth. We are to set a high value upon them, and we treat them accordingly.
How do we do that? Well, it depends somewhat on our age. For young children, it includes obeying their parents. In Eph. 6:1-3 the apostle Paul connects obedience with the command to honor your parents. He writes: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother’ – which is the first commandment with a promise – “that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.” So one way children honor their parents is by obeying them.
But it should be noted that this is not a blind obedience or unconditional obedience. Children are to obey their parents in the Lord – in other words, in all the things that are consistent with the Lord, His Word, and His purposes. If a parent asks their child to do something that is obviously wrong, that clearly contradicts God’s purposes, the child is not bound to obey. This is highlighted by the fact that the word translated obey in the original language means to hear or to listen under. So it carries the sense of listening to those who have authority over you with the purpose of understanding and then acting appropriately.
But to honor our parents means more than obedience, especially as we get older. When we become adults, we don’t have to obey our parents as children do. We may still seek their advice but now we make our own decisions. Honoring our parents now includes such things as showing respect to our parents, to be kind and considerate to them. It involves showing gratitude and appreciation to our parents for the good things they have done for us. It means that we are careful not to shame our parents – either directly to them or by how we speak of them to others. As our parents get older it may mean we actually take care of our parents. We consider what’s in their best interest rather than just our own, even as they considered what was in our best interest when we were young.
We see this progression in Jesus. Recall how Jesus, at the age of twelve, was separated from his parents when they went to Jerusalem for the Passover. For three days Jesus was in the temple, listening to and asking questions of the religious teachers. After Mary and Joseph found Jesus, it says in Lk. 2:51, “Then he (Jesus) went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them.” As a boy and teenager, Jesus honored His parents by being obedient to them.
Then jump ahead about twenty years. Jesus is engaged in His ministry and causing quite a stir. When word got back to the family of Jesus that He was traveling around from place to place, teaching the people, instructing them about the Kingdom of God, and doing miracles, it says in Mark 3 that the mother of Jesus, along with his brothers, “went to take charge of him (Jesus), for they said, ‘He is out of his mind.’” Joseph had certainly died by now, but Jesus’ mother and brothers heard the stories of what Jesus was doing and thought He had lost it. So they went to find Jesus and take Him home. Obviously Jesus did not obey His mother at this point.
Yet Jesus continued to honor his mother right up to the end. As Jesus was dying on the cross, He looked down and saw Mary along with His disciple John. We read in Jn. 19:26-27 that when Jesus saw them, “He said to His mother, ‘Dear woman, here is your son,’ and to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.” Jesus made sure his mother was provided for even after He died. As an adult it was no longer His role to obey His mother, but He never stopped honoring His mother.
This commandment, of course, tells us how to treat our parents. For children that means obeying their parents. As we get older we still honor or parents by showing them respect, gratitude, and appreciation. We listen to them, care for them, and consider their interests, for our parents are of great value; we weigh them heavy. But we must recognize that this command also demands something from us as parents. True, the command is given in an unconditional form – we are simply to honor our parents. It doesn’t say we are to honor our parents if and only if they are deserving of honor. There are no conditions attached; we are simply to honor our parents.
But the apostle Paul expands on this to include parents. We saw in Eph. 6:1-3 that Paul linked the command to honor your parents with children obeying their parents. But then in the very next verse, so speaking within this same context of honoring our parents, Paul says a word to parents. He writes: “Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.”
Fathers, and we could surely add mothers here, are not to exasperate their children. In other words, don’t drive your children crazy with unreasonable demands. Don’t create distance between you and your children by showing a lack of interest in their lives, by constantly harping at them, or by treating them disrespectfully. Don’t make life unnecessarily difficult for your children. Or stated positively, Paul wrote in I Thes. 2:11-12, “For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God.” Here Paul compares the spiritual relationship he had with the Thessalonians to parenting. Essential to parenting is doing positive things like encouraging and comforting our children, all the while teaching them and showing them how to live the life God created them to live.
So as parents, there is an obligation placed on us. If we have any integrity at all, we must recognize that we are presented with a challenge by this command. If we are to be truly deserving of the honor our children are to give us, we must ask ourselves the question – going back to the meaning of the Hebrew word for “to honor”: “How heavy am I?” No, not in the weight-watchers sense, but in a much deeper sense. When I am weighed as a person and as a parent, how much substance is there to my life? How heavy am I?
Am I bringing up my children in the training and instruction of the Lord, as Eph. 6:4 directs us to? That, of course, refers to teaching, but also more than that. It has to do with modeling a Christ-like life. When it comes to the qualities of good parenting, qualities such as love, compassion, wisdom, and patience, how do I tip the scales?
Do I invest the necessary time in my children – both quality time and quantity time – that my kids both need and deserve? Or do they only get what is left over after work, service clubs, my recreational interests, other friendships, social calendar, even church involvement, and so on? Do my children get the time they deserve?
Am I there for my children when they are hurting and going through difficult times, as all kids do? Do I tell my kidsoften that I love them, and do they see that by my actions? Do I pray not only for but with my children? Am I a good role model for my kids? Do I take time to teach them things they need to know about life, or do I leave that to their peer group?
When I am weighed as a parent, how heavy am I? Children are to “weigh heavy” their parents. They are to consider their parents worthy of honor and thus show them honor. But as a parent, do I display through my attitudes and behavior that I am deserving of that honor?
This, of course, is a huge responsibility and that fact is, there are no perfect parents. None of us can hop on the scale and test out at 100%. So we need not feel guilty about not being the perfect parent. We all have our human flaws and weaknesses. Therefore, we must avoid putting totally unrealistic expectations on our selves, and children need to realize they can’t put expectations of perfection on their parents.
At the same time, though, I think we all realize that parenting is both a great privilege and a high calling from God. If we take that calling seriously, and if we truly love our children, we will want to give them cause to honor us. Our goal should be that our children would honor us not merely because God has commanded them to but because they truly want to, for we have given them reasons to want to honor us. We give them reasons such as: giving them the time they need and deserve; actively showing them our love; giving them appropriate guidance and counsel; and teaching and modeling a Christ-like lifestyle. Another reason is that we are willing to humble ourselves and ask our children’s forgiveness when we fail them as we all do at times.
But what if our parents did not live in such a way as to give us reasons to honor them? Then what? Well, the question, “Does a particular parent deserve honor?” is simply not part of the text. We are simply to honor our parents. But of course, we can’t help but ask that in light of the way some parents treat their children. Some of you may struggle with honoring one or both of your parents because of the way they were or the way they treated you. You may still carry scars of grief or even abuse. Honoring your parents may seem both impossible and outrageous.
But it’s clear that the command applies to all of us, regardless of what our parents were like. It’s not that God is oblivious to the pain some children endure at the hands of their parents. The teaching of Scripture is clear that God loves all children. Jesus blessed the children and said if anyone causes a little one to stumble it would be better for that person to be drown in the sea (Mt. 18:6). God is deeply concerned about the well-being of all children. So when parents hurt their children in any way, I believe God hurts over that. God doesn’t say, “So, your parents weren’t very good to you. Tough! Suck it up and honor them anyway.” No, God is not like that. God hurts when children hurt even as any loving parent hurts when their children hurt.
Yet there is still something right about honoring our parents. There is a certain measure of respect our parents deserve simply because they brought us into the world and made sacrifices to provide for our needs. And if our parents failed us in significant ways, if the hurts and scars are still with us, then one of the ways we can honor our parents is by forgiving them. That doesn’t mean we pretend some painful events never happened or that we deny the pain of them, saying it doesn’t really matter. Not at all! And it doesn’t mean the parents are not accountable for their actions. But we acknowledge their humanity and the imperfections that come with that. We give them the gift of not having to be perfect. For who knows what hurtful experiences from their past have affected their parenting ability?
Ron Mehl is a pastor in the United States. Listen to what he writes of his own experience in forgiving his dad who abandoned his family when Ron was just an infant.
I stood nervously at the door and looked into the man’s strained features. It was a face I had never seen before. Not even in a picture. Not even in my imagination. Yet it was like looking in a mirror.
Forty-something years of questions and apprehensions tumbled about in my mind. This was the first time I could ever remember seeing this man who called himself my father.
He invited Joyce and me into his tiny apartment. We hugged. He wept a little. We made an awkward attempt at small talk. As we began to speak of the past, he was very careful to take the blame for our family’s breakup on himself. He’d gone away to the war, he told us in a quiet, hesitant voice. And when he came back to his wife and new baby, “things weren’t the same.” He didn’t elaborate.
He looked into my eyes. “I know,” he said slowly, “that you can never forgive me.”
“Then I guess you really don’t know me,” I replied. “How could I not forgive you? If the Lord has forgiven me and doesn’t hold anything against me after all I’ve done, how could I ever hold anything against you?”
“Dad, listen to me. I don’t know everything about the past and I don’t want to. But I forgive you.”
When I said those words, tears sprang into his eyes. I could almost hear the sounds of a key being turned in a lock and a jail door swinging open.
I could see in his eyes that he experienced release in that moment. And in a strange way, I guess I did, too.
We don’t honor our parents because they are or were perfect. We honor them because they are our parents, the ones who gave us life, and God declares that it is right to honor them. And one of the ways we honor them is by forgiving them. When we do that, both the parent and child are set free.
Getting rid of any bitterness or resentment we as adults may have towards our parents as we forgive them also helps us to be better parents to our children. For if we are filled with such negative feelings and attitudes toward our parents, you can be sure that our own children will pick up on that in various ways. And then that becomes what we model to our own children, for our actions will always speak louder than our words. So if we don’t want our children to pick up things like disrespect, hostility, bitterness and resentment toward us, then we need to do our best to free ourselves from those attitudes toward our parents.
Furthermore, honoring our parents is not only right in that it shows respect, but it is also good for the children who do the honoring – whether young or old and even if you must do a whole lot of forgiving in the process. Most any psychologist can tell you that forgiving others, letting go of the wrongs done to you, will be of great benefit for your own health and well-being.
If we carry scars from our relationship with our parents we can hold on to the hurts done to us even by them. We can try to bury them deep within us as we choose to have nothing to do with our parents. But in the end, our mental, emotional, spiritual, and even physical health will be enhanced when we make peace with our parents – whether they deserve it or not. When we release all those negative feelings, it is more likely that we will enjoy a long and satisfying life.
That’s why the promise to the Israelites attached to obeying this command was that they would live long in the land God was giving them. In Deuteronomy 5 the commands are repeated and there, in vs. 16, this promise is expanded to say, “so that you may live long and that it may go well with you in the land the Lord your God is giving you.” This promise wasn’t just randomly connected to this command; there is a logical relationship between them. So what did honoring their parents have to do with living long in the land and things going well with them?
Well, the family is the basic social unit. When the family disintegrates, it leads to all kinds of problems not only for that particular family but for society in general. And one of the ways such disintegration begins is when children cease to honor their parents, and when parents no longer give their children reasons to honor them. But when the family is solid, the rest of society functions a lot more smoothly. So there is a good deal of grace associated with keeping this commandment. God is saying, “Here is a way for things to go well in your life, in your family, and in your community. Children, honor your parents. And parents, give your children reasons to honor you.”
“Honor your father and mother,” God says to each of us. To honor our parents doesn’t mean we have to idolize them. It doesn’t mean we have to be best friends. It doesn’t even mean we have to like them, although most of us will. But in some instances that may be almost impossible. We all can, and should, however, honor our parents – the ones who brought us into this world. We need to “weigh them heavy” and grant them respect and honor. As we do, it will go well for us, for our families, for our communities, and for the world.