“Honor thy father and they mother, that thy days may be long in the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.”
In what way does obeying this commandment change as one ages? I think we all understand how it applies to small children and teenagers in the home, but what about young adults leaving home, or even young married couples establishing their own homes?
What is required by this commandment of adult children in their relationship to their parents? Does this commandment apply to mature children? Does this obligation to parents cease at some point?
What does it mean to show “all honor, love, and fidelity,” as the Catechism states?
Please instruct us more pointedly regarding what it means to bear patiently with parents’ weaknesses and infirmities.
Is it every permissible to have nothing to do with one’s parents?
The reader asks about the obligations of a Christian toward his parents, especially as he and his parents grow older. He asks especially for this instruction in light of the fifth commandment. God in his providence has placed parents in authority over their children. This means that when children are young they require the care, attention, instruction, and discipline of their parents. But the fifth commandment does not use the word obey. God requires that we show our parents honor, a word that means to hold in high esteem, to view as weighty, substantial, and important. The word honor has the same root as the word glory. Obviously God does not require us to glorify or worship our parents. That would be idolatry. But he does require us to hold them highly in honor. How highly in honor do you hold your parents?
This commandment always applies to the child of God as long as his parents are alive. When children are small, God requires that we honor our parents by obeying them. Little children are under the supervision of their parents. This means that the child’s defiant “no” to his parents’ command to pick up his toys or to get ready for bed, let’s say, is sin. Good order in the home requires that the parents (and not the children) make the rules. Modern, unbelieving psychology suggests that children be allowed to “express themselves” without rules. When this is done, children express their sinful nature, and families and society break down under juvenile delinquency. In fact, children need boundaries and young children feel frightened and insecure without them.
As children mature it is appropriate that they receive more and more freedom. Parents will relax their supervision as their children show themselves worthy of trust as reliable sons and daughters. Soon they will allow them to take part in activities with more limited supervision. This is good and proper. But even when children become teenagers and begin to flex their independence, parents must be wise. Christian teenagers have an old man of sin that is corrupt and deceitful (Eph. 4:22). Parents must impose curfew; parents must know where their teenage sons and daughters are and with whom they are; and parents must continue to impose limits on their children’s behavior. A good rule of thumb is this: as long as children live under the same roof as their parents (a roof their parents have usually paid for) they must abide by the rules imposed by the head of the household. This rule applies even if young people think their parents’ rules are foolish, old fashioned, and unreasonable, and even if other parents (for whatever reason) have less strict rules than our parents. Wise parents will tailor the freedom of their children to the maturity of their sons and daughters.
The reader asks for “pointed instruction” concerning one aspect of the Heidelberg Catechism’s teaching on the fifth commandment. What does it mean to bear patiently with our parents’ weaknesses? It means, first, that our parents are neither sinless nor infallible. That is why, for example, Paul urges fathers not to make unreasonable or harsh demands upon their children: “Ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath …” (Eph. 6:4), and Colossians 3:21 gives the reason: “ … lest they be discouraged.” This means, second, that the rules that they impose upon you are not infallible either. Fallible fathers make fallible rules. There may well be better ways to rule a household than your father’s (in your view) “unreasonably early curfew.” Third, it means that (unless your parents are asking you to do something sinful) you must obey your parents’ rules patiently, without being soon angry, without lashing out at them with cutting words designed to hurt them, and without defying them. This means, too, that you do not grumble about them behind their back, become bitter against them, start to speak against them to your friends, or trumpet their “unreasonableness” or even their sins, on Facebook. Fourth, your parents are not only weak, they are sinful. Sometimes they will discipline you in anger instead of in love. Sometimes your father will have a hard day at work, or your mother will be stressed in the home, and they will be sinfully impatient with you. When they do this (or when your siblings do this) you must not respond in kind. “Let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath” (James 1:19). Instead, when you see that your parents are under pressure, offer to help. Offer to mow the lawn or help with the preparation of supper without being asked. They will be pleasantly surprised! Clean your room; do your homework. This will make life easier for your parents, and it is “your reasonable service” (Rom. 12:1).
Young people must also learn how to speak to their parents. As children we lack communication skills. Teenagers can become sullen and retire to their rooms, all the while grumbling about their parents. If you really think that the rules that your parents impose upon you are unreasonable, then speak to them. Speak to them calmly, politely, and respectfully. Whining petulantly that “that’s not fair!” is certainly not going to convince your parents that you should have more freedom. If anything, it will show them that they need to keep a tighter rein on you. Explain to them your grievances and ask them humbly to reconsider their standpoint. If after such a discussion you have not convinced your parents to agree to your request, then continue to obey them. Believe me, they will be impressed that you have treated them in an honorable fashion and they may be willing later to afford you more freedom. Freedom has to be earned. A teenage son or daughter must show himself or herself worthy of it. You cannot simply demand it as your God-given “right.”
Honor, love and fidelity must be evident in your relationship with your parents. Show appreciation for your parents. Your mother does your laundry. When was the last time you thanked her? So easily we can take the thousands of tasks our parents perform for granted. We just assume when we come home that everything will be done. Your father works long hours to put food on the table and to pay your Christian school tuition. Have you thanked him recently? Do you work diligently at your school assignments to show him that his sacrificial giving for your Christian education was well spent? Don’t wait for Father’s and Mother’s Day. Live thankfully every day! What Paul says of elders applies to parents: “Esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake. And be at peace among yourselves” (1 Thess. 5:13).
Young adults and married couples have a different relationship to their parents. “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh” (Gen. 2:24). When children grow up and no longer live under their parents’ roof, and especially when a young man becomes the head of his own home, the parents no longer rule over them. And parents should resist the urge to interfere in their children’s lives after they are married. This will embitter them and undermine the young husband’s authority. Nevertheless, honor for one’s parents never ends this side of death. While as adults we no longer ask them permission whether we may do certain things (they assume that being raised in God’s fear, you will have the wisdom to make God-honoring choices, but they will give advice when asked) we never stop esteeming them highly in love. We do not neglect or abandon them. They remain part of our lives as we marry and have children of their own. How blessed it is to have godly grandparents for our children!
Jesus addressed the calling of adult children, a calling that the Pharisees neglected. God’s law requires that the children care for their parents in old age. The Pharisees weaseled out of this by giving a gift to the temple, as if this would release them from their obligations to their parents. Jesus scolds them sharply in Mark 7:9–13. Paul also condemns the man who refuses to care for his needy relatives (1 Tim. 5:8, 16).
Finally, is it ever permissible to have nothing to do with one’s parents? The only scenario I could envisage is if one’s parents were unbelievers or excommunicated from the church so that all fellowship between you and them was or became impossible. Even if our parents were impossibly wicked, we would still honor them for their position’s sake. We would do everything we could to live in peace with them; we would live within their rules as much as we reasonably could without disobeying God. To renounce one’s parents for some petty reason would be a gross sin against the fifth commandment of God’s law.
I would imagine that such a scenario would be extremely rare. Most of us have, by the grace of God, godly parents who love us. What gratitude of love we owe them in return. Let us, as young people, show them all honor, love and fidelity, for Jesus’ sake.
One final point. Our Lord Jesus submitted to his earthly parents, Mary and Joseph (Luke 2:51). He did so despite the fact that he was the Lord of glory and therefore always knew better than they! He did so despite the fact that they were sinful and weak, and he ws the sinless Son of God. And he did so because that was part of our salvation, that he keep the law (including the fifth commandment) for us and that he die for all our sins (including our sins against our parents) on the tree of Calvary. Our gratitude to him will be seen in how we treat our parents. And the world will be watching!