What Does it Really Look Like to 'Honor Your Father and Mother'?

Chapter 20 of the Book of Exodus serves as a powerful reminder of the intimate relationship God has with humankind. This passage specifically reveals the intense care and concern that God shows toward His followers. Today this chapter remains popular because of a very special occurrence - the Ten Commandments. After venturing up to Mount Sinai, Moses brought down the Ten Commandments, rules given Him directly from God. The Ten Commandments described ten precepts for how God expected His people to behave.

This monumental moment follows after the Israelites fled Egypt. Chapter 19 in the Book of Exodus details how the Israelites camped in the wilderness, now living a life outside of slavery for a few months. God informs Moses that He desires to bless the nation of Israel. However, He also wants them to keep a covenant with Him (Exodus 19:5-6). The Ten Commandments serve as part of that covenant. One of these commandments spoke to the relationship between a child and parent and is a guideline we as Christians still follow today.

Honor your father and your mother so that you may have a long life in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” (Exodus 20:12)

The reason this commandment in addition to the other nine is still relevant today is because Jesus indicated such to later believers (Matthew 5:17-20). Jesus did not abolish the law, but rather came to fulfill it. We are to do our part in abiding by these commandments. Today, there is little to no controversy about whether or not the Ten Commandments are still relevant. What has been up for debate in the meaning of “honor” in the context of parents and children. There are instances of children being the victims of incest, neglect, or other forms of abuse. In these situations, how does a child honor a parent, when the parent lacks honor for the child.

To understand this commandment, we have to examine the original context.

What Is the Original Meaning of Honor Your Father and Mother in Exodus 20?

The commandment to honor our father and mother is the fifth of the ten mentioned. The commandment to precedes this one is honoring the Sabbath, followed by the commandment to not murder. Scripture explains the reason why the commandment should be followed.

Honor your father and your mother so that you may have a long life in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” (Exodus 20:12)

The benefit of abiding by this commandment is longer life, specifically for the Israelities venturing on toward the Promised Land. Dennis Prager emphasizes that though this could be viewed as a reward, this is also a reason. And many of the other commandments are not given explicit reasons to be followed. Prager suggests that in a society where parents are honored by children, the society is bound to survive longer, than a society with a weaker family structure.

This commandment in Exodus is mentioned a number of other times in the Bible, each time as an admonishment to God’s people to better establish them. God blesses the people when their parents are honored, but the people are punished when they do not. To honor is to hold someone in high regard or reverence. The word honor does not mean agree with or even obey, but does suggest in this context that a child should hold respect for their parent. Now that we better understand the original context and interpretation of the commandment to honor thy mother and father, we can discern how this precept applies to modern-day life.

How Can Christians Honor Their Father and Mother Today?

With an understanding of the word honor, there need not be a change in how parents are respected by children today. However, with modern cultural shifts, this commandment for some has taken on a different interpretation. We can better understand the proper ways of honoring parents by first understanding how honoring should not appear.

As Dennis Prager discusses in his video analysis of the commandment, some parents yearn to be loved, rather than honored. The visual example given in his video is that of a parent showering their child with gifts in order to receive affection. This same parent when trying to discipline their child receives retaliation from them. This is not an example of a child honoring their parent because instead of respecting them as an “authority” figure, they are simply seeking what they can gain from the parent.

Much like the Bible commands us to love others, the call to honor our parents is an outward action - something we do for others. Honoring our parents is therefore not contingent upon what they give in return. Within the Ten Commandments, verse 12 of Exodus 20 gives no clarification as to what parents are to be honored or even how. We can conclude then that all parents are deserving of honor, and we can use the context of love within the Bible to discern appropriate ways to show honor. We can even in some instances see how people have honored God as Father as an example.

Ways we can appropriately honor our parents include:

Expressing Gratitude
Parents invest time and effort into raising children. Those reasons alone are enough to show them gratitude for the sacrifices they make. Parents provide shelter, food, clothing. For every action they do in support of the child is itself a reason for appreciation.

Spending Time Together
When physically possible, children can and should get together with their parents. This acknowledges their existence and places a level of importance upon the relationship. If being together physically is not an option, calling a parent on the phone for a check-in is also beneficial. Dennis Prager shares with fellow believers that he called his parents once a week.

Serve
Another way to honor parents is to find ways to serve their wants and needs, much like parents perform on behalf of children.

To Honor or Not to Honor

Modern parenting is not equivalent to the parenting in biblical Jewish culture. Children today learn differently and have certain responsibilities such as owning a cell phone, which was not true for past generations. No matter the time, parents should always be honored. One concern some followers and nonbelievers have with the commandment is the issue of bad parents, individuals who have abused their children by various means. The Bible does not qualify which parents deserve honoring. Additionally, Jesus mentions we are to love others as ourselves (Matthew 22:39) and to bless those who persecute us (Romans 12:14).

We, therefore, know that even when seemingly impossible, we should do our best to express love. This commandment, however, does not advocate for putting ourselves in danger with bad parents. Applying this commandment for children who have been abused may look different in terms of how they show their honoring. Spending time together may be an impossibility but talking on the phone or writing a letter could be an option depending on the circumstance.

Sometimes we have to set boundaries in relationships, and whenever that is the case we can pray to God for wisdom, so that we may honor His commandment and honor our parents while keeping ourselves safe (James 1:5).

Further Reading

A Biblical Command We Never Outgrow: "Honor Your Father and Mother"

Photo credit: ©GettyImages/Klaus Vedfelt


headshot of author Aaron BrownAaron Brown is a freelance writer, dance teacher, and visual artist. He currently contributes articles to GodUpdates, GodTube, iBelieve, and Crosswalk. Aaron also supports clients through the freelance platform Upwork.


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