verse XVIII – the fifth commandment
Have you ever wondered why there is a command to honor parents? Or why there is a promise connected to that command? And what that command, and its promise, have to do with a bird’s nest? Let’s take a look.
Within theological circles, this fifth commandment is seen as the beginning of the second table of the Decalogue – largely for esthetic preference it seems. There is an obvious transition from commandments relating directly to the Lord God, and those commandments that honor Him indirectly through proper interpersonal relationships.
Why the fifth here?
Rabbi Dr. Joseph Hertz, former chief rabbi of the British Empire, offers an explanation as to why the fifth commandment follows the command of Sabbath, “because the Sabbath is the source and the guarantor of the family life; and it is among the Commandments engraved on the First Tablet, the laws of piety towards God, because parents stand in the place of God, so far as their children are concerned. Elsewhere in Scripture, the duty to one’s parents stands likewise next to the duties towards God.”
In much the same way that the first, second and third commandments, respectively, teach us to honor the Lord; the first command that deals with human relationships teaches us to honor our fathers and mothers – through whom we have life.
The command is clear:
כַּבֵּד אֶת-אָבִיךָ, וְאֶת-אִמֶּךָ
“Honor your father and your mother.”
That first word, כַּבֵּד – kavad – actually comes from an ancient Hebrew root meaning “someone that is heavy in weight, wealth or abundance,” someone filled up. It is understood today to mean “honor, respect, reverence, deference and esteem.” Kavad is frequently used in reference to the glorious presence of God, and our response to His presence. The Lord, then, is expressing His expectation regarding our attitude is to be toward our parents. Yeshua/Jesus affirms the importance of this command in Matthew 19:19, but He also demonstrates it for us by unfailing obedience toward God the Father.
But what about?
Yet, some of us were not blessed with the most loving, caring or “present” parents, causing some difficulty in fulfilling this commandment. I have spoken and counseled many Christians over the years that struggle with this command because of their experience with earthly parents. Obviously there is a broad spectrum of experience – some horrific and unconscionable – which would be difficult to address with specifics here, but our response in faith is still to be the same – we can still honor parents, even in the midst of a difficult or painful relationship as the Lord does not say to honor only good parents.
What it does not command.
The fifth command, however, does not, and most commentators and exegetes agree, require or expect blind obedience to parents, or any authority figure for that matter. The ethic to honor is an attitude usually manifest by a disposition of obedience. Yet, as we know, it is possible to obey without honoring, and to honor without obeying (Matt. 21:29-32). Therefore, the apostle Paul exhorts children to obey their parents “in the Lord” (Eph. 6:1). While we are to love and honor parents, obedience to authority is only legitimate as long as that it does not lead one to sin, or prevent one from walking righteously.
When can we?
Regarding the difficult choice to disobey one’s parents, Rabbi Hertz explains, “Respect to parents is among the primary human duties; and no excellence can atone for the lack of such respect. Only in cases of extreme rarity (e.g. where godless parents would guide children towards crime) can disobedience be justified. Proper respect of parents may at times involve immeasurable hardship; yet the duty remains.”
Returning to the parable of Yeshua found in Matthew 21:28-30, “But what do you think? A man had two sons, and he came to the first and said, ‘Son, go, work today in my vineyard.’ He answered and said, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he regretted it and went. Then he came to the second and said likewise. And he answered and said, ‘I go, sir,’ but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?”
As noted above, parents are not the only people we are to honor – we are to give respect to whom respect is due; and the Lord will then define how we show respect for others in the latter of the ten commandments. As we will consider in later articles, each of the commandments on the second table, offers more for us to consider than meets the eye – they are deep. For instance, the fifth commandment is not only directed at children to honor parents, but it is a directive to adults to be good and faithful parents as well – Paul seems to indicate this in Ephesians 6:4 when he writes, “And you, fathers, do not provoke your children, but bring them up in the instruction and admonition of the Lord.”
As you might have noticed in life, none of us are perfect, either as children of parents or parents of children; and the Lord knows this. Nevertheless, we are to pursue this commandment and allow grace and love to always be involved in the drama that is the human relationship. As Paul notes in Ephesians 6:1-3, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Respect your father and mother,’ which is the first command with promise, in order that it might be well with you, and you might live long on the earth.”
Jewish tradition finds numerous reasons why the Lord connected the above promise to this command. Parents pass on religious tradition, but they also pass on social norms and, under the best of circumstances, maintain a structured society. When there is a breakdown in the family unit, we find a ripple effect in our society as well, as a lack of respect for elders and communal authorities grows more pronounced. The rabbis, however, find it rather unusual that a promise is connected to the fifth commandment; as it appears to contradict the Talmudic teaching (BT Kiddushin 39b) that the reward for fulfilling a mitzvah (commandment) is not given in this world – but rather, the world to come. We must learn something from this?
Messiah’s teaching in Matthew 5:19 seems rather unusual, as Yeshua is speaking of greater and lesser reward, a conversation for a later date; however, He makes reference to “the least of these commands.” The “least of these commands” has long been understood, within rabbinic thought, to be a reference to the commandment of the bird’s nest. Within Jewish tradition this is understood to be the “least” of the Torah commands. It reads:
“When you come upon a bird’s nest along the way, in any tree or on the ground, with young ones or eggs, with the mother sitting on the young or on the eggs, do not take the mother with the young—let the mother go without fail, and take the young for yourself, so that it might be well with you, and that you shall prolong your days” (Deut. 22:6-7).
There is, however, an interesting connection, as you may have noted, between the fifth commandment to honor parents, and the least commandment of the bird’s nest: the promise of wellness and longevity. How do we understand this? After all, can we believe that honoring our parents is on the same level as being mindful of the life of birds?
Rabbi Elie Munk explains, “Of all the mitzvoth, this is the easiest to perform (the bird’s nest), whereas honoring one’s parents, if carried out conscientiously, is among the most difficult of the commandments. Their similar reward indicates that such rewards are bestowed over the whole range of mitzvoth, from the simplest to the most difficult. Man is incapable of evaluating the true worth of each mitzvoth.”
When we evaluate a command, we look at it from our perspective and then place some subjective value on it, when we may not fully understand all of the reasons behind it – either the prohibition or the permission.
Yeshua in Matthew 5:20 makes the key point. We must do the commandments that can be done, but doing them in faith. He speaks of our righteousness; but how are we declared righteous? By faith (Gen. 15:6); anyone can do an action – this was a specialty of the Pharisees – but to do it with faith is an entirely different matter.
The Lord placed promise on one of the greatest and one of the least so that we would not leave the least undone.
Honoring our parents is a vital command; and being faithful parents is also of great importance. We are living in an age where the breakdown of the family is bearing greater fruit – fruit which brings destruction. When we realign ourselves to His will, and walk contrary to our own, we can begin to repair our world and relationships. Imagine.
Shalom. Be well.