The Foundation of Society

We have found that each of the ten commandments we have studied has spoken to us about issues that touch our lives. The first four commandments have challenged us in our relationship with God. But with the fifth commandment the focus changes. While the first four commandments spoke to our relationship with God, the last six commandments speak to our relationships with each other. If you will, the first four commandments are vertical, the last six are horizontal.

The fifth commandment is especially relevant and important for our time. We are living in a world that has developed a cult of youth. What I mean by this is that being young is seen as the greatest blessing. It is believed that youth is where the energy is, where the ideas are, and where the greatest value lies. Youth is what everyone seems to be striving for. This cult of youth has led to a number of repercussions.

  • people are forced to retire because of their age, not because of a decline in their ability.
  • there is an obsession to deny the effects of aging; reconstructive surgery, any number of attempts to combat the thinning of hair; the ever-present hair coloring (for men and women) to hide the gray.
  • We want to drive youthful looking cars, wear contemporary fashions and sometimes even look to find a younger mate . . . all because we don’t want to look or feel old.
  • Many older people are “dumped” in Nursing homes (which are not bad in and of themselves) where they are forgotten by their friends and family. Many people in a Nursing home are never visited by family.
  • there are increasing reports of “doctor assisted suicide” (and who knows how many unreported cases). This is when it is determined that you are too old to be “useful” and so the suggestion is made that you could always “end your life”.
  • The elderly are increasingly the target of scams, violent crimes, and are often treated as if their opinions don’t matter.
  • When you reach a certain age (and it changes with the situation) your opinions no longer seem to matter and you are treated as more of a bother than person of value.

How different is the Biblical approach to aging. The Bible tells us to honor those who older and to value the wisdom that comes with the years.. And this is why the fifth commandment speaks with such relevance. It is clear and to the point,

Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you. [Exodus 20:12]

I believe there are two basic principles we easily see.


Read the reasoning right after the commandment and you will see some of the benefits promised: “so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.” In Deuteronomy 5 we see a second listing of the 10 commandments. And in verse 16 we are told that we should honor our father and mother so we may live long and so it would go well with us in the land the Lord is giving us.

The Lord is declaring that our future prosperity and health are anchored in the strength of our family relationships. If the relationship between parents and children disintegrates the very fabric of society begins to unravel. James Boice reminds us why family values are important,

The dark background of this commandment is to be found in the natural human dislike for authority. That is why the family is so important in God’s economy. If children are not taught to respect their parents but allowed to get away with disobeying and dishonoring them, later in life they will rebel against other valid forms of authority. If they disobey their parents, they will disobey the laws of the state. If they do not respect their parents, they will not respect teachers, those who possess unusual wisdom, elected officials and others. If they do not honor their parents, they will not honor God. [Foundations p. 237]

This commandment is important for the health of our society. But it is important to see that this command should not be narrowly interpreted. In today’s society with so many fractured families parents could refer to

  • biological parents
  • adopted parents
  • step-parents
  • people who have a “parental influence”. (Those who are more parents than our real parents)

The commandment has relevance for all of these people. They are all parents in one sense and they have been given a position of authority by God over our lives. We are to respect and honor them all because of their position.

But what we may not see is that the commandment also extends to those who are figurative parents,

Other kinds of “fathers” and “mothers” are included in the intent of the commandment. Commentators have pointed out that there are political fathers (those in secular positions of authority), spiritual fathers (pastors and other Christian ministers) and those who are called father by virtue of their old age and experience. It means we should look up to those whom God has placed over us and treat them with “honor, obedience and gratefulness.” [Boice, Foundations p. 237]

Respect for authority (which is a prerequisite for order) starts in the home. But the principle works outward to all who are in a position of authority. The idea can surely be extended to include officers of the law, teachers, coaches, employers and surely others. Honoring authority is not popular today and that may be the reason we are seeing the problems we are seeing . . . the problems of violence, immorality, and recklessness.


The word for Honor in the Old Testament is a word that means “to be heavy” or “to add weight”. In the Bible parents are given great weight. Reformer John Calvin wrote,

The sum of the commandment, therefore, will be, that we are to look up to those whom the Lord has set over us, yielding them honor, gratitude, and obedience. Hence it follows, that every thing in the way of contempt, ingratitude, or disobedience, is forbidden. [Calvin, Institutes p. 421]

Calvin uses the words: “honor, gratitude and obedience. Let’s look at these ideas. Since we are to honor or “give weight” to our parents it means their desires, their values and their wisdom should matter to us. To treat a parent with honor it means first, that we speak of them in ways that are honoring. Listen to what the Bible says,

Anyone who attacks his father or his mother must be put to death. [Ex. 21:15]

Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death. [Ex. 21:17]

If anyone curses his father or mother, he must be put to death. He has cursed his father or his mother, and his blood will be on his own head. [Lev. 20:9]

There is really no place for the talk about our “old man” or “old lady”. Parents should be spoken of in positive terms rather than negative.

But honoring our parents is not just about what we say, it is also about what we do. We honor our parents when we listen to them, when we treat them with kindness, when we share their special days, and when we make a special effort to show them love and consideration.

Gratitude means that we should be grateful for what our parents have contributed to our lives. Now I know some would say, “My parents have contributed nothing!” But that really isn’t true. Your biological parents, if nothing else, have made your life possible. Your custodial parents have provided for your material needs such as food, clothing, a place to stay. Think about the times your parents cheered you on, the positive values they taught you.

We tend to be people who focus on what others are doing wrong. We notice what someone isn’t doing rather than what they are doing. The same is often true of parents.

  • we focus on what they didn’t buy us instead of what they did
  • we see the special times when they weren’t there rather than the special times they shared
  • we generally focus on what they didn’t teach us rather than what they did
  • we dwell on what they wouldn’t let us do rather than on what they encouraged us to do
  • we focus on their personality quirks rather than their personality strengths.

It’s not just parents. It holds true for teachers, pastors, public officials, and employers. We develop an attitude of gratitude by focusing on what was positive rather than what is negative.

Obedience means we do what our parents tell us. Obviously this is especially true when we are younger. As a child it is important that we trust the guidance our parents give us. It is almost certain that we won’t agree with many of the rules that are laid down . . . but the rules are designed to teach us things we don’t understand.

What child understands it when a parent says they should put part of their allowance in the bank? What child understands the need to go to bed at a regular time? Children don’t understand why parents give them jobs around the house or forbid them to go certain places, or why they can’t just eat chocolate . . . God has given children parents to guide them in areas where they need help.

Now I will grant that sometimes parents make mistakes. Sometimes they are abusive. Sometimes they make unreasonable demands. And everyone must realize that when parents ask children to do things that God tells them not to do, the children are right in disobeying. Our first responsibility is to God! Children do not have to obey parents when they ask them to do something dishonest, illegal, or immoral. But most of the time, children are to obey their parents simply because they are their parents.

One final way we honor our parents is to care for them when they are old. Perhaps you’ve read the story “I’ll Love You Forever.” It’s the story about how a parent and child relationship. It tells about a parent holding their child at the various difficult times of life and each time they sang, “I’ll love you forever, I’ll love you for always. As Long as I’m living My baby You’ll Be.” As the story progresses the roles eventually reverse. The old infirmed parent is now being held by their child as the child sings “I’ll love you forever, I’ll love you for always, as long as I’m living my mother you’ll be..”

In 1 Timothy 5 we read,

Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father. Treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity. Give proper recognition to those widows who are really in need. But if a widow has children or grandchildren, these should learn first of all to put their religion into practice by caring for their own family and so repaying their parents and grandparents, for this is pleasing to God. If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. [1 Timothy 5:1-5]

We live in a world where the government has taken over many of the responsibilities that used to be the role of the family. Too often relatives are seen as a burden rather than a responsibility. Parents should be able to count on their children for help when it is needed. Love and respect should have tangible effects. It is shameful that we children are indulging themselves while their parents are barely getting by. As the parent sacrificed for the child, the child should be willing, if needed, to sacrifice for the parent.


First, some of you might ask, “how does my relationship to parents rank with my relationship with my own family? The Bible seems clear, “a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” (Genesis 2) Marriage changes things. I also think when a child moves out of the home things change. The child who marries has a first responsibility to their spouse and family. The child must be allowed to be an adult . . . however, this does not mean that the child is finished with their parent. . . . tough line to walk!

Second, what if the mother, father or other authority has been unworthy. Maybe they have been abusive, or perhaps they deserted the family, or maybe were never around when you needed them. How do you honor parents like this? In these cases we must show honor for what we can. They may still be those who gave us life . . . we are to honor them as our biological parents. Or we honor them for caring for us when they do.

if one’s parents are Buddhists, or materialistic atheists, there are still ways of treating them humanly, keeping in communication, at least to the level of talking about food, clothing, shelter, the world news, art, or music in some measure to them. If one’s parents are unbelievers, a believing child should write letters, remember to send surprises for birthdays, and give as imaginative and loving care as is within the means of the child. Private help, given without the parents realizing it, must also be given. This is constant intercession, faithful prayer for their eyes of understanding to be open. To take a stand against wrong teaching or even evil practices still means one’s parents should be treated as human beings. The door must be left open. [Edith Schaeffer, LIFELINES p. 107]


One of the nice things about living in a community like this is that you have the opportunity to see many examples of parents being honored

  • parents are put in a nursing home only as a last resort and then they are visited regularly
  • children will have parents move in with them or will move in with their parents to be able to care for them as long as they can.
  • children make time to acknowledge special days of their parents
  • children go with parents to appointments or other stressful situations
  • children value the stories of their parents and pass those stories on to their children

We aren’t all fortunate enough to live close to our parents. It’s one of the sad parts of our increasingly mobile society. But we all do have a phone, we can write letters, we can make trips. We may not be able to do what we would like to do . . . . but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do anything.

In this society where age is despised we need to be reminded that with age comes wisdom. Some of the most skilled workers may no longer be the strongest or the fastest. Some of the wisest people may have trouble remembering where they left their keys and may not know what they were going to say. Those who are older should be respected and honored.

Those in authority should be given respect. Not because of their power or maybe not even because of their skill. Those in authority should be respected because that is what God has commanded and because God has told us that this is the only way to build a society that is worth having.

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