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"Honour thy father and thy mother" is one of the Ten Commandments in the Hebrew Bible. The commandment is generally regarded in Protestant and Jewish sources as the fifth in both the list in Exodus 20:1-21, and in Deuteronomy 5:1-23, though in Catholic counting this is the fourth commandment.
These commandments are widely understood as moral imperatives by legal scholars, Jewish scholars, Catholic scholars, and Post-Reformation scholars. The book of Exodus describes the Ten Commandments as being spoken by God, inscribed on two stone tablets by the finger of God, broken by Moses, and rewritten on replacements stones by the Lord.
Honour your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you.
— Exodus 20:12 (NIV)
In the Torah, keeping this commandment was associated with individual benefit and with the ability of the nation of Israel to remain in the land to which God was leading them. Dishonouring parents by striking or cursing them was punishable by death. In the Talmud, the commandment to honour one's human parents is compared to honoring God. According to the prophet Malachi, God makes the analogy himself:
"A son honours his father, and a servant his master. If I am a father, where is the honour due me? If I am a master, where is the respect due me?" says the LORD Almighty. "It is you, O priests, who show contempt for my name. "But you ask, 'How have we shown contempt for your name?'"
— Malachi 1:6 (NIV)
In the gospels, Jesus affirmed the importance of honouring one's father and mother. Paul quotes the commandment in his letter to the church in Ephesus. In his letters to the Romans and Timothy, Paul describes disobedience to parents as a serious sin. According to the Catholic Catechism, the import of honouring father and mother is based on the divine origin of the parental role:
The divine fatherhood is the source of human fatherhood. (Ephesians 3:14) This is the foundation of the honour owed to parents. … It is required by God's commandment. (Exodus 20:12)
— Catechism of the Catholic Church 2214
The Post-Reformation theologian John Calvin also refers to the sacred origin of the role of human father, and comments that the commandment does not therefore depend on the particular worthiness of the parent.
What constitutes "honour?" One must provide them with food and drink and clothing. One should bring them home and take them out, and provide them with all their needs cheerfully.
— Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 143:7
The commandment to honour one's human parents is compared to honouring God. The Talmud says that since there are three partners in the creation of a person (God and two parents), honour showed to parents is the same as honour shown to God. It also compares a number of similarly constructed passages from the Torah and concludes that honour toward parents and honour toward God are intentionally equated:
Our Rabbis taught: It says, 'Honour your father and your mother' (Exodus 20:12), and it says, 'Honor God with your wealth' (Proverbs 3:9). By using the same terminology, the Torah compares the honour you owe your father and mother to the honour you have to give to the Almighty. It also says, 'Every person must respect his mother and his father' (Leviticus 19:3), and it says, 'God your Lord you shall respect, Him you shall serve' (Deuteronomy 10:20). (Here the same word, -respect- is used.) The Torah equates the respect you owe your parents with the respect you must show God. Furthermore it says, 'Whoever curses his father or mother shall be put to death' (Exodus 21:17). And furthermore it says, 'Anyone that curses God shall bear his sin' (Leviticus 24.-15). By using the same terms the Torah compares cursing of parents with cursing the Almighty.
— Talmud Kiddushin 31
Because honouring parents is part of honouring God, the mitzvah does not depend on the worthiness of the parent:"Even if his father is wicked and a sinner, he must fear and revere him ... A convert to Judaism must not curse or despise his non-Jewish father." (Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 143:13,25)
Keeping this commandment was associated by the Israelites with individual benefit and with the ability of the nation of Israel to remain in the land to which God was leading them. Dishonouring parents in specific ways was associated with severe punishment. According to the Torah, striking or cursing one’s father or mother was punishable by immediate death. In Deuteronomy, a procedure is described for parents to bring a persistently disobedient son to the city elders for death by stoning.
Honouring one's parents is also described in the Torah as an analogue to honouring God. According to the prophet Jeremiah, God refers to himself as Father to Israel, and according to the prophet Isaiah, God refers to Israel as his sons and daughters. According to the prophet Malachi, God calls for similar honour:
"A son honours his father, and a servant his master. If I am a father, where is the honour due me? ... says the LORD Almighty.
— Malachi 1:6 (NIV)
According to Jeremiah, God blessed the descendants of Rechab for obeying their forefather’s command to not drink wine and uses the family as a counterexample to Israel’s failure to obey his command to not worship other gods:
"Will you not learn a lesson and obey my words?" declares the LORD. "Jonadab son of Recab ordered his sons not to drink wine and this command has been kept. To this day they do not drink wine, because they obey their forefather's command. But I have spoken to you again and again, yet you have not obeyed me. Again and again I sent all my servants the prophets to you. They said, 'Each of you must turn from your wicked ways and reform your actions; do not follow other gods to serve them. Then you will live in the land I have given to you and your fathers.' But you have not paid attention or listened to me. The descendants of Jonadab son of Recab have carried out the command their forefather gave them, but these people have not obeyed me."
— Jeremiah 35:12-16 (NIV)
According to the Mishneh Torah this commandment requires one to honour both of one's parents equally; there is no greater weight given to either the father or the mother. While in some parts of scripture, father is stated first, in others, mother comes first. This shows that the honour due to each is equal.
While Jewish teaching holds that a married woman must honour her husband, there are also guidelines for how she may continue to honour her parents:
It is the duty of both men and women to honour their parents. However, a married woman, who owes devotion to her husband, is exempt from the precept of honouring her parents. Yet, she is obliged to do for the parents, all she can, if her husband does not object.
— Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 143:17
Obedience: The commandment requires one to obey one's parents when the command given by a parent is reasonable and permissible under Jewish law. For example, if a parent asks a child to bring him/her water, s/he must obey. Because honouring God is above all mitzvot, if a parent asks a child to break a law of the Torah, s/he must refuse to obey.
Everything that your father says to you, you are obliged to obey. But if he says to you: “Let us bow down to idols,” you must not obey him, lest you become an apostate.
— Midrash, Yalkut Shimoni, Proverbs 960
I am the Lord your God, and both you and your parents are equally bound to honour Me, therefore, you must not hearken to them to disregard My word.
— Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 143:15
Letting parents know s/he is safe: A child who is travelling has an obligation to communicate with his/her parents to let them know s/he is safe in order to prevent them from worrying.
After the parent's death: A child must continue to honour his/her parent after their deaths. This can be done by reciting kaddish for 11 months and on the yarzeit (anniversary of the parent's death), and by donating charity in the memory of the parent. The study of Torah is also considered to be reverence toward a parent, for it shows that a parent raised a worthy child.
A person who is told to do something by his/her mother for which his father does not like the result is not permitted to tell his/her father that his/her mother said to do that. This is because this could lead to his/her father cursing his/her mother.
A child is not permitted to interrupt or contradict a parent, or to disturb a parent's sleep.
As a child must respect his/her parents, a parent must respect his/her children in return. This gives him/her the ability to respect his/her parents.
A father has the following obligations toward his children:
The rewards for honouring one's parents are as follows:
As with most terms of the covenant between God and Israel, there are consequences for disobedience as well as rewards for obedience:
Just as the reward for honouring father and mother is very great, the punishment for transgressing it is very great. And the one who afflicts his parents causes the shechinah [presence of God] to separate from him and harsh decrees fall upon him and he is given many sufferings. And even if life smiles on him in this life, he will surely be punished in the World to Come.
— Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 143:4
In the gospels, Jesus affirmed the importance of honouring one's father and mother (Matthew 15:1-9, Matthew 19:17-19, Mark 10:17-19, Luke 18:18-21) Paul quotes the commandment in his letter to the church in Ephesus:
Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honour your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.” (Ephesians 6:1-2, ESV. See also Colossians 3:20)
— Ephesians 6:1-2 (ESV)
The words of Jesus and the teaching of Paul indicate that adult children remain obligated to honour their parents by providing for material needs. In the gospels, Jesus is portrayed as angry with some people who avoided materially providing for their parents by claiming the money they would have used was given to God (Matthew 15:3-8, Mark 7:9-12. In these passages, Jesus quotes Isaiah 29:13) According to the Gospel of John, when Jesus was on the cross, he provided for his natural mother by giving the Apostle John the charge to care for her, which John accepted (John 19:26-27).
According to the gospel of Matthew, the obligation to honour one’s parents is bounded by one’s obligation to God: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me.” (Matthew 10:37 ESV) Such boundaries, and the primacy of the first commandment itself, lead scholars to conclude that honouring one's parents does not include breaking God’s law (i.e., committing a sin) at the behest of a parent.
Paul’s instructions to Timothy regarding the physical care of widows include the following:
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.
— 1 Timothy 5:4 (NIV)
Jesus reaffirms, however, that obedience to God overrules honoring one's parents:
I have come to turn
“‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law— a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’
— Matthew 10:25-36 (NIV)
As he was yet speaking to the multitudes, behold his mother and his brethren stood without, seeking to speak to him. And one said unto him: Behold thy mother and thy brethren stand without, seeking thee. But he answering him that told him, said: Who is my mother, and who are my brethren? And stretching forth his hand towards his disciples, he said: Behold my mother and my brethren.
— Matthew 12:46-49 (DR)
According to the teachings of the Catholic Church, the commandment to honour father and mother reveals God’s desired order of charity – first God, then parents, then others. The Catholic Catechism states that keeping the commandment to honour father and mother brings both spiritual and temporal rewards of peace and prosperity, while failure to honor parents harms the individual as well as society. The pervasive societal effect of obedience or disobedience to this command is attributed to the status of the family as the fundamental building block of society:
The family is the original cell of social life. It is the natural society in which husband and wife are called to give themselves in love and in the gift of life. Authority, stability, and a life of relationships within the family constitute the foundations for freedom, security, and fraternity within society. The family is the community in which, from childhood, one can learn moral values, begin to honour God, and make good use of freedom. Family life is an initiation into life in society.
— Catechism of the Catholic Church 2207
The Catholic Church views the family as a miniature church within itself, which is intended to have positive, profound effect. The import of honouring father and mother is based on the divine origin of the parental role:
The divine fatherhood is the source of human fatherhood. (Ephesians 3:14) This is the foundation of the honour owed to parents. … It is required by God's commandment. (Exodus 20:12) Respect for parents (filial piety) derives from gratitude toward those who, by the gift of life, their love and their work, have brought their children into the world and enabled them to grow in stature, wisdom, and grace.
— Catechism of the Catholic Church 2214-2215
For a child in the home, the commandment to honour parents is comprehensive, excluding immoral actions. The Catechism quotes from the Gospel of Luke that, as a child, Jesus was obedient to his earthly parents. Grown children, while not obligated to obedience in the same way, should continue to afford respect for parental wishes, advice and teaching.
Filial respect is shown by true docility and obedience. "My son, keep your father's commandment, and forsake not your mother's teaching. . . . When you walk, they will lead you; when you lie down, they will watch over you; and when you awake, they will talk with you."(Proverbs 6:20-22) "A wise son hears his father's instruction, but a scoffer does not listen to rebuke.”(Proverbs 13:1)
— Catechism of the Catholic Church 2216
The Catholic Church teaches that adult children have a duty to honour their parents by providing “material and moral support in old age and in times of illness, loneliness, or distress.” This honour should be based on the son or daughter’s gratitude for the life, love and effort given by the parents and motivated by the desire to pay them back in some measure.
The principle of the commandment is extended to the duty to honour others in direct authority, such as teachers, employers, and especially persons in addition to parents who may have contributed to one’s coming to and living a life of faith in Jesus. The teachings of the Catholic Church explain that the commandment to honour father and mother also forms a basis for charity to others when each person is seen, ultimately, as “a son or daughter of the One who wants to be called ‘our Father.’ In this way our relationships with our neighbours are recognized as personal in character. The neighbour is not a ‘unit’ in the human collective; he is ‘someone’ who by his known origins deserves particular attention and respect.” Thus, charitable actions are viewed as extensions of the honour owed to the heavenly Father. To clarify both the importance of and priorities for charity to others, the Catechism quotes these words of James:
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained from the world. (James 1:27)
— Catechism of the Catholic Church 2208
The commentary of John Wesley on the commandment to honour father and mother is consistent with the interpretation in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. He summarizes the actions that express honour as follows: 1. An inward esteem of them, outwardly expressed, 2. Obedience to their lawful commands (Ephesians 6:1-3), 3. Submission to their rebukes, instructions and corrections, 4. Acting with consideration of parental advice, direction and consent, 5. Giving comfort and providing for physical needs of aged parents. Like the Catechism, Wesley also teaches that the commandment includes honouring others in legitimate secular authority. He also encourages people toward honour of those in spiritual leadership with the question, “Have ye all obeyed them that watch over your souls, and esteemed them highly in love for their work's sake?” This question is reminiscent of Paul’s statements to the church in Galatia and to Timothy.
Matthew Henry explains that the commandment to honour father and mother applies not only to biological parents but also to those who fulfill the role of mother or father. He uses the example of Esther honouring her guardian and cousin Mordecai:
Mordecai being Esther's guardian or pro-parent, we are told … How respectful she was to him. Though in relation she was his equal, yet, being in age and dependence his inferior, she honoured him as her father—did his commandment, v. 20. This is an example to orphans; if they fall into the hands of those who love them and take care of them, let them make suitable returns of duty and affection. The less obliged their guardians were in duty to provide for them the more obliged they are in gratitude to honour and obey their guardians.
— Matthew Henry, commentary on Esther 2
In addition to supporting the preceding applications of the commandment to honour parents, John Calvin describes the sacred origin of the role of human father (which thus demands honour). The analogy between the honour of parents and the honour of God himself is further strengthened by this understanding that earthly fatherhood is derived from God’s Fatherhood. Thus the duty to honour does not depend on whether the parent is particularly worthy. However, Calvin acknowledges that some fathers are outright wicked and emphasizes there is no excuse for sin in the name of honouring a parent, calling the notion “absurd.”
Since, therefore, the name of Father is a sacred one, and is transferred to men by the peculiar goodness of God, the dishonouring of parents redounds to the dishonour of God Himself, nor can any one despise his father without being guilty of an offence against God, (sacrilegium.) If any should object that there are many ungodly and wicked fathers whom their children cannot regard with honour without destroying the distinction between good and evil, the reply is easy, that the perpetual law of nature is not subverted by the sins of men; and therefore, however unworthy of honour a father may be, that he still retains, inasmuch as he is a father, his right over his children, provided it does not in anywise derogate from the judgement of God; for it is too absurd to think of absolving under any pretext the sins which are condemned by His Law; nay, it would be a base profanation to misuse the name of father for the covering of sins.
— John Calvin, commentary on Exodus 20:12 and Deuteronomy 5:16
The commandment itself encourages obedience “so that you may enjoy long life and that it may go well with you.” Henry, Wesley and Calvin affirm the applicability of this promise for all who keep the commandment, though each notes that for the New Testament Christian, the promise may be fulfilled as earthly rewards and/or heavenly rewards, as God sees fit in his wisdom and love for the individual.
In his commentary, Calvin notes the harsh consequences required in Exodus and Leviticus for specific failures to keep the commandment. Those who struck or cursed a parent were to be sentenced to death. Persistently disobedient sons were to be brought before the city elders and stoned by the whole community if the parents’ testimony was judged to be accurate. Calvin writes that God knew capital punishment for these offences would seem harsh and be difficult to pronounce, even for those responsible for adjudicating the situation. This is why, he argues, the text specifically places responsibility for the consequences on the offender. The severity of the sentence emphasized the importance of removing such behaviour from the community and deterring others who might imitate it.
Though Calvin refers mostly to fathers in his commentary on the commandment to honour father and mother, he writes near the beginning that the commandment mentions both parents on purpose. As described above, Proverbs supports the value of guidance from both father and mother, and Paul specified that children should provide for their own widowed mothers and grandmothers, “which is pleasing to God.”
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