As we also observed in Leviticus 19, living as God’s holy people looks different than the rest of the world. Part of that includes what God says here, “Every one of you shall revere his mother and his father” (Leviticus 19:3a). And you might wonder, “Even when I’m grown and move out of the house?” “Even though I’m middle-aged?” Yes. God’s commands do not change with time. Because God is immutable, so His Word is immutable. Yet what it looks like to honour your parents as a teenager looks different than how a middle-aged person honours their parents.
The 4th Commandment is the first commandment having to do with our relationship to our neighbour, which I believe is purposeful. The home is where we first begin to deal with other people, and those first people are our parents. In Luther’s understanding, parents are in a unique position than any other human being. “To the position of fatherhood and motherhood God has given special distinction above all positions that are beneath it: He does not simply command us to love our parents, but to honour them. Regarding our brothers, sisters, and neighbours in general, He commands nothing more than that we love them [Matthew 22:39; 1 John 3:14]” (LC Part 1, 105).
How is honour different than love? Luther continues, “For it is a far higher thing to honour someone than to love someone, because honour includes not only love, but also modesty, humility, and submission to a majesty hidden in them. Honour requires not only that parents be addressed kindly and with reverence, but also that, both in the heart and with the body, we demonstrate that we value them very highly, and that, next to God, we regard them as the very highest” (paras. 106-107). Luther goes on to write that this honour (A) esteems father and mother as our most precious treasure on earth; (B) we should speak well of them and not address them roughly, arrogantly, and defiantly but rather yield to their will (as we would God) and be silent, “even though they go too far”; and (C) we must also honour them with our works, “that is, with our body and possessions. We must serve them, help them, and provide for them when they are old, sick, infirm, or poor. We must do all this not only gladly, but with humility and reverence, as doing it before God [Ephesians 6:6-7]” (paras. 109-111).
Because God has commanded this, it is a “great, good, and holy”commandment, “For what God commands must be much better and far nobler than everything that we may come up with ourselves” (paras. 112, 113). It is at this point that some like to rebut, “What about cases of abuse?” What such a question attempts to do is that it tries to find a point at which it is permissible to violate God’s commandment. Human sin does not nullify God’s commandment, not even abuse. So, the answer is, “Honour your father and mother.” The law gives no exception. If I witness a child being abused, however, I will call the police immediately because they’re not my parents. The child’s duty is to honour their father and mother; your duty as their neighbour is to keep the second greatest commandment of loving your neighbour as yourself.
The commandment applies also to legal guardians (para. 115). As much as parents are owed honour and reverence, “Do this not because of the worthiness of parents, but because this work is included in, and controlled by, the jewel and sanctuary, namely, the Word and commandment of God” (para. 117). Even should the child determine that either parent is not worthy of their honour and reverence (whether due to abuse or disobedient arrogance), still they should honour and revere them because God’s Word is the jewel we treasure most. In other words, if you cannot honour father and/or mother out of love for them, at least do so for God’s honour since the parents’ authority comes not from themselves but from God Himself, as does authority of every kind. However, “when children are stubborn and will not do what they ought until a rod is laid upon their back [Proverbs 22:15; 26:3], they anger both God and their parents” (para. 122).
This is the first commandment with a promise, “That your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you” (Exodus 20:12). When this commandment is obeyed, longevity of life is promised. Yet where obedience to parents is impossible, Luther advises, “then obey the hangman. If you will not obey him, then submit to the skeleton man (i.e., death). For God will insist on this in sum: if you obey Him, offering love and service, He will reward you abundantly with all good. If you offend Him, He will send upon you both death and the hangman. Where do so many rogues come from that must be daily hanged, beheaded, and broken upon the wheel? Don’t they come from disobedience to parents because they will not submit to discipline in kindness” (paras. 135-137)? People who cannot obey, that is, revere and honour legal authorities have never learnt to give the same to their parents who were the first authority figures in their lives. If you cannot obey your parents, at least obey the governing authorities, which just so happen to have laws against child abuse.
Furthermore, “we have two kinds of fathers presented in this commandment: fathers in blood and fathers in office,” for example, judges, magistrates, police officers, etc. And “Besides these there are still spiritual fathers,” i.e., your pastor (para. 158). As blood fathers are supposed to do, pastors as spiritual fathers nurture you with the Word; and as is their primal duty, they nourish you with the Sacraments. (Feel free, then, to call me Father Beckett!) As our culture despises genuine masculinity in fathers and other men, so they despise pastors as spiritual fathers. The honour due these men are robbed.
Yet of paramount importance is God the Father, from whom all parental authority derives—indeed, authority of every kind. Should blood fathers, fathers of office, or spiritual fathers fail you, it still holds that you have a Father in heaven who is perfect. It is this title of father from which He hears our prayers and petitions, as the beginning of the Lord’s Prayer instructs us. Because this is a commandment, it holds that we cannot perfectly obey. That is why we disobey even when we have good parents; and why we bring up “what if” scenarios to avoid keeping this commandment, as if sin makes God’s command suddenly void. Thus, God’s only-begotten Son kept this commandment perfectly in His flesh, submitting both to His earthly and His heavenly Father in perfect obedience that led Him to the cross and rose Him from the grave. We therefore have a Father who loves us perfectly as dear sons and daughters who will also raise us from the grave when His only-begotten Son returns in glory.