Although the Bible says the ten commandments were written on two tablets of stone (Exodus 24:12; 34:1) it does not tell us how these ten commandments were arranged on those tablets. Five on one and five on the other would seem natural, but is an unnatural division when you consider the themes of the commandments. From ancient times biblical scholars have noticed that the first four commandments concern our relationship with God and the last six, our relationship with others.
It doesn't really matter how the commandments were arranged on the stone tablets, but it is important to note the twin themes. Judaism was the first world religion to combine worship (responsibilities toward God) with ethics (responsibilities toward humankind). The gods on Mt. Olympus were neither ethical in their own behavior nor did they make ethical demands of their worshipers. That cheap faith still has its fans. Neo-pagans have all the comfort and excitement of their religion with none of the inconvenience of a God who gets in their way when they want to do something.
In biblical religion, however, God is the Law-Giver. Ethics is theology at work; the ten commandments are worship in overalls. The commandments speak to both theology (our relationship with God) and ethics (our relationship with others).
The fifth commandment begins the second "table of the law": our responsibility toward one another. In this section God tells us how to become more human by controlling certain physical impulses we share with lower animals such as anger, hunger and lust. Those activities are certainly natural. In fact, they are essential to our survival. But God calls us to something higher and nobler. He commands us to control what comes naturally so that we do not kill and steal and fornicate just because it appears to our immediate advantage. Anger, hunger and sex are powerful urges within all of us. Like fire, they are good gifts of God. Also, like fire, they become bad when they get out of control. Thus we have the ten commandments to tell us how control our natural inclinations so nobody gets hurt.
What inclination do you think is controlled by the fifth commandment? Most animals instinctively care for their young. Bears and robins will attack you if you assault their babies. Although most species care for their young, none cares for its old except humans. The fifth commandment calls us to rise above our animal nature. God expects more of you and me than he does of cats and dogs. He commands children to provide for their parents just as parents instinctively provide for their children. "Honor your father and your mother." By honoring the aged we rise above the rest of nature and become our true human selves.
We need to hear again the fifth commandment. Our modern age does not give the elderly the place of honor they had in earlier times and so richly deserve today. Bertrand Russell complained, "I was born in the wrong generation. When I was a young man, no one had any respect for youth. Now I am an old man and no one has any respect for age."
Nearly everyone, from Madison Avenue to the local church, honors youth. Now that's not a bad idea, but remember young age is not the age to which the Bible gives the greatest honor. Moses said, "Show respect for old people and honor them" (Leviticus 19:32). And Peter added, "You younger men must submit yourselves to the older men" (1 Peter 5:5).
I resent the fact that calling someone old sounds insulting. Our culture has twisted the traditional value of old age making something honorable appear disgraceful. In the Bible old age is not a problem, it's a blessing (Isaiah 65:20; Zechariah 8:4-5). For thousands of years to be called an "old man" or "old woman" was a high honor. Nowadays it's an insult. What on earth has happened to our values?
A youth-centered culture is a backward-facing culture. It is a society in which people honor what they used to be instead of what they are going to be.
Age is like money. It isn't how much we have spent, but how much we have left. If we truly believe what we say we believe about eternal life, what we have left is forever. Every birthday takes us one year further from our birthdate and one year closer to our Father's house.
The root of the Hebrew word for honor means to "weigh heavy." The people who weigh me heavy are those who contribute most to my weight: my parents, my wife and my children to them I owe great respect and honor.
The fifth commandment is addressed primarily to adults. It is not a biblical billy club that frustrated parents can use to beat their rebellious children into submission. Parents who try to get respect from their children by quoting this scripture will be as successful as trying to steer their car by honking their horn.
The fifth commandment has more to do with medical care, old-age pensions, and retirement homes than with disobedient minors. It means quite simply when your Mom and Dad have to depend on you, don't let them down. Honor your father and mother.
Although Social Security, Medicare, and old-age pensions have largely taken over the kind of responsibilities enjoined by this commandment, no system can honor your parents for you. Many systems are terribly impersonal and even insultingly dehumanizing.
When parents are no longer productive members of society, they need more than ever to be honored and reassured of their worth.
The fifth commandment commands honor for your parents but does not limit honor to them alone. It doesn't say, "Honor only your father and mother. That's just the beginning. The apostle Peter said, "Respect everyone" (1 Peter 2:17). Not only should children honor their parents, but parents should honor their children. The rich should honor the poor, and the poor should honor the rich. The weak should honor the strong, and the strong should honor the weak.
Jesus gave this commandment its highest application when he declared "Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me" (Matthew 25:40). You honor others by treating them with the same high respect you owe to the person of Jesus Christ. If you treat others the way you treat Jesus, you will honor not only your parents but every living soul.
Honor takes many different forms. It is much more than greeting cards, candy and flowers on Mother's Day. The way in which parents honor their children, for instance, differs from the way children honor their parents. It is a dishonor to treat everyone alike without respect to differing needs and responsibilities. True honor takes into account the age and situation of the people involved and the nature of the relationship. You're young only once, but you can stay immature the rest of your life.
One of the reasons the generation gap is such a problem is that it is not wide enough. Too many adults try to act as though they were teenagers, and too many teenagers try to act as though they were adults. With all the actors reading the lines of someone else, it is no wonder the play gets confusing. Children cannot honor their parents while refusing to accept the role of dependents. And parents cannot honor their children while evading their parental responsibilities.
To make matters even more complicated, the roles keep changing. By the time we realize our parents may have been right, we usually have children who think we're wrong. As children grow older, parental honor takes into account their growing competency, responsibility, and independence.
Children, likewise, honor their parents in different ways. To a small child, honor means obedience. To an adolescent, it means respect. To an adult child, it means kindness, thoughtfulness, and care of parents.
A boy will never become a man and a girl will never become a woman if they must always obey their parents. Though children eventually outgrow their need to obey their parents, they never outgrow their duty to honor their parents. The time may come when aged parents must obey their children. But even then, and especially then, children must find ways to honor their parents, to affirm their dignity and worth.
The apostle Paul reminds us that the fifth commandment is the first commandment with a promise: "so that all may go well with you, and you may live a long time in the land" (Ephesians 6:3). When a Sunday School teacher asked a kid what that meant his interpretation was, "I better do what my parents say or they'll kill me." Though there may be some parents who would not dispute that understanding, I don't think that's what Moses or Paul had in mind. "That you may live a long time in the land" is not a guarantee of extra years of life to individuals who honor their parents. It is a promise to preserve the social order that respects preceding generations. Remember the commandments were given after Israel left Egypt and before they entered and occupied the Promised Land. They were a brand new nation. So God gave them laws and a covenant to show them how to make it work. Good individuals may die young, but cultures in which people honor the aged endure with stability.
One of the reasons that Chinese culture has survived thousands of years through many political and social revolutions is that through it all, they obeyed the fifth commandment not because it was spoken by God through Moses, but because it was wise. "[That] you may live a long time in the land" is not a tempting bribe to good conduct, but a statement of fact about nations and tribes and families in which honor is found.
Remember, the Bible doesn't tell who is to honor you, but whom you are to honor your parents, your children and everyone else. You obey the fifth commandment, not by demanding that others honor you but by taking the initiative to honor them.