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Taking the Fifth:

Common Misuse of the Fifth Commandment

No part of the Bible is more widely abused than the Fifth Commandment, commonly translated into English, "Honor thy father and thy mother."

As a volunteer working with abused children, I met countless victims who saw this as evidence God wanted them to accept pain and violation at the hands of their abusers. The victims heard this, of course, from their abusive parents. Sadly, few children have ever met a priest or a minister with the courage to contradict this view.

This interpretation of the Fifth Commandment not only leads young victims to believe God is backing their abusers, it leads critics of Christianity to declare the Christian Bible immoral or idiotic. "The middle commandment, 'Honor thy father and mother,' is manifestly unjust," wrote Dr. Harry Binswanger in his 2004 essay "The Ten Commandments vs. America." He explains:

Justice demands that you honor those who deserve honor, who have earned it by their choices and actions... To demand that Stalin's daughter honor Stalin is not only obscene, but also demonstrates the demand for mindlessness implicit in the first set of commandments. You are commanded not to think or judge, but to jettison your reason and simply obey.

All these problems are rooted, however, not in the Bible, but in misunderstanding the Bible. Let's examine this Commandment more closely.

What Does it Mean to "Honor"?

The word "honor" does not mean "obey" or "tolerate abuse from." This much should be obvious to every American who grew up with a TV. Before the '70s, traditional weddings had the bride vow to "love, honor, and obey" her husband ("honor" and "obey" listed separately), while the groom vowed to "love, honor, and cherish" his wife ("obey," no; but "honor," yes). Modern weddings typically have both parties vow to "honor" the other, but neither vow to "obey."

"Honor," in fact, is not even the word whose definition matters here. The Ten Commandments were written, not in English, but in Hebrew. The New Interpreter's Bible tells us that in the Fifth Commandment, the word translated as "honor" is the Hebrew word kābēd, which "includes among its meanings 'be heavy,' suggesting the sense of 'give weight to.'" Co-author Walter Brueggemann, a professor at Columbia Theological Seminary, comments, "Such a nuance is important, because the command does not advocate obeying or being subordinate, but treating parents with appropriate seriousness."

While it would indeed be obscene for Stalin's daughter to carry out Stalin's wishes or to continue his ugly legacy of oppression and mass murder, it would be perfectly appropriate for her to take Stalin seriously, as we all should.

When properly interpreted, the Fifth Commandment reveals that God does not cheer on child-abusers but rather urges children to take their parents seriously — as leaders if appropriate and as criminals if appropriate.

When properly interpreted, the Fifth Commandment does not tell us to "jettison [our] reason and simply obey," but rather to think all the more critically about what treatment our individual parents deserve.

How Would Jesus Interpret?

When I meet Christians who believe the Fifth Commandment orders mindless submission to parents, I wonder: Have they even gotten halfway through the Bible yet? Have they started the New Testament?

A God who orders subservience to parents is hardly reflected in Jesus.

Jesus told His followers, "I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person's enemies will be those of his own household. Anyone who loves his father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me ..." (Matthew 10:34-37) When God wants one thing and your parents want something different, Jesus makes clear which master you should serve.

Jesus Himself set an example. The Gospel of Luke tells us that when Jesus was 12 years old, He ran away from home. His parents, Mary and Joseph, hunted three days before finding Him in the temple meeting with scholars. Luke does not spell out why Jesus chose not to tell His parents He was going to the temple, but Luke gives us a solid clue by revealing that Mary and Joseph traveled an entire day before they even noticed their Son was missing!

Luke gives us another clue by describing Mary's response to finding Him again. She did not embrace her lost Son with relief that He was safe, nor did she support His commitment to education. Instead she scolded Him. "Son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have sought you anxiously." (Luke 2:48)

And did Jesus respond to His mother with submission? No. He refused to apologize and even gave His mother what some would characterize as a smart-mouthed answer. "Why did you need to search? Didn't you know I had to be in my Father's house?" (Luke 2:49) (The second sentence can also be translated, "Did you not know that I must be about my Father's business?")

Was Jesus violating God's Commandment? Not at all. And if Jesus were asked to explain, I suspect He would focus less on the definition of "honor" than on the definitions of "father" and "mother."

Jesus told His followers, "Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven [i.e. God]." (Matthew 23:9)

Jesus also said, "Whoever does the will of My Father in heaven is My brother and sister and mother." (Matthew 12:50) If you are Jesus's brother or sister, it stands to reason that you have the same parents He does. Your father, therefore, is God, and your mother is anyone who does God's will.

The Fifth Commandment, when read as Jesus would read it, becomes, "Honor God and honor those who serve God." Neither category would include Stalin nor any child-abuser, though the second category would include millions of good Christians, parent and non-parent alike.

Churches Keeping Secrets

Parents are usually the ones who decide which church their family attends, so the children who most need to hear the truth about the Fifth Commandment are the ones least likely to hear it.

Clerics who seriously examine this Commandment risk shrinking their congregations. Telling the truth takes courage. But if more people grew up going to churches where the clergy had that courage, more children would see that God is not against them, and fewer people would grow away from the church as they grow to see the insanity of submission to one's parents regardless of who those parents are.

Only when clergy tell the truth can they represent a God worthy of devotion.