“Honor your father and your mother, as the LORD your God commanded you, that your days may be long, and that it may go well with you in the land that the LORD your God is giving you” (Deuteronomy 5:16, ESV).
The Ten Commandments are found twice in the LAW of Moses. Through the centuries since Moses wrote, his writings have been simply called, “The Law.” (A few years ago someone demonstrated his foolishness by recommending that the moniker be changed from “Ten Commandments” to “Ten Suggestions.”) This Law formed the legal code by which the ancient Jewish nation governed itself. The important role of this law is found in the fact that these laws created a kind of “fence” that surrounded the ancient society. As long as Israel kept these ten commandments (and the accompanying commands), they could expect their God to protect them. When they relaxed one of these laws, it was like they had created an opening in their fence to allow dangerous elements inside.
The breakdown of any society begins with the breakdown of the home. It is in the home that a child is first taught to respect authority. When that respect is undermined, life begins to devolve into dysfunction according to Moses (Deut. 5:16), according to Jesus (Matt 15:1-9), and according to Paul (Eph 6:1-3). It is no accident, therefore, that the society around us has tried to turn the attention of families upside down. Rather than a society in which children respected and honored their elders, recent generations of Western society have made the happiness of children the primary objective.
Most of our society would probably identify drugs or promiscuity with the breakdown of our society. Few in our world, however, would suggest the inversion of the home as a primary cause. Yet, Moses (in both of his expressions of the Ten Commandments) and Paul when he gave instruction to children in Ephesians 6 identify obedience to this command as the one that promises the society and its individuals welfare on this side of heaven.
Seeing the Ten Commandments in the metaphor of a fence suggests that the loss of any of the ten would create an opening through which evil might gain access. But the failure to obey the command to honor parents is unique, striking at the very heart of what makes a society safe — a proper understanding of authority. Without a hierarchy of authority we become anarchists. To borrow the phrase from a dark period of Israel’s history, “every man [does] what is right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6).
Obedience to one’s parents creates an early and foundational understanding of what proper authority should look like. Despite the selective portrayal of our society’s self-appointed spokesmen (the media), parental discipline creates respect. The writer to the Hebrews considers it common knowledge that the result of loving parental discipline is respect, not anger and resentment (13:9). It is a short step from parental authority to the government’s proper authority to regulate the affairs of all men for the general welfare.
On the contrary, if that foundational understanding of proper authority is lacking, the result will be an equivalent disrespect for the laws that are to govern our society. A child that is raised to believe that the life of the family revolves around him/her will take an equally self-centered approach to life in general when he/she becomes an adult. When too many adopt this attitude of selfish personal fulfillment, the resulting anarchy will destroy the society.
Admittedly, some of the laws in Moses’ books seem a bit harsh to our modern ears, but Solomon provides a proper balance in many of his Proverbs. And when these laws/instructions are seen in the context of New Testament teaching, they form a well-rounded picture of how to protect the fragile society in which we live. Perhaps when we see the whole of the biblical teaching on the subject and what ultimately is at stake, we can see that the penalties Moses imposed on those who disrespected parents were not so harsh after all.