In the beginning

Why we are commanded to ‘honor’ rather than obey

in the beginning
Father Mike Stubbs is the pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park and has a degree in Scripture from Harvard University.

by Father Mike Stubbs

Long ago, when I learned the Ten Commandments as a child, I wondered why the Fourth Commandment instructed us to “honor thy father and thy mother” instead of telling us to obey them.

I thought that that would have made more sense. My parents made it clear that obedience was my principal responsibility toward them.

As a child, I realized that I owed them obedience. But later on, as an adult, I understood that that obligation had ceased, while I still needed to honor them.

That explains the stipulation of honor toward parents. It is an enduring requirement, one which remains even after the children have left the home.

In biblical tradition, the Ten Commandments are referred to as the Ten Words: “And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Words” (Ex 34:28b); “And He told you his covenant that he charged you to do, the Ten Words, and he wrote them on two tablets of stone” (Dt 4:13). English translations often render the phrase “Ten Words” as “Ten Commandments,” but in the original Hebrew, it is clearly “Ten Words.” This way of speaking is reflected in the equivalent term, the Decalogue, which derives from the Greek for “ten words.”

Consequently, the Fourth Commandment, which instructs us to honor our father and our mother, corresponds to the Fourth Word. And if a single word could encapsulate that commandment, it would be “honor.”

Significantly, the word “honor” occurs several times in Sunday’s first reading, Sir 3:2-6, 12-14 — three times, to be exact. This reading is part of our celebration of the feast of the Holy Family. In a sense, this passage from Sirach is a reflection on the Fourth Commandment.

While it is not explicitly directed toward adult children, parts of it suggest that such is its intended audience: “My son, take care of your father when he is old; grieve him not as long as he lives. Even if his mind fail, be considerate of him; revile him not all the days of his life.”

Traditionally, the Fourth Commandment has been interpreted as not being limited to one’s biological parents, but as also applying to other forms of legitimate authority: teachers, employers, pastors, government leaders.

These relationships constitute an extension of the family, the fundamental unit of society. It is natural that the responsibilities that are attached to the family also accompany those relationships.

We owe them honor also.

About the author

Fr. Mike Stubbs

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1 Comment

  • Honor thy teachers, thy employers, and thy government leaders? An “extension of the family and the “fundamental unit of society?” It is natural that the responsibilities that are attached to the family also accompany those relationships?

    Perhaps a bit of further scriptural context can explain how is this position is not secular humanism with a healthy dose of moral relativism thrown in for good measure. Many of the most narcissistic, nihilistic and destructive individuals we have had foisted upon us by our Enemy fall under these categories. In many if not most cases, they are false authorities, and our calling is to confront and contest them and their agenda.

    This article is making me question the fourth category mentioned.