The fifth command of the Ten Commandments plays an interesting role in the structure of the commands. While the Sabbath command does move toward love of neighbor in requiring all people in the community to cease work, the fifth command appears to be the first command that is fully focused on love of neighbors; and not just any neighbors, but the most intimate of neighbors, father and mother. It’s the most intimate because we all have parents. We don’t all have spouses, children, or siblings, but we all have parents. The LORD our God commands Israel to begin loving their neighbors by loving their parents.
Typically this command is used to encourage children to obey their parents. Parents serve a valuable role in the life of children, in some sense representing God to the children. Obedience is a first step in honoring father and mother (as well as honoring God), thus it seems natural to encourage children with the fifth commandment. While this is a natural progression of the command, it should be remembered the command was not given specifically to children. The original audience was Israelite adults. Yes, all family members were present, old and young alike, but the commands are addressed most specifically to adults in the community. Thus the command must be more than just obedience of children toward parents. It must be focused on how adults honor father and mother.
When the LORD our God calls the people into covenant relationship at Sinai, God is trying to frame the type of community they will become. All Israel knows is Egypt, slavery, and Pharaoh. They know ceaseless work and oppressive rules. The LORD our God, however, has rescued them from slavery. Israel has been redeemed, and now the LORD is trying to form a different type of community. A community that doesn’t simply act in the best interest of Pharaoh, or toward the endless wealth of Egypt, but works for the good of all in the community. A community that recognizes that flourishing is based around a love of God and a love of others. In order to help form this type of community, God commands Israel to be a people who honor father and mother. Not just to obey them when you are young, or not speak disparagingly of them, but to honor them. Not just when father and mother are young and vibrant, contributing in very tangible and meaningful ways to the community, but even as they age and mental and physical health decline. To care for them and show them honor, even when they can’t contribute to the work of the family in the same way they could when they were younger. To be a community that doesn’t place value on what one can do or contribute, but in the very recognition that one is made in the image of God. To be a community that thinks of others, loves others, and honors others. What better place to begin forming this type of community than in the most intimate of family relations: father and mother.
This type of community, however, doesn’t stop with parents. Israel has not fully kept the command when they master honoring father and mother. For the LORD our God is trying to form a community where honoring father and mother is a means for teaching Israel to honor all in the community, especially those who seem most vulnerable. God isn’t trying to form a community that only cares for parents (although that in itself would be a great culture), God is trying to form a community that cares for all those whom society has deemed have less value, or those who do not contribute to the community in measurable ways. Instead everyone is treated the same; from the king who sits on the throne to the alien or foreigner who resides within your city gates.
So often in society we place value and assign worth based off of what one can do, or how much one can produce. Those that can produce in meaningful ways are promoted to higher positions, recognized, and shown greater honor. Later, when talents and abilities fade or when someone comes along who can perform at a higher level, we relegate those who used to produce to second tier. We move them to the side or assign them different tasks. Yet not so in the Kingdom of God. In the community God is forming all have value and worth. In the community God is forming we are more than what we produce, and just because we stop producing does not diminish our value or worth. In the community God is forming the vulnerable and the forgotten sit at the table with the rich and powerful because all are equal in the Kingdom of God.
The fifth command thus serves as an invitation to embrace and live into the type of community which honors all, not based on what they produce, but simply because they are human.