Honor to Whom Honor Is Due
“Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.” ~ Romans 13:7
In the Ten Commandments that God gave to Israel, the fifth commandment was “honor your father and mother” (Exodus 20:12, Deuteronomy 5:16). When Paul gave instructions for Christian families, he repeated the fifth commandment verbatim, “honor your father and mother” (Ephesians 6:2). Jesus also quoted the fifth commandment as an area of moral failure for the Pharisees in his generation, because they taught that people could avoid financial responsibility for aging parents by dedicating their property to the temple in a sort of “living trust” arrangement (Matthew 15:3-6). He then proceeded to use that same word, “honor,” in reference to God, citing Isaiah 29:13, “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”
We probably have a notion of honor as respect or esteem, which reflects an attitude, and Jesus also directly connected honor with behavior, fulfilling an obligation. Even so, consideration of the command to “honor your father and mother” inevitably brings up questions about having respect or admiration or esteem for a parent who did not behave admirably, a father or mother who was abusive or negligent, or perhaps a parent who abandoned marriage and family for self-indulgence. In such circumstances, how does the child of God honor a parent for whom they have no admiration, and may harbor feelings of anger, resentment or enduring fear? In fact, since God is often pictured as a parent, a father, a loving authority figure and disciplinarian, some people have additional hurdles to overcome in living a godly life because of issues with their own father/parents.
Consider that Christians are not only commanded to honor father and mother (and God), but also commanded to “Honor all people, love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king” (1 Peter 2:17). When Peter instructed Christians to “honor all people,” he was talking about the kind of respect or esteem that comes with recognizing everyone as a human being made in the image of God, with an eternal soul. Everyone deserves honor in that sense, whoever they may be, whatever they may have done (including parents who abused or abandoned their position). And then too, “honor the king.” In Peter’s era, there were local kings, like the Herods, and higher up the ladder was the Roman emperor, king of kings in his own right, the Roman emperor being Nero at the time Peter was writing. Many of those kings, including the Herods and Nero, were not admirable in their character or behavior, were not just or fair, were not godly, and yet Peter instructed Christians to honor them.
Paul similarly wrote to the Roman church to “be in subjection to the governing authorities” because governing authorities are established by God (Romans 13:1-7) ending his thought with the command to give “honor to whom honor” is due.
Why is honor due to a king, an emperor, a parent, or indeed “all people?” Clearly, it isn’t based on the integrity or character or achievements of the person, rather it is based on honor for God himself. A king or a father who behaves badly doesn’t reflect well upon himself, or upon God who established the authority and responsibility of the position, God who gave them authority, but the person who honors the king (and the parent) does reflect well upon God who established family and government, honoring the maker and designer, even when the ruler (or parent) who is a “servant of God” (Romans 13:4) is not honoring God themselves.
Ultimately, besides a general respect for those in authority, both Peter and Paul depict the practice of honoring rulers as practicing good behavior, living exemplary lives in this world, cooperating with lawful authority as much as possible, and generally doing what is right (Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 3:13-17). The same really is true of honoring a parent who was dishonorable. God’s primary way to honor a parent, no matter how they behaved, is to live a life of wisdom and righteousness. Solomon’s first proverb puts it this way, “A wise son makes a father glad, but a foolish son is a grief to his mother” (Proverbs 10:1). The same idea is recapitulated in Proverbs 15:20, 17:21, 17:25, 28:7, and 29:3. Doing what is right is the best way to honor father and mother, no matter who father and mother may be or what they may have done, and is the way to honor God as well. One doesn’t have to like or admire the person who is king, president, governor, or father or mother to honor them. Honoring by being respectful and doing what is right and good is part of God’s design for our own well-being and how we honor God himself as well.
The father of the righteous will greatly rejoice, and he who sires a wise son will be glad in him. Let your father and your mother be glad, and let her rejoice who gave birth to you.