The Fifth Commandment

      When my parents married, my mother was not a member of the church and my father, who hailed from a long line of Latter-day Saints, had been inactive for some time. But they each retained a strong belief in God and desired to find a place to worship where they both would feel comfortable. 

      When I, their firstborn, arrived, they were attending the Presbyterian Church in my hometown, Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. So I was baptized and added to the church register shortly after my birth. 

Cutest Baby Ever

      But a couple of years later my parents decided to join the local Methodist congregation where I experienced the rites of baptism a second time. And after the passage of a few more years, my father’s roots pulled him back to the faith of his fathers—Mormonism—where I completed the hat trick by entering the waters of baptism a third time. My mother followed suit a few years later and we all stayed put.

      I have never regretted my parents’ spiritual wanderings when I was a child. I especially enjoyed our brief sojourn with the Methodists since they had a nifty playground you could use, even on Sundays. I can see why Joseph Smith thought highly of them. And, as a lawyer, I’ve learned the value of covering your bases, working both sides of the street, so to speak.

      While sorting through my mother’s papers a few years ago shortly after her passing, I came across a letter addressed to me from the reverend of the first church we joined. I was taken aback by this discovery, especially when I noticed that it was written less than two months after I was born. Here are some of things this Presbyterian minister had to say: 

Dear Eric:

I know you will tell me you cannot read; that it is a joke. With a mother and father like you have, you will be reading this without any trouble.

Your mother is a very fine lady, none better. She will give to you all the needs and joys which a mother can give. Now go easy on the crying when your mother has other things to do. There is a time to cry and I will tell you when that is. Be very kind to your mother, she works hard for you.

Now maybe you think you need attention; you cry when your daddy is home so that he can give you that attention. When he sits down to read the paper, that is the time to cry, and I’ll bet he will pick you up. Try it. There are many things your daddy will do for you, like play ball, push you in the buggy, walk with you at three in the morning, or just any time at night. Love your daddy; he will be a pal of yours for life.

I am certainly glad you are around, and I hope for you all the blessings which God can give to you and that you grow in “Wisdom and favor with God and man.”

      The prophecies of this thoughtful servant of the Lord were fulfilled to the letter and then some (except, perhaps the part about me growing in wisdom). My parents, though not perfect, cared for me, taught me the difference between right and wrong, and loved me unconditionally. It’s hard to ask for more than that.

      Since the death of my father—who would have celebrated his 95th birthday this past Tuesday—I often find myself reflecting upon the fifth of the Ten Commandments: “Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.”[1]  While studying this admonition in greater detail, I discovered there are many things about the Ten Commandments in general, and the Fifth Commandment in particular, we misconstrue or simply do not comprehend, primarily because we read them through modern, western eyes, not as they would have been understood in ancient times.

This 1768 parchment by Jekuthiel Sofer emulated the 1675 Ten Commandments at the Amsterdam Esnoga synagogue

      While the Ten Commandments articulate the demands of the Abrahamic Covenant, they were not laws; they were instructions. No penalties or curses were threatened if they were ignored. Further, they were given to the Israelites and to no one else. While they find expression in many of the parables and sermons delivered by the Savior during his earthly ministry and are a part of the moral code of many faith traditions, they speak to the specific needs and challenges confronting the Israelites. 

      Moreover, they were given to adults, not children. Thus, the Fifth Commandment was not targeted at rebellious teenagers or children who refuse to eat their vegetables. Rather, it speaks to the importance of adult children respecting and caring for their aging parents in a society where there were no nursing homes, Social Security or Medicare. 

      This commandment underscores the centrality in ancient Israel of the nuclear family, one presided over by a patriarch. Failure to respect your father was tantamount to rejecting God. The dominant patriarchal motif of the Decalogue, however, is softened by the Fifth Commandment, which specifically references the mother. Given her indispensability in both the family and the community, she is to be honored and respected by her children in equal measure.

      This commandment is also unique in another respect. It is stated in positive terms—no “thou shalt not” here—and it promises a reward: “that thy days may be long in the land.” Ancient Near Eastern legal documents make the right of children to inherit their parents’ property contingent on honoring them by providing and caring for them.[2] Here, God applies this condition on a national scale: The right of future generations of Israelites to inherit the Promised Land from their parents is contingent upon honoring them. The significance of this assurance cannot be overstated. Possession of the land consecrated for their benefit was everything to the Israelites.

      Lastly, in ancient Israel, the obligation to honor and respect ones parents did not end upon their death. It also entailed performing appropriate burial rituals and caring for the family tomb in order to improve the condition of happiness of the deceased in the afterlife.[3]

      There is also evidence that the Israelites engaged in the practice of feeding the dead—for example, placing loaves of bread on a grave—to make their existence in Sheol, the underworld in Israelite theology, more comfortable.[4] This should resonate with Latter-day Saints since we have a similar custom: we honor and respect our deceased parents by performing temple rituals on their behalf, thereby comforting them spiritually. But perhaps the principal beneficiaries of these religious ordinances are not the dead, but the living.

      Two hundred years ago, the mother of an impoverished nine-year old boy and his older sister living in a small Indiana community unexpectedly died. A year later, his father remarried and his new wife brought three children of her own to the family. 

      The stepmother was shocked by the emaciated and scantily clad condition of the children, whose stomachs had grown “leathery” from going so long without food. She fed and clothed them, and loved them as if they were her own.

      Another contribution she made to her new family was a small collection of books, which seemed odd since she could barely read. But the boy quickly devoured them, astonishing her with his ability to memorize long passages.

      When he was 22, her stepson left home to find his own way in the world. He performed manual labor for a time, and then attempted to run a small store, which failed. He also tried his hand as a blacksmith and a surveyor, before deciding to study law, an area in which he truly excelled.

      Around 30 years later, however, he gave up his legal career to pursue a new opportunity back east. Before embarking on this adventure, however, he traveled a 120 miles on a freight train to say goodbye to his stepmother, who, twice widowed, was now living in a small farmhouse in Charleston, Illinois.

      The two reminisced about his childhood, he praising her for having made him and his older sister “more human.” She later noted that, “his mind and mine, what little I had, seemed to run together, more in the same channel.” Their fondness for each other was palpable.

      She embraced him when they departed and, like all good mothers, expressed abiding concern for his safety and welfare. But her fears were greater than most since she believed there were men in the world that wished to do him harm. He tried to reassure her, saying, “Mama (he always called her by that name) they will not do that. Trust in the Lord and all will be well. We will see each other again.”[5]

      When her time came in 1869, she was buried in the black dress given to her that day by her stepson, Abraham Lincoln, who had predeceased her by four years. Her fears, as it turns out, were prescient. It was as if, when they parted, each was already grieving the loss of the other.

      Before making the arduous 2,000-mile trip to Washington to become the 16th President of the United States, Lincoln paid homage to the woman who arguably made it all possible. He knew the debt he owed her was one he could never repay.

      It is this attribute that our earthly parents have in common with our heavenly ones: each has given us life and the love needed to make it worth living, something we are incapable of ever fully reciprocating. For this reason, the only individuals we are commanded to honor in this life are our Heavenly Father and Mother and our earthly parents. The First and the Fifth Commandments form a bridge between the celestial and the terrestrial, reminding us of our duties to God and of our obligations to our mortal mothers and fathers.


[1] Exodus 20:12 (KJV).

[2] Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler, eds., The Jewish Study Bible (Oxford University Press: New York: 2014), p. 142.

[3] Herbert Chanan Brichto, “Kin, Cult, Land and Afterlife—A Biblical Complex,” Hebrew Union College Annual, Vol. 44 (1973), pp. 1-54.

[4] Deuteronomy 26:14; Tobit 4:17; Michael Coogan, The Ten Commandments: A Short History of an Ancient Text, (Yale University Press: New Haven, Connecticut: 2014), p. 79.

[5] Ted Widmer, Lincoln on the Verge, (Simon & Schuster: New York: 2020), pp. 76-77. 

6 thoughts on “The Fifth Commandment”

  1. Wonderful wonderful post! When I recently did the I believe fire side I thought an awfully lot about my parents and grandparents and the huge influence they had in my life and On my testimony. One of the reasons I could never turn from the church is because of what they sacrificed, testified and stood for as well as their love and care for me. The sense of belonging is an essential part of finding out who we are. Those of us who had the opportunity to know and understand our parents and grandparents and even great grandparents have a wonderful advantage in life: a feeling that we have a place to belong, an embrace of tolerance love and support, and a path We feel free to discover and follow while honoring them.

  2. Thank you for your kind words, Karen, and for your additional insights, which always contribute to my understanding of these topics. I must confess, however, to having had some serious reservations about posting this.

    As you know, I have no qualms when it comes to discussing and writing about unpleasant episodes in church history, uninspired church doctrines and policies and their adverse consequences, and questionable scriptural interpretations in our manuals. This often does not sit well with local leaders and more conservative members even though I go to great lengths to get my facts straight and refrain from the use of hyperbole and personal attacks when voicing my opinions. But I’ve always believed in the words of the hymn “Oh Say What Is Truth” and am convinced that both individuals and institutions pay dearly when they forget that admonition.

    So, what is it about “honor thy father and thy mother” that concerned me so much that I was worried about how this essay would be received? It’s this: some people have less than stellar parents; some people are estranged from their parents; some people were abandoned by their parents; and some people just flat out hate their parents, and perhaps for good reasons, such as child abuse.

    I thought about trying to address that issue, but I just didn’t know what to say. Suggesting to these individuals that perhaps they should look for the mote in their own eye before judging their parents, or that they should simply forgive them for their mistakes, would not, I am confident, have been well received, and likely would have come across as condescending and as having all of the insight of a Hallmark card. And telling them to simply “trust in the Lord, and everything will work out in the end” would sound downright dismissive, and perhaps insulting. But I also fear that by failing to address this issue, I could be accused, and perhaps rightly so, of having been insensitive.

    This is a tough for one for which there is no simple answer. I just hope people will understand the spirit in which I wrote what I did and will forgive me if they found it offensive.

  3. I share your concern for those who were not blessed, as we were, with loving giving serving parents who, though not perfect, were always trying to “do what was right.” Even when we didn’t agree what was right, they loved and supported us. Some spirits have more challenging family placements. Why? Perhaps they were stronger spirits and the Lord thought they would be able to overcome more challenges. As you note, the flawed relationships are opportunities for positively influencing others lives. I guess for me I turn to the Atonement. Christ took all our sins, and all of the sins of others as well. If you truly believe in the Atonement, then you can’t hold these sins commuted by others against you or those you love in your own soul. What a lifetime challenge to be able to truly forgive and forget in relation to your own paretns. In the end we all have to work on our own soul deep within each of us and this is a constant battle. Did you read “Eleanore Oliphant is Completely Fine” by Gail Honeyman. An interesting story of someone trying to overcome a horribly flawed parent. Again I loved your posts and thoughts. And the “the cutest baby ever” was a star.

  4. Eric, this is so lovely. I also enjoyed reading the comments thus far. I have never really considered the idea that the 5th commandment was directed at adults rather than children in the home. How eye opening! It takes on a whole new meaning to me now. I loved the story about Lincoln too.

    I also appreciate your thoughts on how this topic can be hard to approach considering people who don’t have “honorable” parents. This is something we fail to consider in a lot of our discourse about family life, blindly assuming normal, healthy relationships. You are wise to be sensitive to their perspective. Many of my friends who grew up in less than ideal circumstances have told me that while sometimes triggering, they mostly don’t mind hearing stories crouched in the ideal. It lets them see how things should have been, affirming their decisions to sever relationships or create strong boundaries with perpetrators of abuse/neglect. Hearing stories from people who grew up in healthy homes also teaches them things to incorporate in their own family moving forward that were not taught in their home growing up.

  5. Karen, for those who feel their parents did more harm than good, I suppose your approach is about the best one available. No matter who causes us harm, we are expected to forgive them. And if we don’t, we will be only exacerbating our own misery.

    I was not, by the way, familiar with the book “Eleanore Oliphant is Completely Fine.” Not the kind of book I ordinarily read. But, given your recommendation and the number of favorable reviews I saw on Amazon, I will definitely check it out.

    Glad you liked the “cutest baby ever” picture. Though I suffer many character flaws, low self-esteem is not one of them.

  6. S Barnhart, thanks for sharing the insights you have acquired over the years by talking to some of your friends whose childhoods were something far less than perfect. It is especially inspiring to see those who experienced that challenge vow not to repeat the grievous mistakes their parents made.

    While our church’s emphasis on the importance of the family has its merits, it is frequently presented in such a way as to make those who are single or divorced, or who come from broken homes, feel as if they don’t belong. It is important to remember that the scripture says: “the worth of souls great in the sight of God,” not the worth of families.

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