Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
What is The Fourth Commandment?
Honor your father and your mother.
What does this mean?
We should fear and love God so that we do not despise or anger our parents and other authorities, but honor them, serve and obey them, love and cherish them.
With this commandment, we begin unpacking the second table of the law. Commandments 1-3 dealt with our relationship vertically, that is, with God. The summary of the first table of the law, then, is this: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind" (Matt. 22:37).
Commandments 4-10 deal then with our horizontal relationships, that is, our relationships with our fellow man. The summary of the second table of the law, then, is this: "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Matt. 22:39).
Concordia, the reader's edition of the Book of Concord has a nice introduction to Luther's explanation in the Large Catechism:
Commandments four through ten describe relationships with our fellow humans. Here Luther's understanding of "vocation" is apparent. Vocation comes from the Latin "vocare," meaning "to call." God calls everyone to certain roles, or stations, in life. In this commandments, Luther describes our duty before God to honor father and mother, that is, to respect authority. God instituted all forms of authority as an extension of parental authorities, or "fathers," in our lives, including pastors, teachers, and government officials. Another insight by Luther is about the life of good works to which Christians are called. We should not regard "Church work" as more holy than the other things in life that we routinely do. Rather, all callings and stations in life serve God and are opportunities for us to obey God's commandments and to serve our neighbor. The key observation Luther offers is this: faith is what makes a person holy. Faith alone. Good works serve God by serving other people (p. 370).
Indeed, The Fourth Commandment teaches children to honor their parents, and to serve and obey them. Luther says it this way:
We must, therefore, impress this truth upon the young [Deuteronomy 6:7] that they should think of their parents as standing in God's place (LC, I, 108).
And what does it mean for children to honor parents? Luther identifies three points:
(A) They must be held in distinction and esteem above all things, as the most precious treasure on earth. (B) In our words we must speak modestly toward them [Proverbs 15:1]. Do not address them roughly, haughtily, and defiantly. But yield to them and be silent, even though they go too far. (C) We must show them such honor also by works, that is, with our body and possessions. We must serve them, help them, and provide for them when they are old, sick, infirm, or poor. We must do all this not only gladly, but with humility and reverence, as doing it before God [Ephesians 6:6-7]. For the child who knows how to regard parents in his heart will not allow them to do without or hunger, but will place them above him and at his side and will share with them whatever he has and possesses (LC, I, 109-111).
And what is the benefit of a family where parents are honored?
The godly and obedient have this blessing: they live long in pleasant quietness and see their children's children to the third and fourth generation [Psalm 128) (LC, I, 137).
But Luther understood The Fourth Commandment to teach honor and obedience also to authorities in addition to our parents.
In this commandment belongs a further statement about all kinds of obedience to persons in authority who have to command and to govern. For all authority flows and is born from the authority of parents (LC, I, 141).
Now, the honor a child owes to a father and mother is owed by all who are included in the household (LC, I, 143).
In other words, any babysitters, aunts, uncles, grandparents, or others that "help" in the household are due the same honor and respect as the parents themselves.
In addition to the family, then, Luther begins to apply this commandment to the civil realm:
The same should also be said about obedience to civil government. Thais (as we have said) is all included in the place of fatherhood and extends farthest of all relations. Here "father" is not one person from a single family, but it means the many people the father has as tenants, citizens, or subjects. Through them, as through our parents, God gives to us food, house and home, protection, and security. They bear such name and title with all honor as their highest dignity that it is our duty to honor them and to value them greatly as the dearest treasure and the most precious jewel upon earth (LC, I, 150).
Finally, Luther identifies a third class of "fathers," that is, spiritual fathers:
Besides these there are still spiritual fathers. They are not like those in the papacy, who have had themselves called fathers but have performed no function of the fatherly office [Matthew 23:9]. For the only ones called spiritual fathers are those who govern and guide us by God's Word. In this sense, St. Paul boasts his fatherhood in 1 Corinthians 4:15, where he says, "I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel." Now, since they are fathers, they are entitled to their honor, even above all others (LC, I, 158-159).
So, there are three class of fathers: Those in the home, in the civil realm, and the spiritual realm. God has placed fathers over families, countries, and the church to care for each institution's well-being.
There is, however, a word to those who fulfill these fatherly offices:
It would be well to preach to the parents also, and to those who bear their office. Tell them how they should behave toward those who are given to them for their governance. This is not stated in the Ten Commandments. But it is still abundantly commanded in many places in the Scripture. God wants to have this included in this commandment when He speaks of father and mother. He does not wish to have rogues and tyrants in this office and government. He does not assign this honor to them, that is, power and authority to govern, so they can have themselves worshiped. But they should consider that they are obligated to obey God. First of all, they should seriously and faithfully fulfill their office, not only to support and provide for the bodily necessities of their children, servants, subjects, and so on, but, most of all, they should train them to honor and praise God [Proverbs 22:6]. Therefore, do not think that this matter is left to your pleasure and arbitrary will. This is God's strict command and order, who whom also you must give account for it [1 Peter 4:5] (LC, I, 168).
So how do you know where you've not kept this command? Begin with these questions:
- Do I submit to those whom God has put in authority over me?
- Have I been ashamed of, angry, stubborn, or disrespectful toward my parents, teachers, employer, pastor, government or other authorities?
- Have I been on good behavior when they are present and mocking them when they are absent?
- Do I obey all the laws of the city, state and country, and pay my rightful share of all taxes?
- Do I pray for parents, leaders of the nation, schools and church? Do I grumble about work given me to do?
And finally, my dear brothers and sisters in Christ. While we daily break God's command, and the law convicts us of our sin, rejoice and be glad. The Father's only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ, honored his Father perfectly and served Him with the ultimate sacrifice of His own life. By the power of the Holy Spirit, believe that Jesus' obedience is credited to you as your own, and therefore, in Him, you stand before your Father as an obedient and faithful son or daughter. And he gives you the kingdom.
Thanks be to God for all of our earthly fathers. Amen.