The fifth commandment says that we must respect the most basic authority among human beings, that of parents for children. To put it another way, parenting children is among the most important kinds of work there are in the world, and it both deserves and requires the greatest respect. There are many ways to honor—or dishonor—your father and mother. In Jesus’ day, the Pharisees wanted to restrict this to speaking well of them. But Jesus pointed out that obeying this commandment requires working to provide for your parents (Mark 7:9-13). We honor people by working for their good.
For many people, good relationships with parents are one of the joys of life. Loving service to them is a delight and obeying this commandment is easy. But we are put to the test by this commandment when we find it burdensome to work on behalf of our parents. We may have been ill-treated or neglected by them. They may be controlling and meddlesome. Being around them may undermine our sense of self, our commitment to our spouses (including our responsibilities under the third commandment), even our relationship with God. Even if we have good relationships with our parents, there may come a time when caring for them is a major burden simply because of the time and work it takes. If aging or dementia begins to rob them of their memory, capabilities, and good nature, caring for them can become a deep sorrow.
Yet the fifth commandment comes with a promise: “that your days may be long and that it may go well with you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you” (Deut. 5:16). Through proper honor of parents, children learn proper respect in every other kind of relationship, including those in their future workplaces. Obeying this command enables us to live long and do well because developing proper relationships of respect and authority is essential to individual success and social order.
Because this is a command to work for the benefit of parents, it is inherently a workplace command. The place of work may be where we earn money to support them, or it may be in the place where we assist them in the tasks of daily life. Both are work. When we take a job because it allows us to live near them, or send money to them, or make use of the values and gifts they developed in us, or accomplish things they taught us are important, we are honoring them. When we limit our careers so that we can be present with them, clean and cook for them, bathe and embrace them, take them to the places they love, or diminish their fears, we are honoring them.
Parents therefore have the duty to be worthy of trust, respect, and obedience. Raising children is a form of work, and no workplace requires higher standards of trustworthiness, compassion, justice, and fairness. As the Apostle Paul put it, “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4). Only by God’s grace could anyone hope to serve adequately as a parent, another indication that worship of God and obedience to his ways underlies all of Deuteronomy.
In our workplaces, we can help other people fulfill the fifth commandment, as well as obey it ourselves. We can remember that employees, customers, co-workers, bosses, suppliers, and others also have families, and then adjust our expectations to support them in honoring their families. When others share or complain about their struggles with parents, we can listen to them compassionately, support them practically (say, by offering to take a shift so they can be with their parents), or perhaps offer a godly perspective for them to consider. For example, if a career-focused colleague reveals a family crisis, we have a chance both to pray for the family and to suggest that the colleague think about rebalancing time between career and family.