Sermon on the 4th Commandment:
Exodus 20:12; Genesis 9:18-29
HONOR AND RESPECT FOR PARENTS AND AUTHORITIES
Prayer: O Lord, richly pour Your blessing upon the home and the state. Help us to be devout, to honor our parents, obey our rulers, resist the devil, and refuse to follow his temptations to disobey and to fight. Enable us by our deeds to improve our homes and nation and to preserve peace for Your praise and glory, for our own benefit, and for extending everything that is good. Amen. (Martin Luther’s Prayers)
Dear people loved and purchased by God to be His own: Grace to you and peace from God the Father and Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Today we come to the 4th commandment, which is the first in the “Second Table of the Law,” the commandments about loving your neighbor. These commandments are still about loving God, in how we love the neighbor. “He who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?” (1Jn 4:20)
In these commandments God is protecting certain things. For example, in the 4th commandment that we’re learning today, “Honor your father and your mother …,” God is protecting an orderly society. Because this isn’t only about the home but all human authority: “parents and superiors.”
The 4th commandment shows the “curb” function of God’s Law, or maybe we’d call it the “guardrail” function – that keeps society from going into anarchy. This commandment does that in how it involves respect and obedience, some people being in positions of having to give orders, and others following orders for the good of all. This starts in the home.
Although it’s in the best interest of every society and culture to do as this commandment says – to obey and thus preserve order and well-being – the 4th commandment is counter-cultural. Police are quitting, teachers’ morale is low, due to rampant disrespect. Political candidates lose if they don’t demean themselves on late-night talk shows in order to be “relatable.” The default position culturally is not honoring authority.
But we find in Genesis 9 that the 4th commandment has always been counter-cultural. This is the only story recorded of Noah in those 350 years following the flood, and what happens? He – and part of his family – look really bad. Here you see a terrible dishonoring of parents and superiors.
The question is, “How do we honor parents and superiors and all whom God has placed over us?” The example of dishonoring parents and superiors comes from Noah’s son Ham and grandson Canaan, and the example of honoring parents comes from his sons Shem and Japheth.
This story begins with Noah’s sin, when he became drunk. This is a sin against the 5thcommandment, “You shall not murder,” because Noah was treating carelessly the body God had given him.
This deals with the question: “What if I have a dishonorable father? What if the one in authority is no good? I don’t really have to honor him, do I?” In the Large Catechism, Martin Luther addresses this issue and says: “However lowly, poor, frail, and strange their parents may be, nevertheless, they are the father and the mother given to them by God. Parents are not to be deprived of their honor because of their conduct or their failings.”
The Bible doesn’t whitewash Noah’s sin of drunkenness. But Ham’s sin – mocking Noah – is not justified. Noah doesn’t lose his moral authority to pronounce the curse on Ham. Parents are tempted to not discipline their child, or hesitate to give moral teaching, due to their own past sins. But this account says that’s a wrong impulse. Ham is guilty of sin.
Ham “saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside.” Noah’s drunken state led to unknowingly humiliating himself. Ham didn’t see it accidentally; he actively looked, and eagerly pointed out Noah’s humiliated state to Shem and Japheth. He had a big laugh. It may sound harmless but that’s because we belong to a mocking, snarky culture.
Noah’s reaction to it is the key to understanding it rightly. He cursed not only Ham, but Ham’s youngest son Canaan. This strongly implies that Canaan is like his father Ham. This culture of disrespect for Noah, is condemned in no uncertain terms. The dishonoring of authority receives the curse from God. Noah’s authority was God-given authority.
So it brings up questions for us. What attitude do you have toward your parents, teachers, or your boss? Do you honor them only conditionally, that you only have to do this if they’re good enough? Do you act like you know more or you know better? Do they have to prove themselves to you?
Are you rebellious? Do you think that if a president, governor, member of Congress or judge is bad for the country or state in your opinion, even if they do unjust things or live immoral lives, then it’s OK to disrespect them? Do you pray for your parents? For your pastor? For those in government? Or are you critical or judgmental? Do you mock them and “tell it to [your] brothers”so that you lead others into this failure to honor and respect?
We are all brothers of Ham, deserving the curse he received. This is what you have to confess according to the 4th commandment. It’s the “mirror” function of the Law: it shows you your sin so you repent. But whereas the curse pronounced on Canaan was put into effect, the curse pronounced on you for not honoring parents and superiors is spoken so it can be reversed.
When you confess these sins, you do not receive the curse. Instead you receive the blessing given to Shem and his descendants. Shem and Japheth were blessed for their righteous action, covering up Noah and not allowing themselves to see. But you aren’t blessed because you follow their example, or for any work of yours. You receive the blessing by grace, for the sake of Jesus, whose righteousness far exceeds that of Shem.
The words Noah spoke, “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem,” are truly wonderful words. They are the Gospel! Shem was the ancestor of Jesus. The word “semitic,” goes back to his name – the Shemites become the children of Israel. Noah’s blessing included Japheth, who “dwell in the tents of Shem”; by all accounts the descendants of Japheth were the Gentiles who populated India and Europe, and also came to America.
But the point is not that our honor consists in being descendants of this or that race. Instead, the whole point is whether you receive the blessing instead of the curse, whether you repent of your sins against parents and authorities, you don’t make excuses, but instead you say, “I am sorry.”
The blessing is for you. The Gospel is for you. But what is the Gospel? It isn’t that God owes forgiveness to people who repent. His forgiveness is not a reward for conditions met. You and I never meet the conditions. But there is One who did. He came to be a holy child. He never rolled His eyes at the inferior intellect of Mary and Joseph. He humbly served and obeyed them and showed nothing but respect to totally unworthy rulers.
This is the Gospel, that Jesus’ perfect obedience, His perfect submission, counts for you as though you’ve done it. By faith in Jesus, God sees you as having never sinned against this commandment. You are forgiven.
This gives you the strength to keep this commandment with God’s help. It’s how this commandment is a guide for you. This is the “guide” function of God’s Law. God intends for you to actually practice these things with His help, to respect, obey, and honor those who are over you.
It doesn’t mean that you have to accept abuse from those in authority. That’s injustice, and a grave sin, when those in authority do that and betray a trust God has given them to have responsibility for others. God is a God of justice, and Christians should never turn a blind eye to such injustice but work to hold authorities accountable and prevent abuses of power.
Nor does it mean that, if those over you are forcing you to sin, that you have to obey. In today’s world, employers persecute Christians and require them to say and approve things that are against the true faith. If a boss tells an employee to lie or be dishonest, a Christian employee must not obey. This may have consequences. But Christians must obey God rather than men (Ac 5:29), rather than be compelled to sin against God; and may have to seek work elsewhere if necessary.
But in all other situations, God wants us to learn humility, to respect those who are over us. You can only do this with God’s help. It’s also a confession of faith: that you live your faith as a Christian citizen in a way that sets us apart from the world and invites people to ask why you refuse to be snarky about those who are over you, why you even show honor and obedience to “not only the good and gentle, but also the harsh” (1Pe 2:18).
The answer is that you “submit yourselves … for the Lord’s sake” (1Pe 2:13), the Lord, who is your Savior and gentle King. His Fatherhood is to be reflected the best we can, however imperfectly, in our own parenting and being responsible for the welfare of those in our care.
He is the One who fathers and takes care of you perfectly. Amen.