This is the third article in a three-part series on Jesus Christ's teachings about families found in the Gospels. Read part one, "How Christ’s Teachings Highlight the Ever-Present Emphasis on Families in the Gospels," and part two, "The Miracle of the Fishes + Other Ways Jesus Demonstrated His Focus on the Family." Honoring parents can shape the character of families and even how members interact with one another. In this short study, which continues the earlier two, we learn how Jesus and His disciples retained honorable ties to parents.
In this third installment on families in the Gospels, we turn to the rich young ruler who came to Jesus seeking to know what he should “do to inherit eternal life.” To him Jesus said, “Thou knowest the commandments, . . . Honour thy father and thy mother” (Luke 18:18, 20; also Matt. 19:16, 18; Mark 10:17, 19). According to the records of Mark and Luke, after Jesus rehearsed several of the Ten Commandments to this young man—not to commit adultery, not to kill, not to steal, and so forth—He concluded His list by declaring a person’s obligation to parents, thus placing a strong emphasis on this commandment. We are not to evade this responsibility even while keeping the others, as Jesus reminded a group of Pharisees about all of God’s commandments: “these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone” (Matt. 23:23; Luke 11:42).
For the ruler, the way for him to show honor to his father and mother would be to care for them as they approached old age. The fact that Jesus was in the company of disciples means that His words to the ruler were aimed at them too. But the requirement to honor parents does not just arise when they become enfeebled or disabled. It is also in force for young children who are expected to respect and obey their parents, another way of honoring them. Hence, persons of all ages are to honor their parents.1
Notably, in the Gospels the youthful Jesus became the first example of honoring parents. We read that, after His parents found Him in the Jerusalem temple and discussed with Him why He had remained behind (Luke 2:41–49), “he went down with them, and came to Nazareth, and was subject to them.” One of the important results of His submissiveness, a point the scripture makes very clear, is that He “increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man” (Luke 2:51–52).
Parables About Honoring Parents
Other examples of a youth honoring their parents appear in the Gospels. One arises in a parable that Jesus unfolded within the Jerusalem temple grounds, where He had a huge audience. Before departing to another country for an extended time, a man who owned a large vineyard leased it to tenants, called “husbandmen,” with the understanding that part of the profits was to be returned to him. When the time came for settlement, the owner sent a servant, whom the tenants beat and send away empty-handed. He then sent another servant, who likewise was physically mistreated. By this point, the owner knew what would happen to his representatives. Yet he next sent his “beloved son,” the heir to the estate, to deal with the situation. Him the tenants killed (see Matt. 21:33–41; Mark 12:1–9; Luke 20:9–16). At this point, we might ask the question: Why did the son go? He knew the terrible abuse that his father’s servants had suffered. Still he went. To answer the question, he went because he was obedient. To say it another way, he was honoring his father who asked him to go. Plainly, this parable frames a timeless illustration of how a child honors a parent, even as Jesus honored His Father.
We find the same point, as well as an example of dishonoring parents, in Jesus’s parable of the prodigal son. The older son in this story, of course, honored his parents and remained on the estate to help his father manage it. In sharp contrast, the younger son asked for his share of the inheritance—one-third because the older son inherited a double portion (Deut. 21:17). Soon afterward, the younger son “took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance.” Even after “he came to himself” and decided to return home, he knew that everything had changed for him. Therefore, he decided to beg to become “as one of [his father’s] hired servants.” Of course, his father received him back with joy, a feeling that the older son did not share (Luke 15:11–32). But the older son’s peevishness is a small failing when compared to the lack of honor that the younger son showed early on. And this lack of honor carried huge consequences. In effect, the younger son lost all that was to be his in his older years, a terrible price to pay for dishonoring his parents.
How Peter, James, and John Honored Their Parents
Besides these examples that arise in parables, we possess a real case of a couple honoring a parent. It involved Peter, his wife, and his wife’s mother. In one of the earliest reports from Jesus’s ministry, we read that, following a synagogue service in Capernaum, Jesus accompanied Peter to his home and there came upon Peter’s mother-in-law sick with a fever. Jesus healed this woman of her malady, and she immediately reciprocated by serving Jesus, the guest of honor, and her family members (Mark 1:29–31; Luke 4:38–39). We ask the question: What was this woman doing in the home of Peter and his wife? The most natural answer is that they were taking care of her. We do not know her circumstance, whether she was a widow or not. But the fact that her husband is missing from the account indicates that she was alone and had moved in with her daughter and son-in-law. In this light, Peter and his wife are modeling for us the honoring of a parent by seeing to her needs.
What is also important is the fact that this responsibility did not diminish after Peter’s call to be Jesus’s disciple. The commandment “Honor thy father and thy mother” remained in force. Plainly, Peter and his wife fulfilled this obligation, for it is only much later that the two of them began to travel together after their responsibility had ended (1 Cor. 9:5). In a second instance, even though the brothers James and John were called to become disciples, and these two men “left their father Zebedee in the ship with the hired servants” (Mark 1:20), the expectation was that they would care for their parents in their old age. To underscore their fulfillment of this expectation, they are known to the end of the Gospels as the “sons of Zebedee,” illustrating their tight bond with their father (Matt. 26:37; Mark 10:35; John 21:2).
How Jesus Honored His Mother
Perhaps the brightest example of faithfully performing this responsibility arises from Jesus Himself. We are all acquainted with the report of Jesus speaking to His mother and to His disciple while He hung on the cross. In that moment, looking at His mother, Jesus said, “Woman, behold thy son!” The context points to the disciple as her son, not to Jesus, for in His next breath Jesus said to the disciple, “Behold thy mother.” The disciple understood Jesus’s implicit command that He care for Jesus’s mother because he “took her unto his own home” (John 19:25–27). Jesus knew that His mother would require attention as she grew older and He entrusted her to the care of a faithful disciple. On the unseen backside of this story is the clear message that Jesus had been seeing to His mother’s needs until this point.
How His Friends and Family Viewed Jesus
In another vein, the disciple’s responsibility toward parents remains even if those parents misunderstood or disagreed with the disciple’s choice to follow Jesus. After all, some saw Jesus as an odd itinerant preacher who was not worth listening to: “many of them said, He hath a devil, and is mad; why hear ye him?” (John 10:20). In an important account that exhibits some ambiguity, Mark recorded that when Jesus’s “friends” learned how a “multitude” had packed a house so tightly that He and His disciples “could not so much as eat bread,” these friends “went out to lay hold on him: for they said, He is beside himself” (Mark 3:19–21).
We immediately sense the friends’ disapproval of what Jesus was doing. In this report, the ambiguity arises in the expression “his friends,” a possible translation. But a better translation is “his relatives” or “his family.” A good rendition of the verse would be, “And when his relatives heard this, they went out [from their town] to lay hold of him, for people were saying, ‘He is out of his mind’” (Mark 3:21).2 However we translate these lines, we understand that some persons very close to Jesus obviously thought that He needed to change His ways. And they were willing to impose their will by taking action.
What other indicators do we have that people close to Jesus did not agree with His ministry? Any response to this question begins with His family. On an occasion when Jesus was preaching in “his own country,” in or near Nazareth, He said that a “prophet is not without honour, but in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house” (Mark 6:4). Jesus knew this from His own experience. Further, we read that, about the midpoint in His ministry, His brothers still did not “believe in him” (John 7:5). This situation changed, of course, because His brother James became one of the important witnesses of His resurrection (1 Cor. 15:7).
Jesus was not the only one who met resistance from friends and relatives. His experience foreshadowed that of His closest followers. In His memorable sermon on the Mount of Olives during the last week of His life, Jesus predicted that members of the Twelve would “be betrayed both by parents, and brethren, and kinsfolks, and friends.” More ominously, “some of you [apostles] shall they cause to be put to death” (Luke 21:16; also Luke 12:51–53).
Yet the responsibility remains to honor one’s parents, no matter the circumstance. Why? Because it is a commandment from God and Jesus reaffirmed it in His conversation with the rich young ruler. Perhaps more important, at the heart of Jesus’s ministry stood this directive to His followers: “Love your enemies, do go to them which hate you, bless them that curse you, and pray for them which despitefully use you” (Luke 6:27–28; also Matt. 5:44). No exception was to be made for disgruntled friends and family members, including parents.
One final touch highlights the ongoing relationship between parents and children with its attendant obligations on each side. It has to do with naming. We have already noticed that James and John were known as the “sons of Zebedee” throughout the Gospels. Jesus Himself was known as both “son of Joseph” and “son of Mary” (Mark 6:3; Luke 3:23; 4:22; John 6:42). Peter’s name was “Simon son of Jonas” (John 1:42; 21:13–15). The Gospels also preserve this form of one’s name for another member of the Twelve, “James the son of Alphaeus” (Matt. 10:3; Mark 3:18; Luke 6:15). The Gospels do not record the given name of the blind man whom Jesus healed at Jericho, but we possess the name Bartimaeus, which means “the son of Timaeus” (Mark 10:46). These names illustrate the enduring connection that each of these persons had with parents, a connection filled with honor.
Lead image from ChurchofJesusChrist.org
For further information, see S. Kent Brown, The Testimony of Luke, The BYU New Testament Commentary [Provo, Utah: BYU Studies, 2015.]