The book of Proverbs makes it clear that wise people protect and honor their parents. Six times Solomon calls us to be attentive to what our parents—fathers and mothers—say (Prov. 1:8; 4:1; 6:20; 13:1; 15:5; 23:22), and the last of these admonitions specifically says, “Do not despise your mother when she is old.” Solomon also calls it shameful to do “violence to one’s father” or to “chase away one’s mother” (Prov. 19:26). In light of the practice of the Pharisees in Jesus’ day, Proverbs 28:24 is especially striking: “Whoever robs his father or his mother and says, ‘That is no transgression,’ is a companion to a man who destroys.” The Pharisees had devised a way to claim that they were serving God by not providing for their parents. Mark 7:9–13 recounts Jesus’ pointed rebuke to them: they were violating the command to “Honor your father and your mother . . . thus making void the word of God.”
God’s Word teaches that we are to honor our parents because they are worthy of our gratitude, because they are sources of insight, and because our welfare is found in their welfare. Ephesians 6:2–3 says, “(This is the first command with a promise), ‘that it may go well with you.’ ” When we were young children, honoring our parents meant obeying them and protecting their reputation. We aimed to do things that would make them proud, and we were careful not to broadcast their failings. Noah’s sons Shem and Japheth were blessed for covering Noah’s “nakedness.” His son Ham was cursed for exposing it (Gen. 9:20–27).
As we grew older, obeying our parents gradually shifted to honoring them in new ways. Obedience became seeking out their advice and learning from their experience (see Prov. 1:8, 6:20). Protecting their reputation continued to be an important part of honoring them, but that task added a new dimension: in addition to minimizing their struggles in the eyes of others, we came to be sources of encouragement for them. We know our parents’ “powers” (talents, opportunities, and other resources). Honoring them includes encouraging them to use those powers faithfully.
“Honoring” in these ways is not restricted to biological or legal parents. Listening and encouraging are clearly appropriate for our earthly mothers and fathers, but all seniors—and especially those in the church—are worthy of attention and support. In a culture obsessed with building one’s “brand,” honoring others can feel like neglecting our own honor. In Christ’s kingdom, honor doesn’t work that way. We are strengthened by honoring others.
As we age, however, our powers decline. As long as we have powers to devote to Christ’s purposes, both children and parents can “stir up one another to love and good works” (Heb. 10:24). But a time can come when our powers are so reduced that others must take care of us. When this time comes, children honor their parents by making the choices that their parents would make if the parents understood the questions and were able to communicate their answers. Choosing as their parents would choose may require children to prefer their parent’s judgment over their own. Because the children are ultimately accountable to God, protecting their parent’s reputation means making only biblically appropriate choices on a parent’s behalf. Where possible, though, honoring our seniors also means figuring out which biblically sound option they would choose. An example may help us see what this means in practice.
Gladys was full of energy and insight before a stroke sapped her strength and made it hard for her to focus her attention. In the years after the stroke, Gladys gradually lost the ability to make consistent decisions for herself. Her husband had died years earlier, and when she was in her 80s, Gladys moved in with her daughter, Fiona.
At first, Fiona was able to keep up with her mother’s needs. Fiona’s own children were out of college and living in other cities. Gladys depended on Fiona for many things, but Gladys could dress and clean herself. As time passed, however, Gladys’ needs became more complicated. She would wander the house at all hours, she could not clean herself without help, and she would attempt to use dangerous appliances. Fiona did not sleep well. Even with help from her husband, they could not keep up with Gladys’ increasing need for care.
Gladys had the money to move into a modest assisted living facility. Fiona had long thought that children who loved their parents would never abandon them to be cared for by others. Now she was not sure. She wanted to honor her mother. Fiona considered insisting that one of her single children move home to help with Gladys’ care. Fiona looked into full time, in-home nursing care. Gladys could not afford that, but Fiona and her husband had some money set aside for retirement. Maybe they should use it for in-home care.
As she prayed for guidance and for her mother to get better, Fiona also thought through what Gladys would choose if she understood the options. From years of conversations, Fiona knew that Gladys would not want Fiona and her husband to spend their own retirement savings to hire nurses to take care of her at home. If they had more than enough money to take care of themselves, Fiona was sure her mother would not mind if some of it were spent on in-home care; but Fiona was sure her mother would not want needed retirement money spent.
Fiona also knew that Gladys would not want one of her grandchildren to quit working in order to care for her, especially if she would not be aware of what they were doing. It became clear to Fiona that Gladys would want to be kept comfortable and safe using the resources she had set aside for that purpose. While Fiona grieved that her mother’s health had declined so far, she was confident that what Gladys would have chosen was consistent with God’s Word.1 Fiona moved her mother to the assisted living facility, and she visited her often.
Our parents may come to require the care and attention that small children need. Because the motions of feeding, dressing, toileting, and protecting an aging parent can be just like the motions of caring for a toddler, it is tempting to think that honoring an infirm parent is just like caring for a small child. But the decisions we make about the care of our parents and seniors are not like the decisions we make for our children. With our children, we choose according to what we believe is best for them. With our parents and seniors, we choose according to what they would believe is best for them, consistent with God’s Word. As Proverbs 1:8 reminds us, honoring and protecting our seniors means listening carefully to them. We honor them now by listening not only because they are sources of wisdom but also because their values must inform the choices we may one day make on their behalf: “Listen to your father who gave you life, and do not despise your mother when she is old” (Prov. 23:22).
- For more on this, see Bill Davis, Departing in Peace (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R, 2017), especially chapter 2. ↩︎