In 1927, over 800 young women attending Boston’s Simmons College were asked to examine the prudency to the order of the Ten Commandments. The students rearranged the biblical order in a way that best made sense to them. They placed the fifth Commandment, to Honor thy Father and Mother, at the top of the list just ahead of “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me,” which slipped from first position to second.
Giving precedence to the fifth Commandment by placing it first showed the importance the young women gave to an age-old spiritual obligation. Exodus, Deuteronomy, Ephesians, there are few books in the Old Testament that do not have a reference to the commandment, “Honor thy father and mother.”
In fact, most religions give importance to this concept, honoring those who took care of us as children, who nurtured and protected us. In the Gospels of the New Testament, Jesus affirms the importance of honoring one’s parents. Muhammad exhorts the believers “be kind to parents” and “address them in terms of honor.” (Qur’an 17.23)
In the Bahá’í Writings, specifically in the Kitab-i-Aqdas (the Book of Laws), believers are also called to honor their parents. Likewise, in the Buddhist tradition, “Those who wish to be born in [the Pure Land] of Buddha... should act filially towards their parents and support them, and should serve and respect their teachers and elders.” (Meditation on Buddha Amitayus 27)
Of course, there are others in our lives to whom we extend the same distinction: grandparents, other relatives or even those outside of our family who may have “parented” us as children or looked after us when we were vulnerable. In a larger sense, honoring parents means honoring families, the basic building block of society.
Some people are deeply scarred by the lack of care they received as children, so to honor one’s parents does not mean to submit to those who abuse us. One has to carefully consider the concept of honor extended to parents in its broader sense of acknowledging those who came before us and this might require a measure of understanding and forgiveness.
For those whose parents have passed on, honoring them becomes an exercise of reflection. Perhaps we honor parents best by keeping alive not only the memory of their physical presence in this world but by manifesting the spiritual qualities which they helped engender.