by Wave Nunnally
As a child growing up in the 1950s, I was consistently reminded that Jesus taught us to “Honor your father and your mother” (Matthew 15:4; Mark 7:10). What He meant, it was explained, was that we were to respect (say “Yes sir/No sir/Yes ma’am/No ma’am”) and obey our parents. While these are certainly biblical principles (see Leviticus 19:32; Romans 13:7; Ephesians 6:1, etc.), is this actually what Jesus had in mind when He quoted Exodus 20:12/Deuteronomy 5:16?
In Matthew 15:1-6, Jesus is pointing out that although the Scriptures require us to honor our parents, some Pharisees and teachers of the law were telling their parents, “Anything of mine you might have been helped by has been given [to God . . . therefore can’t be given to you]” (v. 5, emphasis added). The italicized words should already tell us that what Jesus is referring to is something we own, not something we should say or an attitude we should have. So reading a bit more carefully, we note that Matthew’s Greek reads literally, “doron [a generic word meaning "a gift"] whatever from/by/out of me you could/would have profited/been helped/benefitted.”
Thankfully, Mark provides the original Hebrew word that Jesus used, “…anything of mine you might have been helped by is korban” (Mark 7:11). This hearkens our attention all the way back to passages like Leviticus 1:2, "Speak to the sons of Israel and say to them, 'When any man of you brings an offering [Hebrew, korban] to the LORD, you shall bring your offering [Hebrew, korban] of animals from the herd or the flock.”
The same word appears in Matthew 27:6 with the same meaning: there, the chief priests agree that they cannot donate Judas’ blood-money as korban (the Hebrew word is actually written out here in Greek letters) to the temple treasury.
Note that both of the passages use the term korban to refer to possessions offered to the temple. Since the late 1800s, numerous inscriptions have been found near the temple that use the term in this same technical sense: possessions devoted to the temple (see the discussion by Craig A. Evans, Jesus and His World: The Archeological Evidence. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2012, pp. 106-109).
The rabbis of the time taught the same interpretation/application of this commandment, amplifying the terse words of Jesus which assume knowledge of the traditional interpretation of Exodus 20:12. Consider these passages from Rabbinic Literature:
“What is a commandment pertaining to the son concerning the father? Giving him food to eat and something to drink and clothing him and covering him and taking him out and bringing him in and washing his face and his hands and his feet. All the same are men and women [with respect to their responsibilities toward their parents]” (Tosefta Kiddushin 1:11).
“What is ‘reverence’ and ‘honor’? …..‘honor’ means that he must give [his father] food and drink, clothe him, cover him, and lead him in and out” (Sifra Kedoshim 1:10).
“‘Honor thy father and thy mother.’ I might understand it to mean only with words, but the Scriptures say, ‘Honor the Lord with thy substance’ [Proverbs 3:9]. Hence it [the commandment] must mean with food and drink and with clean garments…..no distinction is made between man and woman…..The honoring of one’s father and mother is very dear in the sight of Him by whose word the world came into being. For He declared honoring them to be equal to honoring Him, fearing them equal to fearing Him, and cursing them equal to cursing Him.” The rabbis then support these assertions by reference to the similarity of language used of God and parents in biblical passages such as Exodus 20:12 and Proverbs 3:9; Leviticus 19:3 and Deuteronomy 6:13; Exodus 21:17 and Leviticus 24:15 (Mekhilta d’Rabbi Ishmael BaChodesh 8 on Exodus 20:12-14).
“‘Honor your father and your mother’…..All the time that a person honors his father and his mother no sin can come into his hand…..And a man should not say to himself, ‘Since my Father Who is in Heaven gave me my start at the beginning, I will go and do the will of my Father Who is in Heaven and I will ignore the will of my father and my mother.’ Therefore, it is said, ‘Honor your father and your mother.’ ‘Honor the LORD with your substance’ [Proverbs 3:9; the inference is that since the same word ‘honor’ is used in both passages, people should also honor their father and mother ‘with [their] substance’ as well]….He should do the will of his Father Who is in Heaven and the will of his father and his mother” (Seder Eliyahu Rabbah 80:24).
In recent years, it has become vogue for scholars to suggest that Rabbinic Literature is too late to be relevant for New Testament studies. It has therefore become important for those of us who work in this material to produce proof that such ideas existed in the first century. One way this can be accomplished is to appeal to the works of the first-century Jewish historian Josephus Flavius. He states, “Honor to parents the Law ranks as second only to honor to God…for the slightest failure in his duty towards them — it hands him over to be stoned” (Against Apion 2:206).
The words of Jesus are precious, and those who serve Him should want to know what they mean in their original context and how to apply them to their lives. The larger context of Matthew 15:4, the parallel passage in Mark 7:10, the use of the same technical term elsewhere in the New Testament and Old Testament, the results of archeological discovery, the teachings of the ancient rabbis, and the testimony of Josephus all point to the same conclusion: Jesus understood the commandment to honor father and mother to refer primarily to an individual’s responsibility to provide practical support and care for elderly parents. While He would surely have supported verbal expressions of respect toward parents, the focus of His teachings pointed to a much more costly — and lifelong — support of parents. This is His attitude toward all aspects of the discipleship He calls us to (Luke 14:27-33).
Pictured above: An inscription of the word "korban" on a stone vessel found near the Temple Mount in Jerusalem