This week's question comes from an adult reader in Kansas who was physically and emotionally abused by her father and mother as a child. She asks, "What does the Bible mean 'honor your father and your mother?'"
The verse in question comes from the Ten Commandments and reads in its entirety, "Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you" (Exodus 20.12). Our reader has really posed two questions: (1) what does honoring your parents mean; and (2) what should it mean to her?
To begin with, this command in the Exodus is one of the cornerstones for the nation's legal system. According to tradition, all of the oral and written laws of the Israelites can be associated with one or more of the ten commandments. These laws vary in their scope, but all have one thing in common -- they were not binding upon children. Children were not considered responsible for their actions; indeed, the father was held responsible if his children were unruly. It wasn't until the child had grown to be an emerging adult, in the eyes of the nation, that the law was expected to be kept.
Of course, according to the law an Israelite child became adult-like at an early age. Traditionally, a Jewish boy or girl became accountable to the law at age thirteen -- specifically, when they began puberty (Mishnah Sanhedrin 8:1). Thus, this commandment was written for youth and adults and couldn't be applied to children.
But what does it mean to "honor" your father and mother? The word honor in Hebrew, cavad, is a form of the word translated "to be heavy." Thus, giving honor was seen as a responsibility to "lift up" or "to bear." In the Old Testament, children (by kinship, not age) are instructed to honor their parents by listening to their parents (Proverbs 4.1) and by faithfully obeying the commandments (Prov. 28.7). These directives are written to insure that a child would grow to become wise.
Although never specifically commanded, it was expected children would support their aging parents in their twilight years. This is reflected in Mark 7.10-13 when Jesus chastises the Pharisees for withholding support from their aging parents because of preemptive religious vows.
In the New Testament, honoring one's parents is confined to the above example and a word from Paul who writes that children should honor their parents by being "obedient" (Ephesians 6.1; Colossians 3.20). However, in context, Paul's writings imply that the children are residing in a subservient role to the parents, i.e., they're still living a home.
In summary, the command to honor our parents is a command to be respectful so that children might grow to be wise, to care for the parents in their agedness, and to obey them while still under their care.
But there is a flip-side to the coin that relates to our reader. In both of Paul's passages about children obeying their parents, there is a subsequent command to the father about parenting (the father represents both parents and was the traditional disciplinarian in Jewish households). Paul writes, "Fathers, do not provoke your children, or they may lose heart" (Colossians 3.21) and "Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord" (Ephesians 6.4). To provoke a child to anger literally means to cause a child to have feelings of revenge; therefore, the command against provocation is a caution to the parents to not cause their children to become vengeful because of ill-advised actions. Clearly, abuse would be considered one of these actions.
Which doesn't leave our reader off the hook. She is still admonished to honor her parents, but not to the exclusion of her own well-being. If the abuse continues, she needs to find a way out of the situation and she should keep herself safe. On the other hand, holding a grudge and harboring feelings of revenge will eventually eat away at her own soul. Forgiveness doesn't mean becoming a victim again, it means releasing the past to face the future -- which may mean a future with little or no contact with her parents, but no ill will in her heart.