Often people reduce the Fourth Commandment, “Honor thy father and mother,” to a child’s obligation to obey their mother and father. Certainly obedience is important, as a child honors his parents and God by obeying them and God’s law. Obedience is the child’s way of saying that he trust that his parents know and want what is best for him and for the common good of the family: “I trust that you really love me and care for me.” The same is true in obeying God.

CCCC 459. What are the duties of children toward their parents? Children owe respect (filial piety), gratitude, docility and obedience to their parents. In paying them respect and in fostering good relationships with their brothers and sisters, children contribute to the growth in harmony and holiness in family life in general. Adult children should give their parents material and moral support whenever they find themselves in situations of distress, sickness, loneliness, or old age.

As long as children are supported by their parents they are called upon to obey them in all matters dealing with the common good of the family, just as Jesus obeyed his earthly parents (Luke 2:51). In obeying parents a child obeys God, respecting God in his parents even if he disagrees with his parents over what’s best for the family. However, if a child hears a call to carry out God’s will and mission in a particular vocation—for example, to be a priest or to marry a particular person, etc.—then the child must “render to God the things that are God’s” and follow God’s will, just as Jesus was obedient to his heavenly Father, even unto death (Luke 22:42; Philippians 2:7-8).

Although we are always a child of God and are obligated to obey his laws, a child’s obligation to obey his mom and dad ceases when he breaks out of the family to form his own family. At this point, the child is a true adult and now responsible for the good of his own family.

Yet the child still must honor his parents, acknowledging their cooperation with God in bringing them into the world. Adult children honor their aging parents by making sure that they have their basic material needs met: food, lodging, basic medical care, etc. This is especially true when illness and old age debilitates an aging parent to the point that he can no longer take care of himself. This does not mean that children must give a parent everything he wants or take the parent into their own homes—for the good of their own family it may not be possible. It always remains an obligation to treat them with respect, love and honor by providing for their basic needs.

In love for Christ, husbands and wives are one flesh and share a reciprocal authority over the family and each other, as St. Paul says: “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21). So a good wife anticipates her husband’s needs, just as a good husband puts the wishes of his wife ahead of his own, since “he who loves his wife loves himself. For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the church” (Ephesians 5:28-29).

A Christian employee (slave) should obey and serve his employer as though serving Christ: 

“Slaves, be obedient to those who are your earthly masters, with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as to Christ; not in the way of eye-service, as men-pleasers, but as servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to men, knowing that whatever good any one does, he will receive the same again from the Lord, whether he is a slave or free (Ephesians 6:5-8).

Of course, parents should treat their children (and employers their employees) with respect: “Parents don’t provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord… Masters, do the same to [your slaves] and forgo threatening, knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him” (Ephesians 6:4,9).

Yours In Christ,
Fr. John Waiss