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“Both Hands Full of Good Works”: Martin Luther on the Ministry of Parenting

Among the greatest gifts of words is their power to transfigure our experience, to lift the veil upon the beams of glory that pulse within our tawdry-seeming tasks. When our eyes are swathed in weariness, in hopelessness, in the sheer blankness borne of repetition, a word fitly spoken can cut through all this and set our gaze again upon the blaze in the burning bush of the day-to-day.

As each of us knows, and many of us feel more strongly than usual in these strange days of sheltering-in-place, parenting and home-keeping are glorious callings that can be quickly obscured by layers of messes to tidy, mouths to feed, quarrels to resolve, chores to do on endless repeat. Parents and home-makers need words that help them keep alight the flame from the mountain in the midst of mundanity.

I have been reading, during Lent, Martin Luther’s Treatise on Good Works, an exposition of the Ten Commandments that seeks to demonstrate how works proceed from and subsist in faith. With palpable joy, eagerness, and wonder, Luther spreads out all the ways faith may be exercised in our lives in this world; he exudes delight like a child dumping out his toy-box. For, he affirms, if we “practice and use faith in every good work and allow it to be the noblest work of all,” then our works, which might otherwise curve us in upon ourselves, will instead lift us into closer union with Christ.

Under the heading of “Honor thy father and mother” comes this exhortation to parents. May the vision it paints bolster hearts, strengthen hands, and renew joy in the midst of the hard, holy work you have before you.

It is true that parents, as if they had nothing else to do, can gain salvation by means of their children. If parents rear them for the service of God, they have both hands full of good works. In this case, those who are hungry, thirsty, naked, imprisoned, sick, and strangers [Mt. 25:31-46] are none other than your own children, for whom God makes your house into an infirmary with you as the keeper. You are to take care of them, give them food and drink, and teach them proper words and deeds so that they learn to trust, believe, fear, and put their hope in God; honor God’s name; refrain from swearing and cursing; and discipline themselves with prayer, fasting, watching, working, worshiping, hearing God’s word, and observing the Sabbath. Then they will learn to disdain worldly things, endure misfortune with equanimity, face death without fear, and avoid holding this life too dear.

Do you understand how important that lesson is and how much good work you have to do in your own house for your children, who need all those things just like people who are hungry, thirsty, naked, poor, imprisoned, and very sick souls? That would be a blessed marriage and household indeed were it to harbor such parents; yes, it would be a proper church, a cloister of the elect, event he kind of paradise about which David speaks:

“Blessed are those who fear God and walk in His commandments. You will be nourished with the labor of your hands; therefore, you will be blessed and it will go well with you. Your wife will be like a fruitful vine in your house, and your children will be like young shoots of the olive tree around your table. Behold, therefore, how blessed are those who fear the Lord” [Ps. 128:1-4].

. . . What was said about the other commandments—that obeying them should happen in the most important good work of all [the work of faith]—applies here also. No parents should imagine that their discipline or teaching by itself suffices for their children. They must be done in reliance on God’s favor, without any doubt that God is pleased, and with awareness that such works are nothing other than ways of practicing faith and encouraging us to trust God and to expect from His merciful will all that is good.

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