The Purpose of Family
When Jacob first met Esau, after years apart, long after Jacob’s deception, Esau asked, “‘Who are these with you?’ Jacob said, ‘The children whom God has graciously given your servant’” (Gen. 33:5). The context of the passage is about family values gone terribly wrong, a tale in which virtually every member of the family has been in conflict with each other and has been deceiving each other. And yet this dysfunctional family is that of the patriarchs of the twelve tribes of Israel and is nothing less than the family line of Jesus Christ. Clearly, God is at work, making his purposes unfold even through a family like this. But this is also the line of faith, as we see in Jacob’s answer to his estranged brother. We hear a powerful testimony that it is God who gives children, and not men and women who produce them. These children are not objects but are “graciously given,” bestowed on a “servant.”
Much later, Jacob’s descendant Jesus said not to make too much of ancestry, as the Pharisees did who based their hope on their physical lineage from Abraham rather than sharing his faith: “I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham” (Luke 3:8). God can make children from stones. He can make human beings from dust, as he did with Adam. And yet, God sends children through the bodies and souls of men and women. God knits the child together from the parents. God creates the space for the child, in the womb and the world. Through the parents, God feeds and cleans the little one and curbs the child’s crawling away into dangers. And through the child, God grants opportunities for the parents to love and serve, expressing their faith.
Parenthood is a God-given extension of the one-flesh union. A family is one flesh! The parents are unified in marriage and sexual union, and children spring from that union. The fleshly connection continues to express itself in the cohesion of the family around the fleshly needs that are addressed in service to one another. Through the mother, God works through her body to nourish and protect the child both before and after the baby is born. Through the father, God works to protect and support the mother and the child. God joins them together to share the work of parents: providing daily bread, protection, guidance, and instruction.
A Physical Job
Thus, the vocation of parenthood for us is very physical. It begins with our flesh and results in another mouth to feed and a body to protect. It means holding the child, soothing the child, and meeting the needs of the child. Caring for a child can be dirty, exhausting, and stressful. Changing diapers, potty training, keeping the child fed, buying clothes, tending the child through sickness, getting the child educated, driving the child to one activity after another—it is all loving and serving.
Through the child, God grants opportunities for the parents to love and serve, expressing their faith.
Luther said that changing a baby’s diaper is a holy work, holier than what all the monks in all the monasteries do.1 How can that be? Babies have to be changed, but changing them is a vile and repellant task. There is nothing more grossly physical. What could possibly be spiritual about a dirty diaper? But in doing this for the baby, the parent is loving and serving the child. God is loving and serving the child, even changing and cleaning the child, through the parent’s love and service. And so the parent is fulfilling a holy vocation.
1. “Now you tell me, when a father goes ahead and washes diapers or performs some other mean task for his child, and someone ridicules him as an effeminate fool—though that father is acting in the spirit just described and in Christian faith—my dear fellow you tell me, which of the two is most keenly ridiculing the other? God, with all his angels and creatures, is smiling—not because that father is washing diapers, but because he is doing so in Christian faith. Those who sneer at him and see only the task but not the faith are ridiculing God with all his creatures, as the biggest fool on earth. Indeed, they are only ridiculing themselves; with all their cleverness they are nothing but devil’s fools.” Martin Luther, “Sermon on Marriage,” Luther’s Works, vol. 45, eds. J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald, and H. T. Lehmann (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress, 1999), 40–41.
This article is adapted from Family Vocation: God’s Calling in Marriage, Parenting, and Childhood by Gene Edward Veith Jr. and Mary Moerbe.
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