Luther has the following to say about Sarah’s modesty in his Commentary on Genesis.
[Genesis 18:]9. They said to him: Where is Sarah your wife? And he said: She is in the tent.
After Moses has finished the description of the feast, than which the sun has never seen anything more sumptuous–for the table companions are God Himself with His angels–he appends the conversation or discourse that took place at the feast. He does so in order that this description may lack nothing and in order that it may become known to the entire world that this feast was not like one partaken of by monks upon whom silence is imposed.
Nothing is more irksome and more senseless than a feast at which silence reigns; for discourses are the real condiments of foods if as Paul says (Col. 4:6), they are seasoned with salt. For word is whetted by word; and not only is the belly fed with food, but the heart is also fed with doctrine, since godly conversations refresh the hearts, arouse faith, kindle love, and instruct in many ways. Away, therefore, with the silly and silent monks who suppose that worship and saintliness consist in silence!
Sarah seems to have had some doubt concerning the promise that was given above in chapter seventeen, namely, that she herself would be the mother of the Promised Seed. Therefore the Lord calls her in order that He, in person, may strengthen her in faith. For it is the perpetual work of God to instruct, enlighten, and strengthen weak hearts through His Spirit, not to condemn them or to cast them aside because of their weakness. Accordingly, God asks where Sarah is, and Abraham gives the short answer: “She is in the tent.” An indifferent heart reads this and pays no attention to it; but by means of these few words the Holy Spirit wanted to set before all women an example to imitate, so that, just as Abraham is presented everywhere as a rule, so to speak, of faith and of good works, so Sarah might give instruction about the highest virtues of a saintly and praiseworthy housewife.
For the weakness or inborn levity of this sex is well known. Women are commonly in the habit of gadding and inquiring about everything with disgraceful curiosity. Or they stand idle at the door and look either for something to see or for fresh rumors. For this reason Proverbs (7:11) states about wicked women that they have “feet that do not tarry.” This is due to their curiosity to see and hear things which nevertheless do not concern them at all. Therefore levity in morals as well as garrulousness and curiosity are censured in this sex.
In the case of Sarah, however, the opposite virtues are given praise in this passage, and this by means of Abraham’s brief statement that she is in the tent. If she had been inquisitive after the fashion of other women, she would have rushed to the door, would have seen the guests, would have listened to their conversations, would have interrupted them, etc.; but she does none of these things. She busies herself with her own tasks, which the household demands, and is unconcerned about the other things.
Thus Paul prescribes (Titus 2:5) that a woman should be οικουρος, a domestic, so to speak, one who stays in her own home and looks after her own affairs. The heathen depicted Venus as standing on a tortoise; for just as a tortoise carries its house with it wherever it creeps, so a wife should be concerned with the affairs of her own home and not go too far away from it. This is demanded not only by the tasks peculiar to this sex but also by the requirements of the children and of the domestics, who need careful supervision.
Hence it is great praise for Sarah that on this occasion she tends to her own affairs and does not offend by being curious but, like a tortoise, remains in her little shell and does not take the time required to get a brief look at the guests she has and at what kind of guests they are.
This modesty or restraint surpasses all the acts of worship and all the works of all the nuns, and these words, “Sarah is in the tent,” should be inscribed on the veils of all matrons; for in this way they would be reminded of their duty to beware of inquisitiveness, gadding, and garrulousness, and to accustom themselves to managing the household with care. With this brief statement Moses has described all the virtues of a good housewife, one who gladly stays at home and takes care of the management of the household, in order that the things which her husband provides may be properly allotted and administered.
Our opponents, the papists, boast of their great and wonderful works; but they laugh at us when we bestow praise on such activities in the household and in civil life, for they regard these as insignificant and ordinary. But to fast on certain days, to dress in a particular color, to abstain from eating meat, to undertake pilgrimages to distant places, etc.–these things they extol with full cheeks, and for them they promise heaven and supreme blessedness.
But even though the papists are undeserving of our replies to their nonsense and their absurdities, it is useful for us to understand and appraise those domestic and civil works properly. Hospitality is a domestic and civic work; but it must certainly be preferred to all the works of the hermits, yes, even to the fasting of St. John the Baptist, even though he undertook this as a result of God’s directive or order.
And this modesty or restraint of Sarah is a work that has to do with the home. What virgin or widow could be compared to her? But this union of male and female bothers the little saints so much that they not only do not believe that this kind of life is saintly but even think that it stands in the way of saintly religious exercises. It was for this reason that the pope imposed celibacy on his people. Furthermore, this kind of life is too ordinary and common among all people; therefore it is devoid of all show and is especially looked down upon by those who want to be the saintliest.
Yet their eyes should have been fixed on Him who instituted the state and the household. If the popes did this, they surely would have a loftier opinion about both functions. “God created them male and female,” and “He blessed them” (Gen. 1:27). You are not going to suppose, are you, that these are insignificant matters?
Therefore let us maintain that those works in the household and in the state which the papists despise as ordinary and worthless are most excellent and also most pleasing to God. For, to mention hospitality, what work is there, I ask, among all acts of worship of the popes that can be compared to it?
It seems to be something insignificant to give a cup of cold water to a thirsty person. But listen to Christ. What grand praise He bestows on this, and what rewards He promises (Matt. 10:42)!
But we shall reach the same conclusion about the other works in the household. If faithful parents bring up their children properly and accustom them to a godly conduct, and if through strict discipline they keep the domestics at their duty, these are ordinary works, I admit, without any outward show and without any reputation or saintliness; but the verdict should have been reached on the basis of the Word, not on the basis of reason.
It would not have been difficult for Abraham to fast on certain days, something which he no doubt did; but Moses records nothing about his fasting, for he wanted to record his true virtues, not such works as hypocrites can and usually do imitate.
But the papists do not deserve a more extensive answer from us. Therefore let us give thanks to God that we, having been taught by the Word, know what are truly good works, namely, to obey our superiors, to honor our parents, to manage our domestics, and to render the ordinary services which the need of the brethren demands, etc. For we see that these works were so highly esteemed by Moses, by the prophets, by Christ Himself, and by the apostles that they were not ashamed to preach about them often and to prescribe them.
They saw what snares reason ties for itself. Entangled in these snares, it cannot arrive at a knowledge of the true forms of worship; for, because of their outward appearance, the works or the traditions of men are always wont to lead men away from true works and exercises of godliness.
Look at a monk. He shuns obedience to all authorities, even to parents. He does not bring up children, does not work, and is beneficent to no one; but he is filled with hatred and ill will toward his own people and grows fat on the sweat of the poor. Yet he takes pride in his vow of poverty.
But Abraham, the godly head of the household, is truly poor. For he obeys when God calls him into exile. Nowhere does he have a fixed place. Although God blessed him, he nevertheless looks among the unbelieving heathen for attacks, violence, and rapine at any hour. Sarah, his companion, willingly follows her husband into exile, looks after the domestics and the home, is obliging toward the neighbors, and is obedient to her husband.
These are the highest virtues. There is nothing like them in all human traditions. Learn, therefore, to regard them highly and, since they are ordinances of God, to prefer them to human traditions, however grand and showy. For these corrupt faith and the ordinances of God. Like innkeepers, they mix wine with water.
Therefore let us take note of this example. Sarah is praised for diligently performing her duty in her home. For if a mistress of the household desires to please and serve God, she should not, as is the custom in the papacy, run here and there to the churches, fast, count prayers, etc. No, she should take care of the domestics, bring up and teach the children, do her work in the kitchen, and the like. If she does these things in faith in the Son of God and hopes to please God for Christ’s sake, she is saintly and blessed.
“What therefore God has joined together,” says Christ (Matt. 19:6), “let no man put asunder.” Therefore separation or celibacy, such as exists in the papacy, is not of God. On the contrary, the services which that divine union demands are holy and truly good works, no matter how insignificant and ordinary they are considered so far as outward appearance is concerned.
Where there is true obedience toward God in faith, there whatever the calling demands is holy and a worship pleasing to God. But if some prefer either widowhood or virginity and are able to forego marriage without sinning, let them do it, yet in such a way that they do not for this reason condemn domestic economy and the state. For these are kinds of life that have been ordained and instituted by God.
Let monks and nuns glory in their works. For a husband let it be enough if he rules his house properly; for a wife let it be enough if she takes care of the children by feeding them, washing them, and putting them to sleep, if she is obedient to her husband and diligently takes care of the household affairs. These works far surpass those of all nuns. Nevertheless, nuns are exceedingly proud of what they do.
For from human traditions this bane results, that hearts become complacent and take their sanctity for granted. But a godly mistress of the household is not proud; for she is vexed and humbled in various ways when countless annoyances are put in her way by the domestics, by her husband, by the children, by the neighbors, etc. Thus opportunities are nowhere lacking for the practice both of faith and of prayer. But let this be enough about the example of Sarah, and let us go on to what follows.