Splitting Hairs

Matthew 22:1-14

This is a Gospel text on which Martin Luther gives two sermons, so I’ll focus on his comments in this post. (Luther’s two titles are: “Parable of the King Who Made A
Marriage Feast For His Son,” and “The Kingdom of Christ.”)

19. Now the wedding garment is Christ himself, which is put on by faith, as the Apostle says in Rom. 13, 14: “Put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ.” Then the garment gives forth a lustre of itself, that is, faith in Christ bears fruit of itself, namely, love which works through faith in Christ. These are the good works that also flash forth from faith and entirely gratuitously do they go forth, they are done alone for the good of our neighbor; otherwise they are heathenish works, if they flow not out of faith; they will later come to naught and be condemned, and be cast into the outermost darkness. First sermon from Martin Luther’s Church Postil, Volume V:234, Baker Book House (Grand Rapids, MI, 1983)

     First question, Brother Martin: I thought Christ was the bridegroom, so how can He be the wedding garment? That’s splitting hairs, I know, because in other places Luther speaks more clearly that the garment is faith in Christ. Later, he says the garment is the new light of the heart that stimulates good works, but that’s faith, too.

My only real hair to split with Martin is that you can’t see faith. You can only see evidence of faith. So I think the wedding garment is what can be seen that proves faith exists and that evidence is good works. Clothing in the Bible is often a metaphor for one’s outer
actions, as in wearing the robe of righteousness. That’s not some aura of perfection. It’s doing the right thing. It’s love for God and neighbor when love is a verb. Another analogy of clothing and outer actions is when God gave animal skins to Adam and Eve when they were naked and kicked out of the Garden. We all “wear” animals skins when we act like animals.

This is one of those knit picking, circular topics trying to explain the relationship of faith to good works. You can have good works without faith, but you can’t have faith without good works. And the good works aren’t really good unless they come from the love in your heart that got there because of faith. Only the One who sees into the heart can tell whether your works are the result of faith or not.

At this point in my life, I’m getting tired of worrying about what’s in someone’s heart when they feed the hungry. I’m glad to get their contribution, and so are the poor.

Luther does a little judging in his second sermon (which is not on the website yet so I’ll detail it here), paragraph 29, p. 248 – Those without the wedding garment number themselves among Christians, hear the Gospel, are in the outward communion of the right church and make before the people as if they also might be of the Gospel, and still they are not in earnest about it.

Some accept the invitation, get into the church and take part in the communion. But if there are no visible good works (arising out love that comes from faith), I think they
won’t experience the pleasure of making a difference in someone’s life. Therefore, they won’t experience the joy of the kingdom of God.

35. (p. 250) This St. Paul calls “putting on the Lord Christ” (Gal. 3:27; Rom. 13:14), also “being clothed that we shall not be found naked” (2 Cor. 5:3); which takes place
especially through faith, by which the heart is renewed and purified, and of which … the fruits … follow and prove themselves.

Again, I ask: does it matter to a hungry person whether someone gives him food from faith or not?

If Christ is in the hungry person, and someone gives Him food, is He going to condemn the person who is giving it to Him because the giver is trying to earn Brownie points with the Creator or his pastor? When Jesus separated the sheep from the goats, did He require faith to be a part of the giving? He said, “You fed me or you didn’t feed me.” He didn’t say love or faith had to be part of it. And in the parable before this parable, he didn’t say “faith” brought the tenants in the vineyard into the kingdom. Producing the fruits of the kingdom was the way to receive it.

There I go again. Knit picking.

The man thrown out of the wedding feast is in his own darkness or state of ignorance/unbelief. “Gnashing your teeth” was a display of anger, not pain. He lived in his own pitiable state of not understanding the goodness of God. He probably thought he had to follow all the laws of religion and was mad because he didn’t see others working as hard as he did trying to obey. He wants to be part of the kingdom feast, but he has no good works for his neighbor as evidence of his love or faith. No good works means no love in the heart, and you can’t enjoy the kingdom without love.

What’s the point? Fruits are part of the kingdom. Works are evidence of faith in the goodness of God in Christ. I think the Lutheran tradition has not placed enough emphasis on the evidence of faith that brings the kingdom. We’re too fearful that someone will think the works themselves bring the kingdom that we are afraid to promote them as helping to save us. But we’re splitting hairs. I think sometimes good works make you feel good even when you do them for the wrong reasons. I say we should praise and encourage everyone to feed the hungry, heal the sick, comfort the grieving, and not worry how it’s motivated. One day everyone will meet Christ in the person they are helping. And He will change their hearts.

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