Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Wedding Garment

In Matthew 22, there is a parable about a king who hosts a wedding feast for his son, and, when the invitees choose not to come, the king orders his servants to bring into the feast people (both good and bad) from the highways.  When the king notices that one of the guests does not have a wedding garment, the king orders that guest to be cast into outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

What is the wedding garment?  I've heard two proposals.  The first proposal is that the wedding garment is the imputed righteousness of Christ that covers the believer as a robe----that the believer is sinful, but he is covered by Christ's righteousness, such that God sees Christ's righteousness and not his sins.  I heard this view in a Seventh-Day Adventist Sabbath school class.

The second proposal is that the wedding garment refers to good works.  And, believe it or not, I've heard this interpretation more often than the first one.  I heard it at an Assemblies of God church, where the Sunday school teacher was saying that the wedding garment could symbolize works of compassion.  When an old lady joyfully said that she had a ticket to heaven, the Sunday school teacher replied that a ticket is not enough, for you also need a wedding garment.  The old lady was somewhat baffled!  I also heard this interpretation in a Bible class at DePauw University.  Moreover, on a Christian radio program, there was a discussion about the parable of the ten virgins and the oil in Matthew 25, and the preachers were interpreting the oil as good works rather than as the Holy Spirit because that coincided more with Matthew's themes.  I think that the same considerations can be applied to the wedding garment in Matthew 22.

In Jesus and the Jewish Parables, Brad Young talks about the Parable of the Wedding Feast.  He quotes Irenaeus, who in Against Heresies 36:6 says that the guest without the wedding garment represents one who did not receive the Holy Spirit due to his wickedness.  Young states on page 173 that Irenaeus is connecting "the wedding garment with works of righteousness and the receiving of the Holy Spirit."  And Young refers to a parable in Semachot Derabbi Chiya in which Rabbi Nathan (second century C.E.) tells about a king who provides his servants with gold and silver, warns them not to rob each other, and leaves.  When the king returns, he sees that the servants have stolen from one another and are naked.  According to Young, the point of the parable is that "likewise the wicked steal from each other in this world and will appear naked----without good works----before God" (page 178).  Nakedness is associated with the absence of good works.

I think that the first proposal (the wedding garment as imputed righteousness) is more comforting, but it does not really fit themes in Matthew, who (while he talks about God forgiving sins) does not refer to imputed righteousness.  But the second proposal fits with Matthew's emphasis on good works.
How good does one have to be to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, in Matthew's mind?  Doing good works entails doing the sorts of things listed in Matthew 25----feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, clothing the naked, etc.  But it also involves exceeding the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees (Matthew 5-7) by cultivating inward righteousness----avoiding hate and lust (which perhaps means coveting a neighbor's wife) and not just murder and adultery.  But, while the Sermon on the Mount exhorts people to be perfect, it recognizes that we continually fall short, which is why the Lord's Prayer asks for forgiveness.

I struggle with Matthew's soteriology, as I understand it.  Often, I try not to worry about it, for the last thing that I need to be is spiritually insecure.  At the same time, I can appreciate the concept that faith should be something that is put into practice, at some level.

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