Friday, January 30, 2015

Martin Luther and the Parables (conclusion)

1534 edition of Luther's Bible

Luther did not avoid tackling some of the more problematic parables, such as the Unjust Manager (Luke 16:1-9). [The following sermon is taken from volume IV:292-301 of The Sermons of Martin Luther, published by Baker Book House in 1983]. Luther notes that the parable relates the story of how a steward cheated his master: he artfully but deceitfully deprived his master of his property (294).
The key point, for Luther, is that Jesus does not praise the dishonest actions; he praises him for his shrewdness:

He does not praise the thing in itself as good, but blames him for previously squandering his master’s goods, and afterwards shrewdly appropriating his property. This however the Lord commends, namely, that he did not forget himself, praising nought but his cunning and shrewdness. Just as when a flirt draws the whole world after her, and I say: she is a clever flirt, she knows her business. The Lord further concludes, that just as the steward is wise and shrewd in his transactions, so should we also be in obtaining eternal life . . . . As the unjust man acts shrewdly, though wrongly and like a rogue, so we also should act shrewdly but righteously in godliness. This is the proper understanding of this parable (294-5).
A second difficulty of interpretation arises, because Jesus then commands his followers to “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth” (Luke 16:9), which some of Luther’s “adversaries” (in the Roman Catholic Church) interpret as meaning that doing “works” are necessary for salvation, whereas Luther argued that salvation came through faith alone. Luther responds
If they thus attack us we must answer. Above all things it must be remembered that there is indeed no doubt whatever, that faith and love are the only source, as you have ever learned, that through faith we become inwardly pious, and we outwardly prove our faith by our works of love. . . . If I am to make for myself friends by means of mammon, I must first be godly. For compare these two statements: A corrupt tree cannot bring forth good fruit, and again, a good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit. From which judge for yourself: if I am to do good and give away mammon, I must indeed be first good at heart, for God looketh upon the heart, and as he finds the heart, so he estimates our works. This I say, that men should not cram works into the heart, but let the heart first be good through faith, that the works may flow forth, otherwise you do no one any good; for if you have before given a person anything, it did not come from the heart. Hence the conclusion is, that I must first be good before I can do good. You cannot build from without inward, you do not commence at the roof, but at the foundation. Therefore faith must first be present (296).
The “works” are the outward signs of one’s inner faith, and faith comes first. Works do not make some good; instead their bear witness to the genuineness of one’s faith (297). We do not earn salvation by doing good works; we must first believe, and good works will follow (299).

In a similar way, in his sermon on the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, Luther has to explain why Luke here, as in other places, “makes the impression as though righteousness came by works” (337).  [The following sermon is taken from volume IV:337-347 of The Sermons of Martin Luther].   

Consequently it sounds as though Luke everywhere taught that righteousness came by works; as you have recently heard: Forgive, and ye shall be forgiven; and, make unto yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness. And here it appears as though the publican had obtained his goodness by praying and smiting his breast. So this Gospel appears as though we should become good or pious by our works.

Now you have heard that a man, before he can do anything good, must by all means first be good. For the truth must always stand: “A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit;” and again, “An evil tree cannot bring forth good fruit.” Thus a man must first be good, before he can do good (338).
Note: I have also finished writing the sections on John Calvin and John Maldonatus on the parables, and I will share insights from those two sections on the blog as well. I haven't decided yet what to post next, though.

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