St. James writes: “Show me your faith without works and I will show you my faith by my works.” In other words, works are faith made visible! Faith you can see. The Lutheran Confessions speak of such works as “the fruits of faith.” I bring this up because of today’s Gospel, the parable of the wise and foolish virgins.
This Gospel teaches us something vital for every Christian to know. And that is simply that not everyone who expects a welcome to the great Wedding Feast will in fact get one. Not everyone who believes that their place is assured will find it so. Some will “wake up” to find the Bridegroom from behind a closed door speaking to them the unutterably sad words: “I do not know you.”
Those to whom these words are spoken are people who have been dressed up for the Wedding Feast by Holy Baptism, who have waited for the Bridegroom, who had their lamps lighted and who, like the others fell asleep, only to be wakened by the shout at midnight: “Behold the Bridegroom comes! Go forth to meet him!”
Only they couldn’t, because the oil in their lamps was running near to empty. They ask the wise for some oil, but the wise couldn’t share with them – not now. So off in the mad dash to find the oil before the wedding starts. But they come too late and end up pounding upon a shut door, ultimately excluded. Lost to the joy and the feasting and the celebration within – where they had fully expected to be.
Each of us is one or the other. Each of us will be on one side of the door or the other. And because that is so, one over-riding question begs for an answer: “What’s the oil?”
Would have been nice if our Lord had explicitly said what it was. But alas, he does not. Or does he? He tells us that the oil is what allows the light to shine. We remember how early on in Matthew’s Gospel our Lord had exhorted his own: “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”
Our Lord is teaching us that the faith that finally saves is the kind of faith that shines! The faith that manifests itself, betrays its presence, in deeds of mercy and love. To come to the wedding feast and try to get in without the light of these good works shining in our lives is to find ourselves on the wrong side of the door! Unknown by the Bridegroom.
Goodness, I hear you thinking, is Pastor saying that salvation is then due to our good works? God forbid! It was not the absence of the good works that shut out the foolish virgins – the absence of the good works was but the flickering and dying of the light! But what caused the light to go out? St. Mark the Ascetic helps us get a handle on this: “When Scripture says, ‘He will reward every man according to his works,’ do not imagine that works in themselves merit either hell or the kingdom. On the contrary, Christ rewards each man according to whether his works are done with faith or without faith in Himself.” Faith, you see, is the key.
But there is such a thing as a “faith” that does not bring forth the light of good works. That’s why I mentioned James at the start of the homily: “So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment. What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” (James 2:12-18)
The deeds of mercy that the Judgment requires, then, are not something tacked onto faith – faith plus works. The deeds of mercy that the Judgment requires are simply faith itself made visible, faith shown to be ALIVE. This is how Luther put it once: “Faith is a living, busy active powerful thing; it is impossible for it not to do us good continually. It never asks whether good works are to be done, but has done them before there is time to ask the question, and is always doing them."
So if you hear the parable of the wise and foolish virgins and begin to sweat a bit – and who of us doesn’t? - the answer is not to try to tack on some good works to your life. That would like trying to make light shine without fuel! Good works will flow from your union by faith with Christ. What did our Lord say? “Apart from me, you can do nothing!”
Apart from the Virgin’s Son, apart from your Crucified and Risen Savior, apart from His presence, His life, His gifts within you there will be only darkness, no matter how hard you strive. But connected to Him, joined toHim by a living faith, there will be light shining in you and through you, the Light that is Christ Himself.
And that is what the means of grace are for, my friends! To dispense the oil that will fills your lamp and set your life burning bright. For the oil that is living faith, dispensed by the Word of God, pours Him who is the Living Mercy of God into your life. By the Spirit’s power, He who came into the flesh and mounted the cross for you where He forgave your sin and rose again from the dead to be your Life, He comes to you, connects to you in Word, water, body, and blood! Faith holds onto Him, and that’s why it saves!
You want your life to shine with good works? Then in repentance devote your life to union with Christ through His Word and His Sacraments. THAT is how you can be zealous for good works without falling into the trap of legalism and pride, imagining that the good works are due to you and your diligence, instead of being the inevitable result of Christ and His giving. Your lamp then will not go out.
Let no one ever tell you that good works are not important, or that they don’t matter. Their presence or absence is the irrefutable sign of faith’s being real or a deception: a faith that connects you to the living Lord and so saves; or a faith that is merely an idea in your head and so does nothing. As the Church likes to sing: “For faith alone doth justify; works serve the neighbor and supply the proof that faith is living.” Grant us all, Lord Jesus, an abundance of such proof uniting our lives to Yours by a living faith through Your Word and Sacraments – a faith that shines for all to see and grows ever brighter until the Day of Your return! Amen.