Sunday, August 28, 2005

“Many are called but few are chosen”

In response to my last post, where I said "remnant theology is wrong", some people will undoubtedly reply "but Jesus' said 'Many are called but few are chosen'."

Indeed, in two places in Matthew’s Gospel we read of Jesus saying these words (Matthew 20:16; 22:14). This saying appears to be contrary to the idea of God’s overflowing generosity which we see repeatedly throughout Jesus’ teachings. It appears that Jesus is saying that only a small number of people are actually chosen by God to enjoy His Kingdom and that even many of those who respond to His invitation will be rejected. This is so radically different from the rest of Jesus’ teachings that we need to look at this saying carefully in its context.

In actual fact Jesus is only recorded as saying these words on one occasion. While the King James Version (KJV) also places them at Matthew 20:16, most translations do not include it here. It seems that the KJV is based on a manuscript which incorrectly included the saying here, as the best and most ancient manuscripts omit it.

So we need to look at the one place where Jesus used these words: at the end of the parable about the wedding feast (Matthew 22:14).

This is quite different to another parable about a wedding recorded in Luke 14:16-24 so we shouldn’t confuse the two. A dominant theme in Matthew’s Gospel is the inclusion of the Gentiles in the people of God because of Israel’s rejection of Jesus as the Messiah. This is highlighted in the words “Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit” (Matthew 21:43). It is this message which is being emphasized in this parable.

The parable is in two parts. In the first part (verses 1-10) the people who are invited to the wedding ignore the invitation so the invitation is extended to anyone the king’s servants can find – good or bad – so the wedding hall is filled with guests. The message here is clearly a reference to Israel’s rejection of their Messiah, and therefore His kingdom, and the invitation going to the Gentiles instead.

The second part of the story (vv. 11-14) has a very unexpected twist. The king notices one guest without an appropriate wedding garment, and has him bound and thrown outside. There are two unusual features of this twist.

(1) It seems strange that someone who was invited at very short notice would be criticized for not dressing appropriately; and

(2) the consequences seem overly harsh in the circumstances.

However, this is no ordinary wedding: it is the King’s son! It would have been a great honour to have been invited and it seems that everyone else had time to dress appropriately. So the harsh treatment of the one person who didn’t take the honour seriously may not have been overly harsh after all (although we must remember that Jesus often used exaggeration for emphasis).

The story ends then with the punchline: "For many are invited, but few are chosen” (verse 14). If many people were thrown out of the wedding hall and only a few allowed to remain then this saying would clearly refer to those who remained for the banquet. However, in the story many stay for the banquet and only one is rejected. If this saying referred to the fact that one person was “not chosen” because he wasn’t properly dressed then it would have been more accurate to say “many are invited and most are chosen, but a few will be rejected”. Obviously Jesus has something else in mind.

A parable usually has one main point, or two at the most. The closing line, the “punch line” (also called the “end-stress”), relates to this main point. In this story the main point is that the people who were originally invited to the wedding banquet rejected this invitation and therefore others were invited in their place. The final line takes us back to this point. Many people make the mistake of interpreting this line to mean “many are called (from the world), but few are chosen (from those who are called)”. This interpretation has no connection to the context.

The “many” who are called, or invited, refers to the second group to be invited. The story makes it clear that a large number were included in this second invitation. “'Go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.' So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, both good and bad, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.” On the other hand the first group appears to be relatively small: “one to his field, another to his business”. So the saying is better interpreted “many are called (from the world) but few are chosen (from the world)” and there is a contrast between being called and being chosen (there is possibly even a play on words in the Greek, where the word “called” or ‘invited” is kletos and the word chosen is eklektos).

The word “chosen” (Greek eklektos) has the meaning of being “picked out”. It is a great honour to be “chosen” or “hand-picked”. In this story the ones who were “hand-picked” to be at the wedding banquet were those who were initially invited. From all the people in his realm the king chose these people to celebrate with him on this special occasion. But they treated this honour with contempt, and so they too were rejected.

The person in the second part of the story had a similar attitude. Although he came to the wedding he did not take the honour seriously of being invited to such a special occasion. He was very casual in his attitude, and in this way was similar to those earlier who casually chose to carry on with their business rather than answer the king’s summons.

We could paraphrase it this way: “It is a great privilege to be invited, and many have been invited; but it is an even greater honour to be hand-picked, and only a few have that honour – so don’t take it lightly.”

This story emphasizes the great honour which is offered to us when God invites us to the celebration in the kingdom of His Son. Israel suffered severely because they rejected that honour, and those who come into the church “casually” without considering what an enormous honour it is will also be treated severely. While we are saved by grace we must never take grace lightly. We have been given a wonderful privilege.

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