“Many are called but few are chosen.”
Matthew 22: 14
The parable we have just heard is one of the oddest parables in the Gospel. You do not need to be very clever to see the problems.
First, we have a king whom we naturally assume must represent God. But this king is not a just, wise king; he is vindictive, destroying not just those who refused his invitation but also their whole city. True, they themselves had been pretty nasty, not only refusing his invitation to a wedding feast but killing his servants. We may think the parable is very much like that of the unjust tenants of the vineyard who likewise killed the owner’s servants when they came for the rent. These people must be the Jews who have refused God’s invitation into his kingdom by refusing to keep the Covenant on which it was based. They certainly killed the prophets, especially the prophet Jesus of Nazareth. So far, we can read this as a story influenced by the destruction of Jerusalem – a punishment meted out on all the people in the city whether they were good or bad. This was a common narrative: the Jews are rejected and the gentiles are taken into the Kingdom.
This seems to be the message of the next part of the story, when the King sends his servants out into the streets to collect everyone they can find, both good and bad, to come to his feast. We can pride ourselves on being among this group who have replaced the undeserving Jews. Well, to be proud is a little over the top. The king has been completely undiscriminating. We haven’t been invited in because we are fine people, good keepers of the law, or anything like that. We just happened to be in the streets and got dragged into the feast whether we wanted it or not. The narrator emphasises this point when he says that both bad and good were called in. Can we draw from that the conclusion that everyone will be saved? Salvation does not depend on being good, or keeping laws. It comes simply from the mercy of God who is generous to all whether good or bad. The rain comes to the just and the unjust. All are saved because God is good.
Unfortunately, that is not how the story works out. The King comes in and sees one guest without a wedding garment, ties him up and throws him into outer darkness where men will weep and gnash their teeth. That is surely rather an extreme punishment for not being properly dressed. And anyway, how could he be properly dressed if he was dragged in off the streets? There must have been many others who were also not properly dressed. Maybe there were and maybe they were also thrown into outer darkness. In fact, that must have happened since we are told at the end “many are called but few are chosen.” That is a chilling end to our story.
How can we interpret all this? I used to think, rather naively, this was not one parable but two or three that had got mixed up. Matthew just included it as he found it. I don’t think that now. Matthew was a brilliant editor. If you study his gospel, you are impressed over and over again by his careful construction, his nuancing, his layer upon layer of messages. If we compare Matthew with Mark and Luke, we see that he had no qualms about tidying up stories, or altering details in order to get the message he wanted. The parable of the King’s wedding banquet comes to us like this because that is how Matthew wanted it. It says things that he believed his audience needed to hear. Do we need to hear the same things?
Matthew’s first point probably was to underline the rejection of the Jews for their own fault of refusing God’s invitation, and for killing the prophet Jesus. That was the clear message to all when Jerusalem was destroyed. That is not a message we would want to give out today. We could say, at least to ourselves, that if the Jews were rejected from the Kingdom because of their unfaithfulness, the same could happen to us. Christians are just as likely as Jews to grow complacent. We can always do with being shaken up, even in the Community of the Resurrection.
That message is underlined by the second part of the story where crowds of people are brought into the Kingdom and then many, perhaps most were rejected. Is it enough to eat drink and be merry in a Christian community? Clearly not. What more must we do?
The third point may be drawn from the army sent to destroy the wicked people and their city. I don’t think we have to say this was God’s action. We do have to admit that these things happen, even today. Ukraine and the Middle East are two tragic proofs of this. Violence keeps breaking out in human society. It is caused by sin. Yet it is not just the sinful people who suffer. It is everyone living round them. And God does nothing to stop it. God may not cause evil but he allows it. Is that not just as bad?
And finally, we are told that bad people are punished, eternally. Many are called, but few are chosen. Is that the end of this bleak and rather horrific story?
In one way, yes. Matthew does not embrace the heresy that God is good and in God is no nastiness at all. We don’t understand why God permits evil. We live in an unjust world, a world of much evil. We have the opportunity not to be caught up in that evil, and we must take it. Whether we are dealing with political incompetence, climate change, social injustice or straightforward war, we can’t just stand aside and enjoy being a Christian. Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount alone makes it clear there is much more we can do than that. This is where the silver lining finally appears on all these dark clouds.
We in our Community of the Resurrection, in our monastic life are called to do more than that. We must pray. We can never overestimate the value of our prayer in turning aside the evil that surrounds us. Yet we do more than that. Simply living our lives, trying to love, trying to create unity, trying to understand more deeply the tragedy and the joy of the human condition sets up an opposition to the evil. The best antidote to the evil around us is found in Paul’s message to us today: “therefore my brethren, whom I love and long for, my joy and my crown, stand firm thus in the Lord…Whatever is true, whatever is just, whatever is lovely…think on these things; and the God of peace will be with you.” Can that be a description of our life?