Art installation and photo by Todd Pick. Used by permission.
I've been working on General Conference worship for the past two years. I developed the Bible study that underlies our worship during these days.
Something about the reading for today (Matthew 22:1-14) has bothered me for quite some time.
It's the last line. Typically it's translated something like, "For many are called, but few are chosen."
This seems almost entirely out of sync with the parable, where many are called-- indeed, eventually, everyone is called-- and only one person who actually shows up is excluded.
I've been puzzling and puzzling over this. I've gone back to the Greek text to see if there's anything in the form of the verbs that makes sense of it. There isn't.
This morning, I had a lightbulb moment.
I've been reading that last line as if "the chosen" were the ones that mattered most. As if the "few that were chosen" were ultimately the "true disciples."
I'd failed to acknowledge just how much Jesus is subverting everything here. And I'd failed to acknowledge the audience to whom he was speaking.
He was speaking to the chosen-- or those who thought themselves so. He was speaking to the chief priests and Pharisees in the temple precincts-- some of the most powerful in the religious life of the people. It would be like talking to the Council of Bishops, or the Connectional Table, or even General Conference in United Methodism. They were the chosen of the chosen.
If anyone would be invited to the feast of Messiah, it would be these people.
They were the chosen.
And they already knew, as we read just a few verses before this (Matthew 21:45), Jesus was speaking against them.
Indeed, he was.
They were the ones who were invited first. And they refused the invitation. The king tried inviting them again. They not only refused, but beat up and killed some of the messengers who brought the invitations. The result was judgment: the destruction of those invited, their families, and even their towns.
Then he ordered that everyone else be invited. Everyone else. The many. The "hoi polloi." Some were good. Some were bad. But all were invited. And they came.
They said yes to the call.
They were NOT the chosen. But they were called. They came. They rejoiced. Everyone had a great time.
Except for one.
The one was acting like "the chosen," the folks first invited but refusing the invitation in one way or another.
This one person came but still in effect refused the invitation. He didn't put on the garment provided by the host for the celebration.
So his fate was exactly like that of those who were first invited and refused the invitation-- cast out into outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
The gospel here, the good news of this story, really is for the many, not the few. Many ARE called-- and get to enjoy the party to its fullness, if they actually show up and accept the garment the host graciously offers them. The hoi polloi are called, the good and the bad together. They aren't perfect. Some aren't even close. But they're all (except for one) willing to celebrate at this party, putting on the wedding garment the host provides so they can.
That garment doesn't make them better.
It just signifies they heard the call and wanted to be there.
So they were.
God is calling the many-- the hoi polloi, the good and the bad. Everyone. Everyone.
If folks refuse the call, or folks show up but show they don't really want to be there, they won't be for long.
But if they just come and agree to party-- to put on the garment-- they're in.
The many are called.
As for the few chosen-- well-- they could decide to hear the call and accept it. But being chosen isn't the basis for being at the party. Responding to the call is.
And Jesus is calling everyone-- to a party!
That's what the kingdom of heaven is like. Everyone who wants to be there, including just about all the "wrong people," are there, partying on.
So that last verse? It's amazingly good news! The MANY are called. Only a relative FEW find themselves in the position of the "chosen" (those first invited and refusing, or later invited and still "refusing in place").
Therefore, go-- call all! And party with all who come and want to party with you to celebrate the marriage feast of the son of the king.