Many called… few chosen: A place at the table

Bible and glasses

“Many are called, but few are chosen.” You probably hear this phrase frequently, but do you know it’s from the Bible? It’s the King James Version of a line at the end of a parable Jesus tells in Matthew 22:1-14. We commonly use this phrase to signify that only the best of the best are worthy. Is that what Jesus meant?

Here’s a quick recap of the parable: Jesus begins, “The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding party for his son.” At the appropriate time, the king sends servants to tell the invitees the banquet is ready, but nobody wants to come. After a bizarre bit of fighting between the invitees and the king, the king instructs more servants to “go to the roads on the edge of town and invite everyone you find to the wedding party.” Soon the table is full of guests.

Cool, right? This is one of Jesus’s parables about how God’s kingdom is open to all, even those you might not expect. But the story continues.

The king enters the banquet and notices someone not wearing “wedding clothes.” The king orders his servants, “Tie his hands and feet and throw him out into the farthest darkness. People there will be weeping and grinding their teeth.”

Jesus then sums the whole thing up with, “Many people are invited, but few people are chosen” (that’s the Common English Bible version). If those words are being used in the same way we use them today, they don’t fit.

What in the world is Jesus going for here?

Bible and glasses

Sometimes when we look closely at scripture, we see something we hadn’t before. CC0 public domain, via Pixabay.com.

Have we misunderstood?

Many sermons and studies make a quick turn at this verse. See, they say, it’s hard to get into heaven. Only a few will be saved—even though many are called.

A “gatekeeper” view of this verse, however, is difficult to defend.

At the end of Jesus’s parable, the wedding party is full of guests, “both evil and good.” The only one chosen is a guy who isn’t wearing the right clothes. When he is called out, he isn’t then sent to a better party (i.e. heaven); he’s booted from the party.

Some solve the issue by separating the “few are chosen” verse from the parable it follows. Matthew, they say, must have put that line there erroneously, but that seems unlikely.

Throughout the gospel, Matthew displays excellent writing and editing skill. The parable itself appears to be an edited version of a similar story in Luke 14:15-24 that Matthew contemporized and contextualized for his audience. That bizarre bit about a fire and fighting between the king and the invitees seems to reflect the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE.

Is it possible we’ve misread this verse? Maybe this isn’t a gatekeeper verse, but a comforting one.

I think Matthew and Jesus knew exactly what they were doing. Matthew’s first readers—a group of Jesus’s followers recently told they are no longer welcome in their local synagogue—would have heard these words much differently than we do today. While they may have lost their favorite pew, Jesus’s parable insists there is a place for them in the kingdom of God. Many are invited, even the unlikely, and few are chosen to be removed from God’s party.

Matthew tells us this party is a wedding party, which in the Jewish community is a symbol of God’s covenant with Abraham being passed on to the next generation. Matthew wants his audience, who’ve been told they’re not welcome anymore to worship among the people of Abraham, to know that the kingdom of heaven is open to them. “Relax,” Jesus seems to say. “Many are called to the kingdom, and few are chosen to be booted from it.”

Come. Sit. Eat. There’s a place at the table for you.

Leave a Reply