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19th Sunday after Trinity

06 October 2023

15 October, Proper 23: Isaiah 25.1-9; Psalm 23; Philippians 4.1-9; Matthew 22.1-14

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YOU can tell that I struggle with Matthew 22.1-14 by the number of references that I make here to other people’s opinions about it. My favourite comment observes that the parable of the wedding feast “is enough to make any interpreter go weak in the knees”.

The last verse is the most difficult of all: “Many are called, but few are chosen.” One morning, years ago (it must have been Trinity 20, when the 1662 Prayer Book sets this passage from Matthew 22), I attended an early communion service, and followed the readings in my prayer book. The priest stopped the Gospel at “weeping and gnashing of teeth”, leaving out “For many are called, but few are chosen.”

As a refusal to proclaim the Gospel, that shocked me. It implied that the priest knew better than Jesus and Matthew what it ought to say. But it did bring home to me how repellent even many Christians find these words of Jesus. Perhaps they evoke unhappy memories among those of us who were always last to be picked for the team in school games lessons (I count myself among them). It is not so much that the Gospel is arbitrary, as that it suggests that God will reject part of his creation. In particular, it highlights the theological conundrum of persons’ being condemned from the first moment of their existence.

The words themselves are plain enough, and the translation that I have quoted is perfectly accurate. So, where can we find some theodicy? How can God be defended against the charge of injustice — even cruelty?

The man without a wedding garment is a gate-crasher (“Friend, how did you get in here?”). He stirred up memories of my sister-in-law’s parents, who, years ago, ate well for free, while travelling right across America, simply by walking into hotels and heading for the breakfast room as though they were guests.

The matter of the wedding-guest’s not having the right clothing compounds the problem instead of resolving it; for wearing the wrong clothing ought not to condemn anyone. This makes the king appear harsh. Matthew 6.25-31 seems to contradict 22.11-13, too; for, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches that we are not to worry about what we wear. That could completely change the direction of the parable by implying that the guest who has the wrong clothing has the right attitude — although then we could no longer identify the king with God. The identification with God was problematic in any case; for having someone tied up and thrown into darkness is an excessive penalty for gate-crashing a party.

Commentators have naturally tried to detoxify verse 14. Among the possible defences of Jesus’s words, one option with a long ancestry is to understand “many” as if it were a synonym for “all”; then to interpret “few” as “not all”. One scholar refers to an early translator’s poignant take: “All are called, too few are chosen.” To my mind, though, the added “too” makes the verse more problematic, not less, because it sets up the Evangelist’s opinion against that of Jesus when he relates the parable.

Taking it as a reflection of the place of Israel among the nations, we might identify the “many” with all the nations, but the “few” with faithful Israel. As a solution, this comes at a price of inconsistency with Jesus’s teaching elsewhere, not to mention with much of the rest of the New Testament. A further option is to read it in conjunction with parallel passages such as 7.14-15, in which “many” take the easy path, but “few” the steep and narrow one.

The choosing out of groups who find favour with God from among humankind as a whole feels awkward. Even in the Old Testament, there are traces of an alternative approach: that God chooses individuals, not nations; and that he chooses on the basis of character and behaviour, not ritual or blood or primogeniture (1 Samuel 16.7). When nascent biblical theories about predestination and election came to be worked out systematically and with theological rigour, the problems of privileging groups were not erased. Instead, they multiplied.

If I could argue the problem of verse 14 away, I would have done so by now. The best that I can do instead is to proffer some potential solutions. I hope that it is not cowardice to take refuge in trusting to providence, combined with the comfortable words of Matthew 11.30.

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