Many Are Called, But Few Are Chosen: An Exegesis

The second view of Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece.

I’ve heard several sermons preached on Matthew 22:1-14. In many ways it’s fairly standard for parables of its type—we have an invitation to a wedding banquet, which is rejected by those to whom it is initially offered. After those who reject the offer have been destroyed and their city burnt, the invitation is extended to those who are on the main streets, ‘both good and bad.’ These people are gathered, the wedding hall is filled with guests—and so we have (with a little supersessionist discomfort) a neat and tidy story of how the Kingdom of God is made open to any, not an initially privileged few.

There is one aspect of this parable, however, which leaves preachers wishing that they were expounding Luke 14:15-24 instead. To quote this passage in its entirety:

But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.1

I’ve yet to hear a sermon in the Episcopal Church which really proclaims these words. I’ve heard a couple which try to ignore them, more or less successfully. I’ve heard a couple which have broached them directly, but ultimately accounted for them as words pointing to the incomprehensible mystery of both Scripture and the will of God. But I haven’t heard them proclaimed as Gospel, preaching hope for the captive and grace for the world.

Now, this is fair enough—there’s a reason why this passage provides such a stumbling block for preachers. It seems to be a gospel passage peculiarly void of good news, apparently showing us the capricious will of an arbitrary, cruel God. Positively, it seems (at best) to tell us that the God of Jesus Christ can and indeed will damn who God wills. Negatively, it seems (at best) to tell us that we can never be assured of God’s grace—even if we are invited into the Kingdom, we cannot be sure that we will be wearing the clothes appropriate for God’s righteousness.2

However: the hardest passages of Scripture—the passages with which we really have to wrestle—tend to intimate some of the most fundamental truths of the Gospel. And there are few harder passages than this, no matter where you stand doctrinally. So, it has tended to occupy my thoughts in quieter moments. When I was particularly struck by a moment in reading theology, or reflecting on a particular series of events, I found myself wondering how these things could both make sense of and make sense in the light of Matthew 22:1-14. How could we proclaim this passage as the Gospel of Jesus Christ?

I can’t pretend to have an answer to this question. But some of the connections made through all this wondering have suggested a guess. This guess emerged after encountering one of the more idiosyncratic aspects of Karl Barth’s doctrine of predestination—specifically, the idea that whilst there is indeed a divine rejection, ‘there is only one Rejected, the Bearer of all man’s sin and guilt and their ensuing punishment, and this One is Jesus Christ.’3 To expand slightly on the Trinitarian significance of this, Barth argues that ‘in God’s eternal purpose, it is God Himself who is rejected in His Son. The self-giving of God consists, the giving and sending of His Son is fulfilled, in the fact that He is rejected…’4 (Jesus Christ is also, of course, the One who is elected, such that the election of grace takes place in Him on behalf of the world—but here we are focussing on His rejection.)

The guess is thus as follows: the speechless Friend who is bound hand and foot then thrown into the outer darkness is Jesus Christ, the Son of God and the son in the parable. The Gospel contained within this passage is the good news that God is not satisfied with those who have been gathered by the servants, but wills that those who turned down the initial invitation might be brought into the Kingdom as well. The Son is cast out so that those who rejected the invitation might be brought into the Kingdom, and so we can read Matthew 22:1-14 as elucidating the truth of the Incarnation. The statement ‘many are called, but few are chosen’ is true, then, but its meaning does not trace a limitation of grace. Rather, it describes the mission of the Son to the lost—He is the One chosen to bear the truth of grace to all, so that the many might know that they are called; He is the One chosen to be bound and cast into darkness, so that those who walk in darkness might be freed from the bondage of sin.

I am certain that this isn’t new, so I would greatly appreciate it if anyone reading could refer me to original versions of this interpretation. I am also far from certain that it works, so apologies if not. But I am equally sure that it is both potentially contentious and potentially interesting—so here’s a post attempting to describe in some detail how this reading might be supported.

The post is long, so I’ve given the conclusion at the beginning for those without the time to read it in its entirety (it is also available in PDF format here and ePub format here, to make it easier to read over a longer period of time). For those who do have the time, my hope is that there are ultimately two takeaways from the elongated discussion. The first is the idea that those passages of Scripture which most appall us are precisely those which most deserve our attention. There is little to be gained from glossing over those aspects of Scripture which go violently against our sensibilities—and there is nothing to be gained by amputating those aspects of the Biblical narrative which reflect and sharpen those realities we would rather forget. There is much to be gained, however, in facing these things head-on, in trying to discern how they can be read as integral to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The second desired takeaway is the principle that the content of the Gospel is always the grace of God for creation as revealed in Jesus Christ, God’s only begotten Son. This is the grace which encompasses both the powerlessness of creation to ground its own existence, and the absolute power of God’s love for that existence. It is the grace which encompasses both the incapacity of humanity to comprehend the ways of God, and the fact that these ways are always and only the ways of God’s being for creation. And it is the grace which encompasses both our attempts to live apart from the grace of Jesus Christ, and the fact that Jesus Christ died and lived precisely for those of us who attempt to live this way. This is in fact a far less exclusive claim than it might at first seem, given that grace itself demands that its proclamation take many forms—but precisely because grace cannot be limited by the concepts of human thought, such that it demands a pluralism of expression in both word and deed, so too no human thought or action can presume to express grace on the basis of its own content.

As we explore the strange world of Scripture, then, and as we seek to shape our Christian witness according to that world, we must bear witness to the fact the Word of God is always grace—the form of which is given once and for all in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And we must remember that this remains the case even in the deepest darkness. After all, is there any greater witness to the power of grace than the fact that its light shines for those of us who are lost in the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth (as well as much worse besides)?

The Interpretation of Parables in General

Before exploring the particular grounds of the above interpretation of Matthew 22:1-14, it is worth sketching out two general principles for the interpretation of parables. The first is that the interpretation of any one parable should be considered in the light of every other parable as well. The second is that any interpretation must remember that the unity of parables is grounded in the fact that Jesus Christ does not just proclaim the Gospel—rather, He is the Gospel, and so its content as well as its proclamation. These two principles are interrelated, as our tracing should indicate.

The Unity of the Parables

Our first principle of interpretation is grounded in the fundamental unity of the parables as they are laid out in the Gospels. The idea is that no matter how diverse these parables might be in their entirety, and no matter how divergent the different renderings of a single parable might be, they cannot be interpreted in such a way that they do not constitute a unity. There is no more sophisticated reason for this idea than the fact that each of the four Gospels seeks, in its own way, to bear witness to the one person of Jesus Christ—such that the unity of the object should at least motivate an attempt at unity across interpretation.

This is not, we must make clear, an argument for a naive harmony of the Gospels. It is not an argument for a reductive reading of the four evangelists, one which attempts to do away with their differences and their contradictions so that we are left with a single, simple account. It is rather an argument for trying to read each of these four testimonies as accounts of a single reality, and so allowing for the assumption that they have each in their own way captured something of the truth of this reality which the others have not—that their differences and contradictions illuminate different aspects of a single unutterable truth, diffracting rather than fracturing its light.

This is not to say, of course, that we should not therefore try to understand what one parable or one Evangelist says in isolation from all others. Nor is it to say that there is no value in historical-critical analysis of the parables. It is merely to say that these readings should not be our final readings, but should instead serve as a starting point for a complementary (though not reductionist) interpretation of the whole. Turning to Barth again, we can perhaps paraphrase him in order to clarify what we’re trying to hint at here:

We do not recognise [Jesus Christ] in any of these [parables] in exactly the same way as in the others, but in all of them we have to recognise Him as He is. None of [them] gives quite the same witness as the others. None simply repeats the witness of the others. The multiformity of [the parables] cannot be ignored, and no sound exegesis can afford to ignore it, it cannot be glossed over. It cannot be reduced to a formula. It cannot be simplified. But this multiformity… is best observed and maintained if here too the final word in exegesis is actually the name of Jesus Christ, if He is understood as the individual in whom we recover both the unity of that which they all commonly attest, and that which is the peculiar individuality of each.5

This interpretive principle is in fact quite in line with the rationale given for the parables in Matthew and a certain account of Scripture in general. For ‘who is to say that Scripture really is unclear? Isn’t it possible that it was essential in this case to tell a riddle?’6 Might it not be that ‘there is a riddle in the fact itself?’7 Indeed, assuming that we who read are not in the position which the disciples were, it may be the case that ‘[with us indeed] is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says: ‘you will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; so that they might not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and understand with their heart and turn—and I would heal them.’’8 In other words, we do indeed see through a mirror darkly, and shut our eyes if we presume to see with absolute clarity. The truth at stake here is not one which we can understand by listening, nor one which we can perceive by looking—it is one which heals us by showing itself beyond our reductive comprehension.

Jesus Christ as the Content of the Parables

The presumption of this unity then informs and is grounded by our second principle: the idea that Jesus Christ should be the content of the parables as well as their preacher. Because if he is indeed both the unity which the parables commonly attest and their peculiar individuality, then both this commonality and this peculiarity must likewise be held together by the revelation that He Himself is the way, the truth, and the life. The parables must therefore be interpreted as reflecting the mystery of Jesus Christ as the Incarnate Word of God, and so the grace which is revealed in His life, death, and resurrection.

This idea, too, must be qualified—we shouldn’t just start playing a ‘where’s Jesus?’ with the parables (however much picture book potential that might have…). Rather, we should read the parables in such a way that we are paying close attention to what they tell us about the workings of God as revealed in the Incarnate Word. To use explicitly Trinitarian language; working with the idea that ‘no one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known,’9 we can hold that Jesus Christ reveals both the nature and the will of the Father. Working with the proclamation of Romans 8, that the Holy Spirit is ‘the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus’ along with the equation of the Spirit of God and the Spirit of Christ in v9, we can hold that the life and working of the Spirit is likewise revealed in Jesus Christ.

This grounds two symbiotic conclusions. The first is that we should therefore interpret the person of Jesus Christ according to the doctrine of the Trinity. The second, and perhaps more fundamental, is that we should interpret the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ as revealing the true life of the Trinity. To then bring this back to the centre, these two conclusions taken together support and flesh out the principle that when interpreting the parables, we must look for Jesus Christ as their content. They entail, at least in part, learning to interpret what the parables (and Scripture in general) tell us about the life of the Trinity as it is revealed in Jesus Christ. Otherwise we run the risk of being as those of whom Jesus says;

‘You have never heard [God’s] voice or seen his form, and you do not have his word abiding in you, because you do not believe him whom he has sent. You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”10

When we read parables speaking of fathers, then, we must interpret them in the light of Jesus—that is, in light of the fact that ‘God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.’11 And when we discern the working of the Spirit borne witness to in the parables, it must be the Spirit of whom Jesus says ‘[the Spirit] will glorify me, because it will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that [the Spirit] will take what is mine and declare it to you.’ In other words, to interpret the parables in the light of Jesus is to interpret them under a Trinitarian aspect, working under the assumption that the Trinity is itself revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.12

The Interpretation of Matthew 22:1-14 in Particular

Before and After: Matthew 21 and 22

With these principles articulated, let us now turn to Matthew 22 in particular. Bearing in mind the importance of interpreting each individual parable in the light of the others, let us begin by looking at what comes immediately before and after the Parable of the Wedding feast.

We begin our narrative with the question regarding Jesus’ authority. When asked by what authority he is acting, Jesus replies ‘I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?’13 This sets up a distinction which we will encounter throughout the whole of Chapters 21 and 22: the distinction between authority and acts originating in heaven and authority and acts originating from creation.

This is followed by the first full parable which Jesus tells after entering Jerusalem—the Parable of the Two Sons: ‘a man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go.’14 Jesus then tells those gathered, ‘truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.’15

Next we come across the Parable of the Wicked Tenants, where we read about the owner of a vineyard attempting to collect the produce of the harvest from his tenants. He first sends his slaves, but they are rejected and killed. This brings us to the central passage of this parable, for our purposes at least:

Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.16

The parable ends with Jesus telling the chief priests and Pharisees ‘therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.’17 This brings us to the end of Chapter 21, and so to the Parable of the Wedding Feast.

We will focus on this later. For now, we will look at the four accounts which follow it, each of Jesus making pronouncements after being challenged. The first of these is a response to the question of paying taxes. Upon being asked whether or not it is lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, Jesus says ”Show me the coin used for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Then he said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’18 This reinforces and fleshes out the earlier distinction between heavenly and earthly authority, developing the contrast referenced in 21:43 between fruits of the kingdom and fruits of the world.

The second is the question of the resurrection, which begins with the Sadducees asking Jesus who will be married to who in the afterlife. After deflating their assumptions regarding life after death, Jesus tells them ‘as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is God not of the dead, but of the living.’19 And finally, we are brought to the essence of the Law, where Jesus responds to a lawyer’s question regarding the greatest commandment as follows:

He said to him, ‘‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’20

The chapter then closes with an allusion to the divinity of the Messiah, hinting at the conclusion that the Messiah is the Son of God by drawing a paradox out of the premise that they might properly be called the son of David.

The Parable of the Wedding feast is thus situated in the middle of a series of parables and pronouncements which, taken together, trace a particular narrative. The Parable of the Wicked Tenants ends with a distinction between the fruits of the world and the fruits of the Kingdom. The answer to the question about paying taxes formalises this distinction in showing that the coin paid to tax is no fruit of God’s, and so should not be thought of as fruit of the kingdom of God. Marriage is then (perhaps controversially) presented as a fruit of the world, given that there is no marriage in the Kingdom—and both marriage and coin are then cast as dead fruit from dead trees, insofar as neither is cast as an acceptable offering to the God of the living.21 The core of this narrative, however, lies in Jesus’ pronouncement regarding the resurrection, which both rejects the fruit of the world and proclaims the resurrection of the dead, understood as the bringing of those who are dead to life so that they might bear the fruits of the Kingdom of God.

The end of Chapter 22, meanwhile, can be understood an elucidation of what this resurrection from the dead entails in terms of the two sides of God’s covenant with creation—the Law and the Gospel. In articulating the Law through greatest commandment, Jesus describes how God wills humans to live such that they might bear fruits of the Kingdom here and now. And in hinting at the fact that the Messiah is the Son of God, not the son of David, He draws our attention to the question of the true vine from which alone the fruit of the Kingdom can grow; namely, Godself, revealed to us in the person of the Son (to skip ahead a bit, ‘from the fig tree learn its lesson’). Appealing to John 15:1,22 we can read this narrative as describing what it means to say that the fruits of the Kingdom are those which grow out of obedience to Jesus Christ, and the possibility of this growth lies in the person of Jesus Himself. Going back to the parable of the wicked tenants then, we can say that ‘a people that produces the fruit’ first and foremost refers to the Son, then to those who live according to the great commandment.

The narrative in which we encounter the Friend thrown out of the wedding banquet into the outer darkness, then, is one which distinguishes between the fruits of the world and the fruits of the Kingdom and draws us towards the conclusion that the fruits of the Kingdom are those which are grounded in Jesus Christ. There are two primary movements in this narrative: the first is the movement of the Son with regard to the wicked tenants, the second is the resurrection of the dead. There are two distinctions made. The first is a distinction between the fruits of the world and the fruits of the kingdom. The second is between those who do the will of God and those who do not. No distinction is made within the world between those who bear good fruits or bad, no distinction between ‘good’ or ‘bad’ people. The work of God is instead distinguished from the work of humanity, and we are told that the work of God is the resurrection of the dead, a resurrection which empowers creation to live according to the grace given in Jesus Christ.

Matthew 22:1-14: The Parable of the Wedding Banquet

We are now in a position to directly broach the Parable of the Wedding Banquet. Here it is in its entirety:

Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.

But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”23

We arrive at this parable after the question regarding authority, the Parable of the Two Sons, and the Parable of the Wicked Tenants. After it, we read the questions of tax, marriage, and resurrection, then the essence of the Law and the person of the Gospel. We are thus already working with two distinctions (the distinction between the fruits of heaven and the fruits of humanity and the distinction between the two sons) and our sight is being directed towards how the fruits of heaven relate to the fruits of the earth in terms of the resurrection of the dead. We can intuitively identify those originally invited to the feast with the wicked tenants and the second of the two sons, and we can identify those gathered by the servants with the tax collectors and prostitutes of 21:31.

With this context set, we can now begin to interpret the imagery of the parable. It makes sense to begin with the relatively traditional idea of the wedding banquet being thrown for the marriage between Jesus and the Church. We must of course be incredibly cautious of this imagery, bearing in mind the destructive impact which it can have (and has had) on our conceptions regarding marriage.24 In awareness of this danger, however, we can reasonably interpret the father of the parable as the Father, the son as the Son, and the marriage as the rendering of the Church as the body of Christ.

Possibly the most important consequence of this interpretation is that it necessitates an eschatological reading of the parable. For all the concreteness of its practise within the New Testament, the Church is an eschatological concept in Scripture—it is the new Jerusalem spoken of in Revelation 21:9, the new creation of Isaiah 65. Its reality is not to be spoken of as in our time, but always as something which is to be prayed and hoped for. And given that the wedding itself is neither recounted nor completed in this parable, we must therefore read it not as describing a final reality, but as a movement within time which turns our attention towards a Kingdom which, for all of its immanence in Jesus, is still unseen and hoped for.

Allowing for the idea that this wedding is the renewal of creation as the body of Christ, we can now interpret the invitation to the banquet as more than an invitation to attendance—those who are invited to the banquet are invited to be the Church. Thus those who reject the invitation are cast as rejecting membership of the body of Christ, whist those who are gathered are cast as being gathered into this body.

This image of rejecting and gathering runs through both Old and New Testaments.25 The invectives of the prophets are almost universally directed against those whom God has chosen but who have broken God’s covenant. Similarly, the promise which they proclaim is a promise to those who are lost, to those who have fallen into sin. And working according to the second of our principles above, we must interpret this image according to the ministry of Jesus Christ—however harsh its description, the work of the father here must be interpreted in the light of the work of the Son.

This is quite an easy thing to do in terms of those who are gathered by the king’s servants. We have gotten used to thinking of ‘sinners’ in the abstract as the object of reconciliation in the gospel: we know that Jesus came to call not the righteous, but sinners, as in Matthew 9:13. And it is easy to develop an interpretation more or less identical to the one given in the first paragraph, then leave it at that.

If we are to read this parable in the light of Jesus’ mission to call lost sinners, however, then we must turn our focus away from those who are gathered by the servants, and instead direct them towards those who first turned down the invitation. These, more than any, are those who stand in need of the reconciliation which is in Christ. These are not sinners in the abstract, but those of us who stand firm in our own righteousness, those of us who stand against the call of grace, those of us who would rather rule in our own cities than become members of the kingdom of heaven. It is easy for us to forget that Jesus Christ died precisely for those who crucified Him. It is easy for us to forget that He did not come for the ‘good’ amongst us, something made abundantly clear here by the fact that those gathered off the streets are both good and bad. Jesus neither lived nor died for those who were misunderstood but downtrodden, those who would do brilliantly if they were just given a chance, who were hiding loving hearts beneath it all. He lived and died for the worst of us as well, for the cruel, for the malicious, for the greedy. He lived and died for the wicked tenants, for those who reject His invitation, and for the Prodigal Son. We do a great disservice for the Gospel if we think it is given primarily for those who are good underneath it all, and not for those who are sinners all the way down. We do a great disservice to the power of grace if we forget that, for all of the invectives against those who hold to the righteousness of the world within the gospels, it is still these ‘righteous’ sinners who are sought out by the Word.26

Insofar as the mission of the Son is indeed the ministry of reconciliation, then, we must consider the reconciliation of the true sinners of this parable. Which brings us to the crucial verses 11-14. First, the father notices one man amongst all the guests; and let us note here that up till this point only two individuals have in fact been referenced at all, the father and the son. Second, the father notices that this man doesn’t have a wedding robe; and let it be noted here that not only is this never stated as a requirement made of the guests, but that the guests are explicitly chosen without requirement, moral or ritual (and let it be noted that he is called ‘Friend,’ a term which John 15:15 loads with extreme significance). Third, the man is silent, leading to his binding and being thrown out; let us note here that this is entirely in keeping with Jesus’ silence before the priests in Chapter 26v3. And finally, we have that famous pronouncement, that many are called but few are chosen; and let us note that this said when it is the many who occupy the wedding hall, but only the one who has been cast into the outer darkness. This outer darkness is the place of sinners. It is the place of the lost, the home those of us who have turned down the invitation of God’s grace. It is where we are all of us isolated, alone, desperate, despairing. If the ministry of reconciliation is to take place, it is to take place here.

And so our interpretation is this: the man without the wedding robe is the son, the only one in the hall who would need such a thing. The reason he does not have it is because the Church is not yet complete—there is still an outer darkness, where the lost are to be found. None of the works of this darkness can reach heaven, in line with the distinction above between earthly and human authority, the goods of Caesar and the fruit of the Kingdom. And so the Son himself is sent, in order that God might rescue us from the power of darkness and bring us into the kingdom of Heaven.27 Thus it is that ‘God said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” [and] has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.’28  Or, in the words of credal orthodoxy: thus it is that ‘For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried.’

This interpretation fits into the overall narrative of Chapters 21-22 as follows. We began with the distinction between heavenly authority and earthly authority, which was followed by the pronouncement that the prostitutes and tax collectors would enter the kingdom of Heaven before (not instead of) the elders and the chief priests. We then saw a son of a father sent to suffering, in the context of an overall narrative in which the Son of the Father is sent to reconcile creation to God through God’s own work.

God’s work must be of God, however, such that the work of God in the world must have its origin in heaven. And so, in this narrative, the Friend cast out of the wedding banquet is cast from heaven to earth so that those on earth might bear the fruits of the Kingdom of Heaven—so what is God’s might live in God. The purpose behind this is not condemnation, but the resurrection of the dead, the speaking of life to dry bones. It is Jesus’ revelation of Himself as the font of grace, the true vine out of which God’s creation might be reconciled with God. In this, Jesus first shows us how to obey the work of God according to the Law here and now, by laying out the Great Commandment. But He also shows us that He Himself is the foundation and the form of this work and this obedience, the Word of God Incarnate, the shining light within the darkness. He reveals Himself to be the Son who is chosen and sent into the outer-darkness to find us here, so that we might know God’s call through the Law of His love and the grace of His Gospel. And so the Kingdom of Heaven is indeed like this wedding banquet—one where the groom himself is sent out into the darkness so that many will be able to share in his joy, instead of having to rely on the dead fruits of their own works. It is a heavenly work, the fruits of which are given to God.

The first view of the Isenheim Altarpiece

We can also fit this, moreover, into the narrative of another powerful strand of Scripture. As with the imagery of marriage above, we must be very careful with the imagery of suffering on the cross, and extremely careful not to give an overly reductive account of the sacrifices outlined in the Pentateuch (a popular source of insidious progressive supersessionism). Without laying out an in-depth atonement theology,29 however, we can note that the description of binding in v12-13 is eerily reminiscent of Isaiah 53:7-8, which says of the suffering servant that;

‘he was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. By a perversion of justice he was taken away. Who could have imagined his future? For he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people.’

Similarly, it is easy to think of ‘binding him hand and foot’ in this regard as quite literally taking on flesh, and so to arrive at the description of Philippians 2:7-8, which tells us that Christ Jesus ’emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.’

It is here that the connection with Barth’s account of Jesus Christ as the Rejected, who suffered rejection so that all creation might instead be elected in Him, becomes apparent. And it is here, I hope, that we can see how identifying this one who is bound hand and foot with Jesus serves to preach Christ and Him Crucified—that is, as one who was bound, gagged, and silent, ‘so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.’30


‘Many are called, but few are chosen,’ then. These words have been treated and used as words of fear. They have been seen as Scripture trying to show how small God’s grace is, how little reason that many have to hope. And perhaps this is how they are supposed to be seen.

Read according to the unity of the parables, however, and read in the light of the revelation that is in Jesus Christ, they can be read as words of hope. As above, they can be read as saying that this One is chosen so that the many may be called. They can be read as saying that this One does the work of heaven so that the redemption of creation need not depend upon the works of the world. They can be read as saying that only One is chosen to bear the full weight of sin; that only One is chosen for rejection. The Gospel tells us that this One is the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father. And He is not chosen so that those of us in the outer-darkness might be condemned. He is chosen so that we might know the grace of God for creation. He is chosen so that in and through Him, the many might be called to live out the love of God and neighbour, through faith and thanksgiving.

This interpretation might not be perfect, and it may not convince. But I believe that it makes sense of the parable both in terms of its surroundings and in terms of the mission of Jesus Christ. And whether or not this is indeed the meaning of this parable, I do believe that Jesus Christ is the one who came into the outer darkness, so that human beings might be reconciled with God through grace.

  1. Matthew 22:11-14
  2. This factor means that this passage can also be problematic for conservatives wishing to emphasise the importance of moral conduct, as well as for liberals offended by its apparent barbarity.
  3. Church Dogmatics Vol. 2:ii, p346
  4. Ibid, p167
  5. Ibid, 366. This passage is indeed originally about an entirely different subject—the ways in which the manifold historical characters of the Hebrew Bible serve to illuminate the figure of Jesus Christ. All the same, I don’t think it entirely inapplicable to the subject at hand.
  6. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, 31-32. The full reflection runs, ‘but who is to say that Scripture really is unclear? Isn’t it possible that it was essential in this case to tell a riddle? And that, on the other hand, giving a more direct warning would necessarily have had the wrong effect? God has four people recount the life of his incarnate Son, in each case differently and with inconsistencies—but might we not say: it is important that this narrative should not be more than quite averagely historically plausible just so that this should not be taken as the essential decisive thing. So that the letter should not be believed more strongly than is proper and the spirit receive its due? I.e. What you are supposed to see cannot be communicated by even the best and most accurate historian; and therefore a mediocre account suffices, is even to be preferred. The point is precisely that you are only supposed to see clearly what appears clearly even in this representation.’
  7. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 1/2, p172
  8. Matthew 13:14-15
  9. John 1:18
  10. John 5:37-40
  11. John 3:17
  12. Here we may pray that our interpretation, as well as our living, is informed by the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit spoken of at the end of 2 Corinthians.
  13. Matthew 21:24-25
  14. Matthew 21:28-30
  15. Matthew 21:31-32
  16. Matthew 21:37-39
  17. Matthew 21:43
  18. Matthew 22:19-21
  19. Matthew 22:31-32
  20. Matthew 22:37-40
  21. We can refer here to Wisdom of Solomon 15:17: ‘People are mortal, and what they make with lawless hands is dead.’
  22. ‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower.’
  23. Matthew 22:1-14
  24. Which, lest we forget, is presented as a work of dead hands several verses later.
  25. Indeed, Adam and Eve themselves can be understood as those to whom the initial invitation is extended—and if we carry this interpretation through then those who are gathered afterwards are in fact the very same people who are initially invited, but who have fallen into sin.
  26. If we want to support this further, it is well worth noting that Jesus uses the term ‘sinners’ only twice in the Gospel of Mark: first in Mark 2:17, when he says ‘those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners’; second in chapter 14:41, when he says ‘the hour has come; the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners.’
  27. A paraphrase of Colossians 1:13.
  28. 2 Corinthians 4:6
  29. Though it is worth here saying explicitly that these descriptions need not (and in my opinion should not) lay the groundwork for a strictly substitutionary account of atonement. My personal preference, derived again from Barth, is to give an account of atonement in terms of God’s solidarity with creation through all eternity. I believe that such an account can do justice to the genuine horror of sin without grounding a frankly masochistic account of how human beings are to approach the reality of sin in our own lives.
  30. Hebrews 2:14-15

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