Saturday, October 11, 2008

"Many are called but few are chosen."

I'm working on a sermon and have to admit the gospel gives me the heebie-jeebies. It's the story of the king giving a wedding banquet; the first batch of guests bail out, so the king (after killing the first batch of guests) send his servants to invite anybody. They "gathered all whom they found, both good and bad;" which is my favorite bit of the whole thing.

Then Matthew (and I'm blaming Matthew for this) goes and spoils a lovely ending by adding on a bit about one of the new guests showing up without a wedding robe. Said guest is thrown out--into the outer darkness, no less, "where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth." Then the passage ends on the nominally happy note: "For many are called but few are chosen."

What??? What's that supposed to mean?

Gives a preacher shudders, I tell you what.

But here's the thing. Think about it: that saying doesn't make sense. It doesn't make sense in the light of the parable. At least not in the terms I'm used to hearing it, where being chosen is a good thing. The only one "chosen" by the king in the parable is the guy who's thrown out.

Here's another thing, from Ken Collins' webpage:
First Things First: The “Many” and the “Few”

It is easy to misunderstand the word “many” in the New Testament, because it has slightly different meanings in Greek and in English. In both languages, it refers to a large group. In English, “many” is restrictive, but in Greek it is inclusive. In other words, if I say “many of the people came” in English, it implies that most of them did not. If I said the equivalent of “many of the people came” in Greek, it would imply that practically everyone did.

In this case, we are dealing with a Greek usage that divides the whole into two unequal parts, which are called the many and the few. In Greek you might say, “The many are on time, but the few are late.” The English equivalent is, “Most are on time, but some are late.” In Greek, “the many” and “the few” add up to everyone; just as in English, “most” and “some” add up to everyone.

But if this is the case, then doesn't it mean that the called and the chosen are completely different groups -- i.e. NONE of those called are chosen? I mean, if "many" and "few" add up to "all," then the "few" are not culled from the "many." If that makes sense.

I need a Venn diagram or something.

Ken Collins concludes thusly: "In the end, everyone had been invited, but only a few were permitted to stay for the wedding. In other words, everyone is called, but some people refuse the invitation and are not chosen." This makes no sense, either with what he just said about "many" and "few," or with the reality of the parable.

In the parable, it seems to me that everyone who wanted to come to a party got to come to the party. The people who continued to work, or who dressed like they were at work, were excluded or excluded themselves.

But still...not Matthew's finest work, I'd have to say.

1 comment:

qoe said...

Perhaps it will be of help to know that scholars are constantly arguing about this particular Matthean expansion. The gnashing of teeth bit, as well as the few are chosen bit are frequently called into question and considered spurious, late "harmonizations."

See this blog for an interesting theory: