Judgment and the Chosen Few

Don: We are struggling with the Christian concept of salvation through grace, and how it fits with the concept of divine judgment. On its own, judgment would be easy to understand, but not when grace is thrown into the mix. Some have expressed the thought that an enraged God (characterized as the “King” in the parable) who destroys people who murder His couriers may not seem  graceful, but is at least understandable in human terms.

The closing verses of Matthew 21, in which Jesus tells the parable of the Landowner who sends his servants to collect the harvest from the vineyard workers, but the workers murder the servants, may provide some context for the next parable (of the Wedding Feast) and throw the issue of judgment and grace into sharper relief:

Therefore [Jesus asked his audience of Pharisees] when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those vine-growers?” They [the Pharisees] said to Him, “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end, and will rent out the vineyard to other vine-growers who will pay him the proceeds at the proper seasons.” … When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard His parables, they understood that He was speaking about them. (Matthew 21:40-41; 45)

Not only is the imagery in the Landowner almost identical to that in the Wedding Feast, but the intended audience—the Pharisees—is the same.

Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son. And he sent out his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding feast, and they were unwilling to come. Again he sent out other slaves saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited, “Behold, I have prepared my dinner; my oxen and my fattened livestock are all butchered and everything is ready; come to the wedding feast.”’ But they paid no attention and went their way, one to his own farm, another to his business, and the rest seized his slaves and mistreated them and killed them. But the king was enraged, and he sent his armies and destroyed those murderers and set their city on fire. Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those who were invited were not worthy. Go therefore to the main highways, and as many as you find there, invite to the wedding feast.’ Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered together all they found, both evil and good; and the wedding hall was filled with dinner guests.

“But when the king came in to look over the dinner guests, he saw a man there who was not dressed in wedding clothes, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you come in here without wedding clothes?’ And the man was speechless. Then the king said to the servants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.” (Matthew 22:1-14)

These parables suggest that there are at least two phases in the process of judgment. First comes an invitation to grace; second, a response to that invitation. For the Wedding Feast, the king actually invited those “who had been invited” no fewer than three times. The persistence is significant. The parable does not say how many (if any) of the first or the second group of invitees accepted, and how many rejected, the invitations, but it seems that some small number of the first group may be those whom Jesus later calls “chosen.”

The Pharisees could not help but see themselves as the chosen ones, the first to receive the invitation. Similarly, they would have seen themselves as having been identified in the Landowner parable as the workers selected to work the vineyard and harvest the fruits.

The few chosen ones could be expected to have a close relationship with the king/landowner. One would not expect courtiers invited to their king’s son’s wedding feast to turn it down—unless the relationship were of a nature so extremely casual and mundane that the courtiers put their own business before that of their king, and were even prepared to resort to violence in the face of the king’s persistence. This highlights, metaphorically, the judgment principle that to refuse grace is to invite separation from God, destruction, and consignment to outer darkness.

What did the king mean when he called such people not “worthy”? It seems that worthiness requires clean white garments:

But you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their garments; and they will walk with Me in white, for they are worthy. He who overcomes will thus be clothed in white garments; and I will not erase his name from the book of life, and I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels. (Revelation 3:4-5)

It seems as though the members of the first group of wedding feast invitees, the chosen, were given white garments by the king but refused to wear them.

If we change the order of the clauses in “For many are called, but few are chosen” so that it reads “For few are chosen, though many are called” it seems to alter the sense of the sentence in a qualitative way. It seems to emphasize more that there are two distinct groups: “Chosen” and “called.” Bearing in mind that Pharisees comprised His main audience, Jesus was telling them that being chosen did not of itself make them worthy to participate in the wedding feast; that it was wearing the white robes that would make them worthy.

It seems that white robes were distributed to the chosen, whose mission was then to bring all the invited to the wedding. The concept of being chosen is mentioned often in the Scriptures, and the Pharisees in Jesus’s audience would have considered themselves to be the chosen ones on that Scriptural basis.

Every religion and every sect believes its members to be the chosen ones of God. No religious group defers to any other in that regard. A Muslim friend recently showed me a picture of Moslems being harassed by security while attempting to pray at an airport, while other passengers chanted “Let them pray!” He told me he was amazed and humbled by the power and influence of his own great religion in realizing the wishes of Allah. This was tantamount to saying “Here is evidence that Islam is God’s chosen religion.”

But then again, we Adventists tend to think we are the chosen people—as do Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Catholics, and every other sect and religion. The Jews point back to God’s covenants with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob as evidence that they are the chosen ones.

The theology of the chosen ones—sometimes called “the remnant”—contains two principles: First, it is God’s prerogative to do the choosing, not Man’s; and second, God’s purpose in choosing is to spread His message—it is not about redemption and salvation for the chosen ones. It is a call to conduct a mission for God. In Scripture, this was certainly true of the Israelites. Yet how easily we pervert God’s purpose to suit our own ends and read “chosen” as “saved” rather than “tasked.”

The first invitees to the Wedding Feast were tasked to put on the wedding garments and lead the people to the feast. This was not a routine task to be entrusted to mere servants. It was a special mission. It was not the intent to fill the banquet hall with chosen ones, because they were too few. They were to round up the rest of the “called”—the invited. The chosen ones—like the Pharisees in the parable of the Blind Man—claimed that they could see, that they knew how the king worked—but their familiarity bred contempt. This led them to reject the robe of righteousness and the invitation to grace. To have accepted it would have implied that they were unworthy and therefore needed it. They did not need it, they thought.

The story of Jonah affirms that it is not enough to accept grace: Having accepted it, one must be prepared to share it. The chosen invitees to the wedding feast had a mission to pass on the invitation to all those who were called. Three times, they neglected to do so, and in so doing judged themselves as preferring darkness to light and condemned themselves to darkness. It seems each and every one of us will be given the opportunity to accept and share the grace. This is the judgment. A few people have been chosen to receive and pass on the invitation to the many who need it. We are judged on whether we accept the responsibility or not.

David: Could the invitation have been a test of sovereignty? In a kingdom, history shows, people treat a royal invitation as if it were a royal command—unless they do not acknowledge the king’s royal authority at all. It seems to me this better explains the dismissive way in which the invitees responded, and the violence to which they resorted in the face of this upstart king’s persistence. Assuming that in this parable the king is a metaphor for God and the betrothed prince is Jesus, it seems to me the next verse in Revelation, immediately following the passage quoted earlier, supports the argument that this is about authority—specifically, religious authority—more than it is about judgment:

He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. (Revelation 3:6)

It seems to me the message to the Pharisees and all Jews was that they had better recognize Jesus as the son of God, by attending his wedding, or they would be thrown out of God’s kingdom. In other words, they had better become Christians! “He who has an ear, let him hear what the spirit says to the churches” sounds ominous, much like a warning: “The spirit—God—is talking to you, synagogues of Judaism, and you had better listen!”

The issue, though, of so few being invited initially remains unresolved for me. As I interpret it, when the few whom the king had (wrongly!) deemed worthy (we are not told on what grounds he deemed them worthy in the first place—they certainly were not wearing the white robes at that point) refused the invitation, the king concocted plan B in angry haste, sending out his servants to pressgang anyone, worthy or not, just so long as he wouldn’t be embarrassed by an empty banquet hall on his son’s big day. Those after-thought guests were not a part of Plan A, even though some of them were “good”—and it is not at all clear that the king equated “good” with “worthy.”

Donald: We’ve all had marketing calls from people offering loans. They say they’re calling because of our good credit record, but we all know that they say that to everyone. Everyone is called! But knowing that, devalues the offer. In the parable, the original invitees were genuinely a chosen few—they were not randomly selected from the phone book. The offer went to the masses only after the chosen few turned it down. I remain puzzled about how this relates to God, and about the meaning of the white robe—was it just an artifact that went along with the invitation, or was it based on works, or what?

David: We have spent a lot of time discussing the attributes of God. One we seem to have agreed upon is that He is the God of all mankind. But the king/God of the parable does not show much affinity for this attribute, until he is forced to!

Anonymous: Perhaps it’s Man that did the choosing. Maybe God called all, but some chose accept the invitation.

Donald: You seem to be suggesting it’s like Facebook, where you post something for everyone to see but only a few people choose to respond to it. Would that work as a metaphor for grace?

Anonymous: Exactly. Everyone is invited (offered grace), but few choose to respond (to accept it). It’s not God’s mistake. It is not clear to me, from the parable, that the first group were chosen by God to do the mission of inviting others.

David: I believe that there must be an answer to the question of judgment and grace. In fact, I think judgment AND grace is precisely the answer. Jesus spoke of both in other passages which, unlike these parables, clarify rather than obfuscate. The Judgment passage in Matthew 25:31-46 explains judgment with enlightening clarity, and the Beatitudes in Matthew 5 do the same for grace. These passages are enough to tell me that there is judgment AND there is grace. They don’t tell me how the two concepts go together—maybe it takes divine understanding, that won’t stop me from trying, as follows:

Jesus told us clearly what judgment is, in order that we would understand it (else why bother?) and, understanding it, be more inclined to love our neighbor. This judgment takes place constantly, inside us, through our conscience—the inner light, the spirit of God within us. We notice, we feel, we sense judgment all the time. Grace, on the other hand, while always available, goes unnoticed most of the time, and that’s a good thing. There is no grace in winning the lottery. Grace comes only when, like the people of the Beatitudes, we are at the end of our spiritual tether. I imagine this includes physical death, but it can also be experienced in life, when we’ve taken all the punishment we can handle and have nowhere to turn. That’s when God’s grace reveals itself. At that point, judgment has ended. We have judged ourselves and know ourselves, beyond doubt, to be utterly unworthy. We have been punished with unbearable suffering. There seems to be nothing left, no reason for being—except God’s grace, love, and forgiveness.

Jay: In the first part of the parable at least, Jesus is clearly addressing the Pharisees. He admonishes them for thinking that they know God and how He works, thereby failing to acknowledge the true God. The consequence for them—consignment to outer darkness—is different than the consequence for ordinary people. I don’t know why there is a difference, but I find the point intriguing.

Could we be interpreting “chosen” in the wrong way? It usually signifies something positive—one is chosen for a beneficial reason or purpose; but in the parable, the few “chosen” end up being chosen for outer darkness. That many are called, as they were in the second invitation to the wedding feast, and that very few were chosen to not be there, shows that this is a king (God) of inclusiveness.

Anonymous: So in judging themselves to be “chosen”, Jews are essentially judging themselves to be unworthy?

Jay: The chosen are not the people first invited. The chosen are those very few (in the parable, only one) who, of the multitudes who accepted the invitation, chose not to wear the wedding garment. He in turn is chosen for outer darkness, but really he chose it himself.

Donald: Is it a matter of paying forward—giving someone something they did not earn, in anticipation of later receiving something we did not earn? Many are chosen, but how many display so much generosity to others? Do most of us live by the principle “What’s in it for me?”

Michael: I find the point of view that judgment is grace more interesting than the traditional Christian view. Intellectually, it’s hard to make sense of it—perhaps it just has to be experienced—it’s a pragmatic question, as William James might have put it.

Chris: Jesus said the parable was about the kingdom of God. He did not say “kingdom of heaven.” Is the kingdom of God a place? Or is it a call to action, to service? Luke 13 and 17 liken the kingdom of God to a tiny mustard seed that grows into a tree so large that birds can nest in it. Jesus also noted that that kingdom is not to come—it is already here, in our midst. So there is something that we are supposed to do, here and now, that we are not doing. The Pharisees were not doing it. Judgment is not about getting into heaven; it’s about our actions in this life. God calls all of us to do the right thing, and perhaps He selects a few people to help Him get the message across. But most people choose not to do the right thing, so then He has to call others to take their place. Sometimes they may turn out to be wolves in sheep’s clothing.

Donald: We think of being chosen for eternal life, but perhaps this is about being guided to live life to its fullest. If I accept Jesus Christ as my Savior then I should expect, with His grace, to live eternally with Him. We should expect the blessings and the richness of life to be achieved by paying something forward, rather than by being selfish.

David: I think these parables are about religion, rather than about judgment.

* * *

Leave a Reply