`For many are called, but few are chosen’ (Matt. 22:14).
In the original text of the Gospels, these words appear once – as a comment on Matthew’s parable of the marriage feast. In the course of transmission of the text it came to be attached to the parable of the labourers in the vineyard also (Matt. 20:16), where it appears, for example, in the AV, but it is not really relevant there.
In form this seems to be a proverbial saying; other sayings with the same construction are found elsewhere in ancient literature. Plato quotes one with reference to the mystery religions: `many are the wand-bearers, but few are the initiates”; that is to say, there are many who walk in the procession to the cult-centre carrying sacred wands, but only a few are admitted to the knowledge of the innermost secret (which confers the prize of immortality).
Two sayings with this construction are ascribed to Jesus or his disciples in the secondcentury Gospel of Thomas. One of the disciples says to him, `Lord, there are many around the opening but no one in the well.’ (The well is the well of truth: many approach it without getting into it.
In this form the saying has a gnostic flavour; in fact, Celsus, an anti-Christian writer of the second century, quotes it from a gnostic treatise called the Heavenly Dialogue.2) Jesus’s reply to the disciple is given in Saying 75: `Many stand outside at the door, but it is only the single ones who enter the bridal chamber.’
(In gnostic terminology the bridal chamber is the place where the soul is reunited with its proper element and the `single ones’ are those who have transcended the distinctions of age and sex. Jesus say, `Happy are the single and the chosen ones, for you will find the kingdom.’)
The gnostic ideas of the Gospel of Thomas will give us no help in understanding the saying as it appears at the end of the parable of the wedding feast.
There the `called’ are those who were invited to the wedding feast; the `chosen’ are those who accepted the invitation. The king invited many guests to the feast, but only a few, if any, of those who were invited actually came to it.
The feast is a parable of the gospel and the blessings which it holds out to believers. The invitation to believe the gospel and enjoy its blessings goes out to all who hear it.
But if all receive the call, not all respond to it. Those who do respond show by that very fact they are `chosen’. Protestant theologians used to distinguish between the `common call’, addressed to all who hear the gospel, and the `effectual call’, received by those who actually respond.
In part 2 of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress Christiana and her family are taught this lesson in the Interpreter’s house by means of a hen and her chickens: `She had a common decision, and that she hath all day long.
She had a special call, and that she had but sometimes.’ The only way in which the effectual call can be distinguished from the common call is that those who hear it respond to it.
`Effectual career is that the work of God’s Spirit, whereby, convincing U.S.A. of our sin and misery, enlightening our minds within the information of Christ, and revitalising our wills, he doth persuade and enable us to embrace Jesus Christ, freely offered to us in the gospel.
Paul insists that `it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified’ (Rom. 2:13), and it is those who live `according to the Spirit’ in whom `the just requirement of the law’ is fulfilled. James, to the same effect, urges his readers to `be doers of the word, and not hearers only’ (James 1:22).
The gnostic teachers whose ideas are reflected in the Gospel of Thomas rather liked the idea that `the single and the chosen ones’ were a small minority, provided they themselves were included in that elite number.
On one occasion the disciples tried to make Jesus commit himself on the relative number of the called and the chosen, asking, `Lord, will those who are saved be few?’ (Luke 13:23).
But he refused to gratify their curiosity: he simply told them to make sure that they themselves entered in through the narrow gate, `for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.’
It has frequently been taken for granted that Jesus’s words about the relative fewness of the saved had reference not only to the period of his ministry but to all time.
William Fisher, elder of the parish of Mauchline, Ayrshire, in the later part of the eighteeenth century, estimated the proportion as one to ten; but that may have been a piece of speculation on the part of a man who, convinced that he himself was one of the chosen, preferred to keep the number small and select. In any case, his estimate has been immortalised by the national poet of Scotland .
More recently, and more seriously, Mr. Enoch Powell has interpreted Jesus’s words, `few are chosen’, as an assertion `that his salvation will not be for all, not even for the majority’, and has insisted that `ignorance, incapacity, perversity, the sheer human propensity to error are sufficient to ensure a high failure rate’.5 They are sufficient, indeed, to ensure a hundred-per-cent failure rate, but for the grace of God. But when divine grace begins to operate, the situation is transformed.
It may well be that Jesus was speaking more particularly of the situation during his ministry when he spoke of the few and the many. Even the casual reader of the New Testament gathers that there was a great and rapid increase in the number of his followers after his death and resurrection.
Within a few months from his crucifixion, the number of his followers in Palestine was ten times as great as it had been during his ministry. And Paul, the greatest theologian of primitive Christianity, speaks of those who receive the saving benefit of the work of Jesus as `the many’ (Rom. 5:15, 19).
No reasonable interpretation can make `the many’ mean a minority for, as John Calvin put it in his commentary on those words of Paul, `if Adam’s fall had the effect of producing the ruin of many, the grace of God is much more efficacious in benefiting many, since admittedly Christ is much more powerful to save than Adam was to ruin.