“For many are invited, but few are chosen.” (Matthew 22:14)
This is an interesting end to the parable of the wedding banquet. The parable begins with a joyous invitation to the wedding banquet of the King. Then suddenly, shockingly, unbelievably, the guests decline the invitation. They have better things to do: more work to do, more money to make, more responsibilities to uphold. They reject the kings messengers and kill them.
After the King’s anger rains down on those who killed his servants, there is another surprise turn. The servants are sent out again. Only this time, they are to gather any and all who will come to the party. The seats that are empty must be filled, so the servants gather everyone, regardless of character and reputation. And the wedding hall is full.
Up to this point, the parable warns those who are confident that they are ‘in’ that all must answer the King’s call when he summons. No amount of previously earned points, godly upbringing, or special favor will make up for rejecting the King when he calls us in to the banquet. And up to this point, the parable also graciously reveals to those who never hoped they could dine with the King that there is a seat for them at the table.
The invitation to the first and the last is to come to the wedding banquet and dine with the King. Is this not enough for one parable? Evidently, Jesus didn’t think so.
There is one last scene. Once the banquet is underway, the King comes to greet the guests, but finds a man who is not wearing wedding clothes. Presumably, he snuck in to the wedding and did not receive the clothes all guests had been provided by the King. He is thrown out into the outer darkness ‘where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
“For many are invited, but few are chosen.”
How do we make sense of this? The firs two thirds of the parable seem to focus on the scandalous breadth of the King’s invitation. Everyone is invited. But suddenly, the issue of clothing comes up as a requirement for remaining in the banquet. There seems to be tension between the breadth of the invitation and the particularity (pickiness?) concerning clothing.
The Reformed tradition (of which I am a part) has looked at this and similar passages and spoken of the distinction between the Universal Call and the Effectual Call of God. God makes a universal, genuine call to repentance and faith to all people by the preaching of the Gospel. This is the ‘universal call.’ The preaching of the gospel is the ordinary means by which God calls sinners to faith. As it says in Romans 10:14-15, “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preaching unless they are sent? As it is written: ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’”
The Christian Church has consistently insisted that this call of the gospel to repentance is genuine. The Reformed tradition is not different on this point. In the Canons of Dort (III/IV.8), it says, “Nevertheless, all who are called through the gospel are called earnestly. For urgently and most genuinely God makes known in the Word what is pleasing to him: that those who are called should come to God. God also earnestly promises rest for their souls and eternal life to all who do come and believe.” As in our parable, when the King invites not only the initial guests, but people on the street corners (both good and bad) to come, sit, and eat at the banquet, the invitation is genuine.
However, the Reformed tradition also speaks of the Effectual Call of God. While the call of the gospel is genuine and we have true responsibility for our response, we are totally unable to respond to God’s gracious call apart from the work of the Holy Spirit. The external word (apart from the Holy Spirit) is not effective in granting humans faith and repentance. We need the Holy Spirit to work in us in order to have faith and repent. We cannot do it on our own or by the force of our will. Again, quoting the Canons of Dort (III/IV.10), “just as from eternity God chose his own in Christ, so within time God effectively calls them, grants them faith and repentance, and, having rescued them from the dominion of darkness, brings them into the kingdom of his Son, in order that they might declare the wonderful deeds of the One who called them out of darkness into this marvelous light, and may boast not in themselves, but in the Lord, as apostolic words frequently testify in Scripture.” Conversion is God’s work. There is a universal, genuine call of the gospel to all who hear, but this call is only effective for those who receive it, believe, and repent by the power of the Holy Spirit.
If all this seems confusing and complicated, you are not alone, but I happen to believe it is true. These teachings are some of the most controversial in the Reformed tradition, but I think they can help us make sense of the end of the parable of the Wedding Banquet.
Everyone is invited to the party (Universal Call). As the guests enter through the front gate, they are given wedding clothes provided by the King. The guests do not clothe themselves. They do not enter with their own garments and sit down at the King’s table. They are not worthy. They must be clothed. I believe John is picking up this image when he imagines the saints in heaven clothed in white at the feast of the Lamb. I also believe Paul has this in mind every time he calls for us to ‘put on Christ’ or ‘clothe ourselves with Christ.’ It is not our own righteousness, or own clothing, that permits us to sit at the table of the King, but it is the clothes the king himself has provided – Christ’s righteousness. The guest without the wedding clothes wanted to feast, but had not been clothed by the King (Effectual Call). Only when the Spirit regenerates us, we respond to the invitation to the banquet and the King clothes us, do we sit at the table of the King.