When I was at school, my P.E. teacher seemed to take pleasure in appointing captains for football teams, and then getting the captains to pick their own players from the rest of the class. He was a sadist. The result, as far as I was concerned was that I was always the last to be chosen. Sad really. But then, despite the achievements of Peter Crouch down at Fratton Park, great tall lanky individuals like me are rarely good football players. In my case, I was such a useless football player, that the captain of the team who was forced to have me would inevitably turn to our sadistic PE teacher and complain "Do we have to have Kennar? It's not fair. He's rubbish!" If there were more than 22 of us boys available to play a match, you could guarantee that I would spend the whole time sitting on the bench.
We had all been called out onto the football pitch. But we were not all chosen to play. Or in Jesus' rather pithy statement..."many are called...but few are chosen".
But of course, Jesus wasn't talking about football matches. Jesus makes his rather strange statement at the end of the parable we've just heard. It's a parable about a wedding feast - in which lots of different people are invited to attend, but only some get to actually stay for the meal...either because they refuse the invitation, or because they get themselves thrown out.
With this particular parable, Jesus is compressing the story of salvation history into just a few short sentences. The Wedding Feast is an allegory for the salvation of the world - right from the initial sending of the prophets to Israel, through the renewed invitation by Christian missionaries, concluding at the last judgment, when the good are separated from the bad.
But this is not just a simple historical survey. This is not a story designed to make Christians feel nice and smug about being invited to the Wedding Feast, while the poor old Jews, or other older religions are consigned to some sort of hell. No, its actually a much more troubling story than that. Consider the last part of the story...from verse 11:
"...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 his attendants, 'Bind him hand and foot, and throw him in the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth'. For many are called but few are chosen."
In early Christianity, the new life of a Christian was often pictured as being like putting on a new set of clothes. It's like changing a dirty shirt for a clean one. We are encouraged to change our old ways of life, and to put on our new Christian identity. (Blog readers might like to compare this idea with Rom 13:12-14; Gal 3:27; Eph 6:11; Col 3:12;) But this man, whom the King discovers sitting at the feast, has not put on his 'wedding robe'. He is among the guests at the wedding...but he has not actually changed his clothes. And so, he finds himself excluded from the party.
This rather troubling man is held up for all of us to consider. He represents the kind of church-goer, the kind of believer, who attends the ceremonies, and sings the songs, and stands up and sits down in all the right places...but who never lets the words of Jesus take root in his life. He is the person who never takes up the invitation to put on the wedding robes.
"Many are called...but few are chosen." It might help us if we dig a little deeper in the meaning of those words. The word that is translated for us as 'chosen' is the Greek word ekletos (in anglicised Greek!). It's the word from which we get the english word 'elected' - and in biblical terms, in means, essentially, 'those who are accepted at the last judgment'. Those who have elected to follow God. Those who have been elected by God to spend eternity with him.
The point of this statement is to say that many many people - in fact, the whole earth - is called by God to put on the new clothes of the wedding feast. But only some will respond to the call. Only some will be elected, or will elect themselves, to respond to the call.
And crucially, as far as Jesus is concerned, some of those who will and do refuse the offer of new life are among us now...in the church...sitting alongside us in the pews.
How are we to respond to this startling idea? Should we start a witch-hunt perhaps...a new Spanish Inquisition...to root out the unelected in our midst? Perhaps I should conduct interviews with everyone in the parish to determine who is in, and who is out?(!).
Perhaps not! This statement of Jesus' is not intended as some kind of invitation for the church to start making decisions about who is and who is not 'in'. It's important to note from the story that it is not the other guests who throw out the intruder. Only the King himself has that authority. But sadly, that is not always the case within the church. Unfortunately, there are some people in the church who think that they have got a monopoly on the truth. They are SO certain that their understanding of Truth is the only one.
So how are we to discern? How are we to tell whether even we ourselves are those whom the King will invite to the wedding feast, or those whom the King will throw out? Well, fortunately, the King has already given us just the information we need to discern whether or not we are wearing the right wedding robes. But to understand what the King has taught us, we need to switch metaphor for a moment...
In chapter seven of Matthew, Jesus is recorded as saying that it is 'by their fruit' that we will be able to tell false believers from true ones. "A good tree bears good fruit, and a bad tree bears bad fruit", says Jesus in Matthew 7:17. St. Paul picks up the same metaphor when he talks about the Fruit of the Spirit, in his letter to the Christians in Galatia. "The fruit of the Spirit" he says, "is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control".
This parable is a challenge to us, just as it was a challenge to Jesus' hearers, and Matthew's readers. It's a challenge for us to re-examine the very heart of what it means to be a follower of God - a guest at the wedding feast. The follower of God is the one in whom the fruit of the spirit is displayed. The follower of God is the one in whom love conquers hate, in whom generosity conquers greed, in whom justice for the poor and the oppressed burns as it burns in the heart of God. Consider, if you will, the words of God through the prophet Micah...the clearest, most unambiguous test of the follower of God that there has ever been..."And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.". That's it. That's the challenge. Understand that central calling to justice, mercy, and the humbling of oneself before the Creator - and you've understood the heart of the Christian faith.
And as we consider that challenge, we could do far worse than contemplate the last lines of this morning's New Testament reading. Let's hear again Paul's words to the Philippians (4:8-9):
"Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you."