The Evangelical Universalist Forum

JRP's Exegetical Compilation: Matthew 22:1-14

This is part of my Exegetical Compilation series, which can be found being (slowly!) posted up here.

Matt 22:1-14; (counter-evidence against universalism): Jesus is reported as telling this parable on two occasions, the other being during a banquet at Luke 14:16-24 (back much earlier in His ministry when He was still being invited to supper by Pharisees). The ramp-up of violence reported in Matthew’s version fits the setting when Jesus gives it, as a final set of increasingly exasperated warnings to Jesus’ Pharisee (and probably also Sadducee) opponents. (It should be remembered that Jesus has praise for at least one scribe of the Pharisee party on that day, Mark 12:28-34 and parallels.)

While some Christian ultra-universalists, who don’t believe in any divine punishment, try to interpret this king as being Herod or some other unjust tyrant, I (and most other purgatorial universalists) agree this far with the gist of the traditional interpretation: the king is God, and He’s punishing various rebels. (Some Christian ultra-universalists would agree with that, too, but for various reasons would argue that the threat is a matter of principle, not a prophetic warning of what God will actually do. Or that it’s a prophetic warning of what God will actually do, but God has already fully done it with the fall of Jerusalem.)

One type of rebel (found in each parable) is represented by the people who give insultingly lame excuses not to come to the wedding feast. In Luke’s version there is no violence done by either the king or the rebels; in the version reported by Matthew, the violence starts with the rebel wealthy servants of the king, some of whom are not satisfied to only give insultingly lame excuses (calculated to be polite indications of rebellion and of no confidence in the reign of the King, by the cultural standards of the time).

The other type of rebel, found only here in GosMatt, is the one who agrees to come to the feast but tries to get in on his own terms. While the parable doesn’t explicitly say so, culturally speaking the king would have provided at least a sash for his poorer guests to wear so that they would not be ashamed. This man, having accepted the offer to come to the feast, has bluntly refused to wear the sash. The king is entirely correct to throw this insulting ingrate (whom the King still calls “friend”) into the outer darkness.

In short, the king is acting honorably, and those who are being punished have acted very dishonorably, even criminally or murderously.

At the same time, the parable (in one or both forms) features details that don’t synch well with Calvinistic or Arminianistic soteriologies. Or rather, both groups appeal to certain details in their favor. So why not appeal to both sets?

The main Calv detail is that some of the doers of good and evil (Matt 22:10) who don’t start out servants of the king, are compelled by the king (Luke 14:23) to attend the feast, not simply invited. They don’t earn their way in by any ethical merit, and they don’t have to convince the king to keep inviting them in until they arrive. In the GosLuke version, the king keeps on (practically) dragging them into the wedding feast until His banquet hall is crammed full!

The main Arm detail is that the king’s offer to His chief servants is, by all story details, sincere. He’s surprised they didn’t come, and annoyed at their grave (even murderous) disrespect of His offer. He doesn’t choose in advance not to even seriously invite them, nor is their invitation incidental. Except for what happens to them they would have fit the Calv notion of the elect: they have already been called to be servants of the king (or they wouldn’t be in their current position) and they’re directly and intentionally called again to attend the wedding feast. In fact, they’re called TWICE: once to let them know the wedding feast is on the way (so they have plenty of time to prepare), and once to let them know the specific time they ought to arrive. This social protocol is more evident in GosLuke’s version. In GosMatt’s version the repeated invitation isn’t about properly and politely alerting them to be ready and to come, but about persisting to some degree at bringing them in, with the persistence met by murderous rebellion rather than only further insults.

The moral of the story at the end of GosMatt’s version, “For many are called but few are chosen”, whatever it may mean, doesn’t fit the parable on standard interpretations. The king did very seriously call very many (actually everyone in the story population); by Calv standards they ought to therefore have been chosen for salvation from sin, too, at which God should have been able to competently succeed. And the group actually at the wedding feast (in either version) clearly outnumbers those outside the feast. The numerical contrast of the moral doesn’t fit the details of the parable (either in GosLuke or GosMatt) at all, if the moral is applied to few being chosen for salvation. But if Jesus is making an unexpected reversal of a standard saying, then the moral would fit the details of either parable: many are called for the feast and few are chosen for punishment. (Compare with comments on Luke 13:22-30, where Jesus answers the man who is asking whether only a few are being saved, that he himself is going to be unpleasantly surprised by how many from all corners of the compass enter the kingdom while he himself is thrown outside with the weeping and gnashing of teeth! Strive to enter by the narrow door indeed, but many more people are coming in through the narrow door after all than this man was apparently expecting! – perhaps because Salvation and Life is a shepherd Who goes out after the 100th sheep and the 10th coin, not only a Way and a Door sitting statically somewhere.)

It might be replied that the wedding feast represents membership in the Church, not final heaven per se; and that would solve a number of difficulties in the parables. But the wedding feast (so far as this parable goes in either version) doesn’t represent final salvation in heaven, neither does it represent final perdition (whether eternal conscious torment or annihilation – nothing in either parable directly points to annihilation anyway, and certainly not if the story hasn’t reached the general resurrection of the good and evil yet.) Which means neither parable can be appealed to as testimony against universal salvation.

On the contrary, if someone holds the doctrine that God will competently persist at saving whomever He intends to save from sin, until He gets it done, thus also bringing them permanently into the Church sooner or later, then the GosMatt version of this parable must testify at least to post-mortem salvation! – since the rebel noblemen are slain yet were seriously invited in. (Possibly also the rebel peasant ingrate, depending on whether the “outer darkness / weeping / teeth-gnashing” ever or always refers to punitive death. I’m inclined to think so, but I acknowledge it might refer to a non-fatal divine punishment, too.)

Obviously, an Arminian, who doesn’t hold to the doctrine of original divine perseverance in salvation, wouldn’t arrive at such a conclusion; and since neither version of the parable involves an explicit notion of persistence to success (either generally or for every group invited in), I don’t try to argue for universalism from this parable. A Calvinist, on the other hand, could argue that strictly speaking neither parable directly testifies to the scope of invitation being total – there might have been nobles or ‘peasants’ that the king happened never to invite, and we’re just not told about them because the parable isn’t about them in the first place. The Arminian might reply to this, that the parable does involve a serious invitation to everyone it talks about, and neither does the parable mention explicit exclusions to the invitation; but the Calvinist could counter-riposte that such exclusion is inferred from other testimony. Whether that’s validly true or not would be a whole other question: for purposes of this parable, my critique of a Calv interpretation (as an Arminianist would also probably critique) hinges on what happens to the people who are positively invited, which is everyone Jesus happens to mention in each version of the parable. The king ought to be persisting in bringing the rebel nobles or the rebel pauper into His kingdom until He gets it done; and He shouldn’t be seriously inviting them into the feast in the first place if He isn’t going to persist at bringing them in.

Of course, if the story isn’t over yet for the ones being punished, and if the doctrine of divine persistence is well-established elsewhere, then there is no problem for a Calvinistic interpretation–there might have to be a minor adjustment to expect some post-mortem salvation of God’s elect, and a Calvinist might have to suppose that the parable simply isn’t talking about those whom God doesn’t seriously evangelize (much as Calvs interpret the parable of the 100th sheep and the 10th coin). The main adjustment would be that the parable should be read as a warning that even God’s elect may seriously rebel against Him and have to be seriously punished.

But then, neither can the parable on those terms be read over against an Arm or Kath interpretation. If the story isn’t over for those who are punished, then it can’t count as testifying in favor of hopeless punishment.

Then again, if the meaning of election isn’t primarily about being elected to salvation from sin (although that, too), but about being elected for some purpose, then the moral (many called but few are chosen) doesn’t have to be about punishment one way or another. For example, if election is about being chosen to be an evangelical witness to the world (as everyone on all sides of the question generally agrees about Israel), then bringing such an interpretation (exegetically established elsewhere) into the interpretation of the moral would result in a coherent criticism by Jesus of those who had been elected (the rich nobility and landowners, who by the king’s authority have been given administrative advantages) to be the light of the world to those who are called (everyone, rich and poor alike). The warning, like practically all of Jesus’ other warnings about eschatological punishment on the way, would be directed against lazy and/or uncharitable and/or rebellious servants of His: if the moral is proposed to critique against misbehavior by those relatively few whom God elects for special evangelical service (such as originally Israel and even the Pharisees), that would cleanly fit the gist of the parable’s details.

At any rate Kaths (universalists) would notice that the people being punished look a lot like they were elected by God to be at the wedding feast, and would agree with Calvs that we should expect God to persist in saving those whom He elects for salvation; therefore we would conclude, with dovetailing evidence exegeted from elsewhere, that the story for those being punished isn’t over. And we would notice with the Arminians that, so far as the parable seems to indicate, everyone is seriously called to the feast. We wouldn’t be able to get continual original persistence from this parable, but neither can the Calvinist; for this parable, taken only as itself, the Arms would have priority of direct exegesis (in my estimation).

There is one small but significant problem with an Arm interpretation: the fellow without the sash is thrown outside again. But this is only a problem if the wedding feast is regarded as final salvation. But if the feast is regarded as membership in the Church, then neither hardshell Arminians (who would say that anyone can lose their salvation short of heaven) nor softshell Arminians (who would say that he was in the Church without having seriously converted, so of course God would not be expected to persist in saving him yet) would have no problem at all.

(Or almost no problem for the Arminians, since the language does look like eschatological punishment, not merely exclusion from the church.)

On a final note, what if this parable (in either version but especially GosMatt’s) refers to the coming fall of Jerusalem? Then either it has no relevance at all to the question of what basic type of soteriology is true (in some variation); or else the destruction of Jerusalem counts as a symbol for future judgment. The outer darkness / wailing / teeth-gnashing would not settle that question in themselves, since full preterists (try to) argue that such language is only a poetic description of the fall of Jerusalem and nothing more. While I myself don’t agree with that for various reasons (although I’m inclined to agree that the fall of Jerusalem is at least partly in Jesus’ view for this incident on Jesus’ final day in the Temple in GosMatt), that dispute is a whole other question than what these parables refer to if more than the fall of Jerusalem.

Members are welcome to add (or link to) further or alternative exegetical commentary below, for this parable or its Lukan parallel.

If you find my compilations helpful, feel free to tip me $5 here at Amazon, near or at the top of the list. You can tip me for multiple articles of course. (I get $2.50 of each single $5 tip.)

I really appreciate your efforts in this compilation, Jason. I know it is a LOT of work.

I keep being reminded I haven’t posted my notes on that Lukan scene yet! :laughing: (The one where the guy asks if only a few are being saved.) I meant to do that today, at last, but got sidetracked when I realized I hadn’t yet finished compiling notes on the sin against the Holy Spirit; so I added a lot more to that entry.