At various times in Jesus’ ministry, He made the following statement:
For many are called, but few are chosen (Matthew 20:16; 22:14).
This text is a tricky passage for Calvinists to explain because on the one hand, Calvinism often equates “calling” with “election,” and here Jesus seems to indicate that not all who are “called” end up being “chosen.” So for this reason, Calvinists often talk about a “general” universal call to all people and an “effectual” call to some.
John MacArthur, for example, in his commentary on the Bible, explains Matthew 22:14 by saying this:
The call spoken of here is sometimes referred to as the “general call” (or the “external call”), a summons to repentance and faith that is inherent in the gospel message. This call extends to all who hear the gospel. “Many” hear it; “few” respond. Those who respond are the “chosen,” the elect. In the Pauline writings, the word call usually refers to God’s irresistible calling extended to the elect alone (Rom 8:30), known as the “effectual call” (or the “internal call”) (MacArthur Bible Commentary).
Due the Calvinistic understanding of Total Depravity, the general call to all people cannot be heard or heeded by any person, which is why God must then issue an “effectual” call, which is really just God specifically choosing to unilaterally redeem some people through Irresistible Grace.
Only those who are called with the effectual call of God are thus understood to be God’s elect. Given the Calvinistic system, there is no other way to understand Jesus’ words in Matthew 20:16 and 22:14.
Matthew 20:16 in Context
But once Calvinism is set aside, and the words of Jesus are reexamined in their contexts, we see that Jesus is not referring at all to the calling or election of some to eternal life. Instead, Jesus is teaching the consistent biblical message about the call and choice of God, namely, that while God desires that all people will serve Him, not all do, and so God chooses to work with those who participate with Him in what He is doing in the world.
The calling and choosing of God is not to eternal life, but to service in this world.
This explanation makes much more sense of the surrounding context of Matthew 20:16 and 22:14 than does the contrived theological distinction between a general call and an effectual call.
So what is Jesus teaching when He says that many are called but few are chosen?
To understand Jesus’ words we must begin by seeking to understand His immediately preceding statement (in Matthew 20:16), that “the last will be first, and the first last.” And this statement, of course, can only be understood in light of the parable of the workers in the vineyard that precedes it (Matthew 20:1-15).
In this parable, the owner of a vineyard must harvest his grapes. So early in the morning he goes to the marketplace where day laborers waited to get hired, and hired those he found there. He offered them a denarius for one day’s work.
It soon became obvious that those he hired would not be enough to bring in the full harvest, so he went back to see if any others had shown up for work. Indeed, there more, and so he hired these as well. He did this throughout the day until the last group hired had only one hour of work left to do before dark.
When the work was complete, the workers lined up to get paid, and the owner paid first those who had been hired last. He gave each a denarius. Seeing this, those who had worked the entire day thought that when they were paid, they would receive more. But they too received a denarius. When they complained that they had worked all day and received only one denarius when those who worked only one hour had also received a denarius, the owner told them that they were paid what they had agreed to, and it should not matter to them if he was generous with those who worked less.
Following this, Jesus makes His two statements, that the first shall be the last and the last shall be first, and that many are called but few are chosen.
What do either of these statements have to do with the point of the parable?
The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard is not about Eternal Life
First of all, it is important to realize that this parable is not about how God makes a general call to everyone to receive eternal life, but then specially selects and chooses some to actually receive it. Such an idea is found nowhere in the parable of the workers in the vineyard and cannot be taught in any way, shape, or form from this story.
In fact, the story teaches the exact opposite. When the landowner goes to the marketplace to hire workers, He hires everyone who is there. He does this all day long, going back at the third, sixth, ninth, and eleventh hours to see if any more workers have shown up. He hires all who are there. We do not see the owner making a general calling to see if anyone wants to work, and when nobody does, he goes around specially selecting some.
No, the text pretty clearly indicates that every time the owner goes out to hire workers, he hires all the workers that he finds. The point of the parable is not that the owner calls all but selects only some; the point is the exact opposite: that he treats all equally.
But if the equal treatment of all by God is the point of this parable, why doesn’t Jesus say something to that effect in Mathew 20:16?
The reason is because Jesus is not exactly summarizing the parable, but is instead responding to the unspoken objection that most people have to this parable.
Matthew 20:16 is Jesus’ response to Objections
And what is that objection? When the vineyard owner pays those who worked only one hour the same amount that he paid those who worked all day, the natural human response is, “But that’s not fair!”
While we agree that it’s fine for the owner to be generous with those who worked only an hour, we think that if he was going to be both genera and fair, then he should also be generous to those who worked all day. Sure, they got paid what they agreed to, but if the owner is going to be generous, he should be generous to all. It’s only fair.
You see, in human ways of thinking, fairness trumps generosity. It’s okay to be generous, if you are generous equally to all.
But in God’s way of living, the values are reversed. God values both fairness and generosity, but in the Kingdom of God, generosity trumps fairness.
God’s way of acting toward others seems terribly unfair at times because He decides to be generous, loving, forgiving, gracious, and merciful to those who didn’t earn it, work for it, or deserve it.
When we cry out for justice, God cries out for forgiveness. When we remind people of their duty, God seeks to show them love. When we demand that people be held responsible, God extends more grace.
If any human business operated the way God runs His business, it would be bankrupt within a month. God hires those He shouldn’t, pays more than He can afford, and gives away all His merchandise for free.
This is what Jesus means in the first part of Matthew 20:16.
When He says “the last will be first, and the first last,” He is saying that those who are winners in the worlds eyes, turn out to be losers in God’s. Those who have it all figured out about getting ahead in this life, are way behind in God’s life. From the world’s perspective, God’s way of doing things is upside down and backwards. But Jesus is saying that once we step back and see things the way they really are, we discover that God has been right-side-up all the time, and it is we who are all turned around.
The First Shall be Last and the Last Shall be First
Jesus’ first statement in Matthew 20:16 is a statement about reversals. God does not work the way the world works. The Kingdom of God is upside down when compared to the rules and ways of men.
It is not “fair” according to worldly standards that those who enter last end up on equal footing of those who entered first. But that is how it works in God’s world. Yes, this is not “fair,” but it is generous. And in God’s world, generosity comes before fairness.
There are a wide variety of applications that this sort of truth might take in the life of the believer. Some among them include how we view those with money, position, power, prestige, and popularity. Though these may be “first” in the eyes of most, God’s eyes cannot look away from the underpaid but humble janitor in the back of the room. When all is said and done, and we stand in line to receive our “denarius” in heaven, many will be shocked to discover that we all stand equally before God.
I appreciate that it may be hard for some to come to terms with this, but in the light of the most basic and central Christian gospel, the message and achievement of Jesus and the preaching of Paul and the others, there is no reason whatever to say, for instance, that Peter or Paul, James or John, or even, dare I say, the mother of Jesus herself, is more advanced, closer to God, or has achieved more spiritual ‘growth’, than the Christians who were killed for their faith last week or last year. Remember the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16). Those who worked all day thought they would be paid more, but those who came at the last hour were paid just the same. Is the vineyard owner not allowed to do what he likes with his own? Are we going to grumble because he is so wonderfully generous? (Wright, For All the Saints?, 27).
But the parable of the workers in the vineyard does not speak only to the equality we all share before God in the afterlife. The parable also speaks to the way we participate with God in this life.
Yes, all are on equal footing before God. And yet, inexplicably, some seem to have a greater role and purpose than others in God’s plan for this world. If the unspoken objection to the parable was “But that’s not fair!” then the unspoken objection to this statement is, “But that’s not how God works!”
God isn’t equal to all, even in His own Kingdom. Some are given greater blessings and honors than others. To this second objection, Jesus says, “Many are called, but few are chosen.”
Many are Called, but Few are Chosen
This second statement is not a contradiction of the first, but a qualification.
It explains why God, who values generosity over fairness, appears to be more generous to some than others. And this too, relies upon the reversals that become evident when comparing the Kingdom of God with the kingdoms of men. In the human world, bigger is better; more is best.
In God’s world, it is the opposite: smaller is better; less is best.
God calls and invites everyone to participate with Him in what is going on in the world, and in some ways, every person does play a part.
But in God’s way of working, He often selects and chooses a few individuals for special purposes and tasks.
And what are these special purposes and tasks for which God chooses some? To serve, suffer, and die.
God’s “choosing” is not a choice to honor, position, and power, but to suffering and service. There is no teaching here about an election until eternal life of some. Instead, Jesus is teaching that God is generous to all, and while all are called to serve Him, true service to God is not an easy thing to bear, which is why most don’t want it. Yet God does choose some to serve Him in these difficult ways.
God’s Choosing is to Service
That this is exactly what Jesus means is indicated by the following sections of Matthew 20.
First, in Matthew 20:17-19, Jesus shows what it means to be chosen by God, for Jesus Himself has been chosen. What for? To be betrayed and condemned to death. He will be given over to the Gentiles to be mocked, beaten, and crucified. This is not usually what people think of when they speak of being “chosen” by God, and yet this is the sort of thing that happens to those who are “chosen” in God’s economy.
It is being chosen to service, suffering, and death (1 Peter 2:21).
The disciples don’t quite get the connection, for they, like all of us, still look at things from the world’s perspective, and so think that being “chosen” by God refers to receiving special blessings, honor, privilege, and power.
So, in Matthew 20:20-24, two of the disciples get their mother to go ask Jesus if He will choose them to sit on His right and His left when He enters into His Kingdom. The other disciples are indignant when they hear about this, for they themselves wanted to be chosen for this special honor. Jesus, however, rebukes them all and says that this is not what it means to be given positions of greatness in God’s Kingdom. Those who are great will be last, will serve others, and will give their life for others (Matthew 20:26-28).
Though lots of people interpret Jesus’ words to mean that if someone wants to be great they must begin by serving others and then God will raise them up and make them great, this is not what Jesus is saying at all. That’s how “greatness” works in the human world. Those who are respected and revered started at the bottom and worked their way to the top. But in God’s economy, those who are great either go in the opposite direction, or simply stay at the bottom their entire lives.
Those who are “first” in God’s economy work are found at the bottom of the pecking order. The winners of “the race set before us” are last in the rat race.
Summary of the truth in Matthew 20:16
So Matthew 20:16 contains two general principles about how the Kingdom of God works. Both principles emphasize the reversals that are inherent within the Kingdom of God.
These two general principles of the Kingdom of God are that God values generosity more than fairness, and that those who are chosen for “greatness” in God’s Kingdom are chosen for service, suffering, and death, which is why not all are chosen.
From our human perspective, these principles seem backwards and upside down. In human society, we boast about equality and fairness while living lives of extreme inequality, thinking that those who are at the top deserve to be there. In Jesus’ economy, those who are at the top of the human world may actually be at the bottom in His, and those at the bottom may actually be at the top.
Furthermore, though God calls all to serve Him in His Kingdom, it is not the sort of service that has us all jumping up and down and waving our arms while we cry out “Pick me! Pick me!” No, God’s choosing is to a life of service, suffering, and death. God chooses only those who are willing to walk that hard road.
In Matthew 20:16, Jesus is saying that it is we who are upside down and backwards, and if we let Him, He will turn our world right way around for us so that we can see the truth and beauty that is God’s Kingdom.
But it will not come without pain and hardship, as well as a complete reversal of our worldly value system.If you want to read more about Calvinism, check out other posts in this blog series: Words of Calvinism and the Word of God.