This oft-quoted phrase comes from the King James Version:
For many are called, but few are chosen
—Matthew 22:14, KJV
Here is the entire parable, but the New International Version renders verse 14 as “many are invited, but few are chosen”:
Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come.
“Then he sent some more servants and said, ‘Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.’
“But they paid no attention and went off—one to his field, another to his business. The rest seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.
“Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. Go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.’ So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, both good and bad, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.
“But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. ‘Friend,’ he asked, ‘how did you get in here without wedding clothes?’ The man was speechless.
“Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
“For many are invited, but few are chosen.”
—Matthew 22:1-14, NIV
The purpose of this parable is to explain the process by which the called are chosen.
First Things First: The “Many” and the “Few”
It is easy to misunderstand the word “many” in the New Testament, because it has slightly different meanings in Greek and in English. In both languages, it refers to a large group. In English, “many” is restrictive, but in Greek it is inclusive. In other words, if I say “many of the people came” in English, it implies that most of them did not. If I said the equivalent of “many of the people came” in Greek, it would imply that practically everyone did.
In this case, we are dealing with a Greek usage that divides the whole into two unequal parts, which are called the many and the few. In Greek you might say, “The many are on time, but the few are late.” The English equivalent is, “Most are on time, but some are late.” In Greek, “the many” and “the few” add up to everyone; just as in English, “most” and “some” add up to everyone.
In this parable, everyone was invited to the wedding, but the invitation went out in two waves. The respectable people were invited first, but they did not heed the invitation or they only pretended to accept. They lied, they pretended, but the result is that they didn’t show up. So the king told his slaves to send out the invitation again to the people who were not originally on the invitation list, and these people actually did show up. One of them was not wearing a wedding garment, so he was thrown out. In those days, the host furnished the wedding garments, so anyone who wasn’t properly dressed was very disrespectful.
In the end, everyone had been invited, but only a few were permitted to stay for the wedding. In other words, everyone is called, but some people refuse the invitation and are not chosen.
Another Purpose for the Parable
Another purpose of this parable is to prepare the disciples for the fact that when they evangelized in Judea, they would meet with disappointment for the most part, and that they should spread out beyond Judea into other countries whose people they would otherwise consider unworthy. The bit about the man who avoided the distribution of the wedding garments means that the second group cannot presume acceptance, any more than the first group can presume acceptance because they are Abraham’s children. Just being called doesn’t mean you are chosen; you have to respond appropriately in your faith and conduct—then you are chosen.
Of course, Christians have to deal with this problem: it’s a Jewish gospel, so why do most Jews reject it? There are two theological explanations:
The first explanation comes from Paul and it parallels this parable. If the worthy had accepted the invitation, the unworthy would never have been invited; that means, if the Jews had accepted the gospel, the gentiles would never have been evangelized. So the Jews’ rejection of the gospel is not Jewish stubbornness, it is divine providence, so that all can be saved.
The second explanation is that God wants to preserve the Jews as a witness to the One True God. The Jews were a very small and insignificant ethnic group in ancient times, yet they survive to this day. We do not hear about the plight of the Edomites, the problems of the Ammonites, or the exploits of the Hittites in the evening news; all those nations have long since passed away. Today, archaeologists study them, but to most people these mighty nations have shrunk down to names in the Bible that are hard to pronounce. Yet we still have Jews! To me, the only possible reason why this tiny ethnic group could survive when all those larger nations passed away is that they really were chosen by the One True God to bear witness to His existence and providence.
The Called and the Chosen
This parable does not mean that God calls a lot of people, picks over them, and keeps only a few. If that were true, the middle of the parable would have no meaning. It means that God calls everyone and gives them the power to respond—but to be chosen, we must respond to the call, using the power God gave us for that purpose.
What Is the Point of the Parable for Me?
If we try to figure out who is included among the “many” and who is included among the “few,” we’ve missed the point. This isn’t about other people suffering a dire fate, it’s a warning that tells you how to avoid it yourself.
Suppose I teach a parable about a few people who buy pet elephants and have carpet-cleaning problems as a result, while other people don't buy pet elephants and have less fragrant houses. That does not mean that there are actually some unfortunate people out there with pet elephants, or that you can count how many there are. I hope there are none, and it is beside the point anyway. My parable means don’t buy a pet elephant!
The parable is not a description of other people, it is a helpful warning for you.