Grace or Merit: An exegesis on Matthew 22, verses 1–14

Introduction

The saying by Jesus as recorded in Matthew’s gospel: Many are called, but a few are chosen (Matt. 22:1–14), has always been a source of much controversy within and outside the church community. Within the church it has been used to promote some sort of elitism, strengthen the concept of predestination, or as an excuse for mediocrity. The unchurched on the other hand sometimes use it as an excuse for disengagement with Christendom, hence statements like “You are chosen, I am not blessed with the gift of faith. To this end my essay seeks to:

– provide a brief overview of the term exegesis;

– carry out an exegesis on Matthew 22:1–14; and

– explore its implication with the concepts of Salvation by Grace, and Salvation by Merit.

A brief overview of the term exegesis

The Oxford Dictionary defines it as critical explanation or interpretation of a text, especially of scripture. Exegesis is a Greek word which means to lead out.

Originally used primarily for the Bible, these days it is now used in a broader context in other disciplines. It may include the study of history and cultural background, the text and the original audience, an analysis of the type of literary genres in the body of text, and its grammatical and syntactical features.

At this juncture I hasten to qualify that hermeneutics and exegesis are sometimes used interchangeably, however hermeneutics includes nonverbal, verbal, and written communications, while exegesis focuses primarily on texts. Biblical Criticism emerged out of the 17th and 18th century as a scientific approach to humanities, as part of the quest for the origin and authorship of the biblical text (especially the Torah). These questions led to the revelation of some contradictions and inconsistencies within the texts, thereby putting into question the authenticity of traditional belief that Moses wrote these books.

With the use of textual criticism which was already tried and tested in investigation of Greek and Roman texts, in the 18th century Jean Astruc (1684–1766), a French physician, set out in zealous pursuit to refute these findings. In the process, he discovered what he believed to be two distinct documents within Genesis, which he felt were the original scrolls written by Moses. However he concluded that later versions of this document were produced overtime, hence the inconsistencies and contradictions noted by the likes of Hobbes and Spinoza.

This led to a paradigm shift, stirring other theologians to adopt the same methods in their examination of biblical text. By the 1870’s it was widely believed that the Bible was a human document, suffice to say that not many agreed with this view, most notably the Catholic Church. But the tides had shifted, even the church would later embrace this methodology as part of its theological rigours. In between this spectrum, there were others within the church that agreed that it was in fact a human document, however, these humans were inspired by God, quoting from Paul’s writing to Timothy:

All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16–17).

An exegesis of Matthew 22:1–14

22 Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: 2 “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. 3 He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. 4 Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ 5 But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, 6 while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. 7 The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. 8 Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. 9 Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ 10 Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.

11 But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, 12 and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. 13 Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ 14 For many are called, but few are chosen. (Matthew 22:1–14).

In his analysis of parables and allegories, Bloomberg (1990) noted that parables “revolve around one main point of comparison between the activity in the story and Jesus’ understanding of the kingdom of God, and thus they teach one primary lesson. Subordinate details are significant only to the extent that they fit in with and reinforce the central emphasis.” (p.30).

According to Matthew Henry’s commentary on this parable, it “represents the gospel offer, and the entertainment it meets with”. The parable ismonarchic because its unifying character, in this the case the king, relates directly with each of the other two: replacement guests, and those who refused to attend. Bloomberg included this parable amongst other Complex Three Point Parables, however in the case of this parable, “both positive and negative subordinates are divided into two and three groups respectively” (p. 233).

There are three main entities to consider in this parable: the king (God), the first set of guests (A-list celebrities, using contemporary term), the second set of guests (the undeserving); these all make up the whole — meaningmany.

With this in mind, let us explore the term many. In Greek and English it refers to a large group, however in English it is restrictive (some), while in Greek it is inclusive (whole) which is in line with Jesus’ teaching that the gospel should be preached to all the nations (Matt. 28: 19–20). The servants are the disciples, commissioned to preach the gospel starting from Jerusalem (Luke 24:47). Out of the whole, the first set refused to attend, citing flimsy reasons for their decisions, and the man who was not dressed appropriately was sent out of the banquet.

According to Klaus Haacker (1973), as cited in Bloomberg (1990), this man was intentionally disrespecting his host, as it was a known custom for Kings to provide robes. Therefore it is likely that Jesus gave this parable to prepare the disciples for the fact that when they went out to preach, they would be met with disappointments for the most part; that they should spread out beyond Judea into other countries; that even amongst the gentiles, some will refuse the gospel outright while others will respond initially — then lose emotional capital with the passing of time.

The implication of the proverb with concepts of Grace and Merit

Charis (the Greek word for grace), the New Testament word for Grace, was translated for the word Hen in Hebrew which means: favour, mercy, kindness, graciousness; for example in Genesis 6:8: ‘But Noah found favourin the sight of the Lord’. Charis means: that which brings delight, joy, happiness, or good fortune.

In the OT it highlights God’s benevolence towards humanity, most especially to worshippers of Yahweh, and in the NT it is Christocentric. It centres on God’s love and generosity towards all humanity,

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God — not the result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8–9).

Two major schools of thought (Pelagianism and Augustinianism) debated their views on grace in the early fifth century, first the Council of Carthage (418), then Council of Orange (529). According to McGrath (1993), Augustine of Hippo’s Fallenness of human nature, allude that human nature has fallen from its original pristine state (Gen 3:1–7), and the implication of this catastrophe includes the fact that: the present state of human nature is not what God intended it to be; all human beings are now contaminated with sin from birth — an inherent human nature; it has been ruined — but not irredeemable, humanity could not re-enter a relationship with God through her own devices and resources, and nothing in our power can break the stranglehold of sin. (p. 72).

However, God intervened even though he did not need to, but he chose to. It is God who initiates the process of salvation through his dealings, for instance with: Noah, Abraham, Moses, David then finally — Jesus Christ (the messiah or anointed ONE); after the fall of humanity.

Pelagius on the other hand held the view that salvation was by Merit, known through church history as the Pelagian Controversy. For him, the resources of salvation are located within humanity; we are not trapped by sin — we have the capacity to save ourselves; salvation is something that is earned by good works — which places God under obligation to humanity. To him, salvation can be achieved by demands made by God on humanity, for example: the Ten Commandments and the moral standards of Christ. (p. 73).

At the core of both arguments was a difference in understanding of human nature. “For Augustine human nature is weak, fallen and powerless; for Pelagius, human nature is autonomous and self-sufficient. For Augustine it is necessary to depend on God for salvation; for Pelagius God merely indicates what has to be done if salvation is to be attained, and then leaves men and women to meet those conditions unaided. For Augustine salvation is an unmerited gift; and for Pelagius salvation is a justly earned reward” (p. 73).

Augustine also pressed on with the view that, since human beings are incapable of saving themselves, and since God has given the gift of grace to some, God has pre-selected those who are to be saved — hence the doctrine of predestination, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).

At both sittings, the church council ruled in favour of Augustine’s view of Grace, however they disagreed with his doctrine on predestination. Pelagius on the other hand was considered a heretic and his view discredited. Some theologians disagree with the verdict against him, and sadly we have access to very limited writings from him as they were either burnt or destroyed.

Matthew 22:1–14, poses immense doctrinal challenges for both schools of thought on grace, a fundamental building block of the Christian faith. For instance, how can the benevolence of the king towards his subjects be explained by Pelagians who belief that salvation is achieved by merit? What good deeds did they do to deserve the king’s invitation? Where does merit begin?

How can Augustinians explain the punishment met by the man who was not appropriately dressed? Was he not predestined to be in the wedding banquet — on the basis that he was called, but not chosen? Where does grace end?

Conclusion

As well as the Oxford Dictionary’s definition of grace, I also looked at a wide spectrum of sources.

Generous, free and totally unexpected and undeserved. (The New Dictionary of Theology)

Grace that takes the form of divine favour, love, clemency, and a share in the divine life of God. (Denis Diderot (1757), Encyclopaedia, or a Systematic Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts, and Crafts)

the love and mercy given to us by God because God desires us to have it, not because of anything we have done to earn it. (Our Wesleyan Theological Heritage)

the condescension or benevolence shown by God toward the human race. (John Hardon, Modern Catholic Dictionary)

If Pelagius had won those debates, the definitions or doctrine on grace as we know it today would have been different. Who knows how that trajectory would have shaped the philosophy and praxis of the church?

Perhaps, Luke’s opener to this parable in verse 15 gives us a better angle to place our lenses today. According to Bloomberg, Jesus was challenging the narrow-mindedness of his audience, notably the Pharisees, as he had done in verses 1–14 of the same chapter (p. 235). It also echoes a resounding theme in the Bible against complacency with issues upon us today, issues like civil partnership, poverty, racism, discrimination, inequality, injustice, treatment of refugees and asylum seekers. In the words of Amos,

Alas for those who are at ease in Zion, and for those who feel secure on Mount Samaria, the notables of the first of the nations, to whom the house of Israel resorts! Cross over to Calneh, and see; from there go to Hamath the great; then go down to Gath of the Philistines. Are you better than these kingdoms? Or is your territory greater than their territory, O you that put far away the evil day, and bring near a reign of violence? (Amos 6:1–3).

So like the man who sat at the table with Jesus in the house of that prominent Pharisee, when next we come together in Christian fellowship, we need remember: those who refused our invitation, those who were not invited to join in, and most importantly, those who lack the freedom that we most times take for granted in the West.

Bibliography

Blomberg, C. L. (2012) Interpreting the Parables. Leicester: Apollos

Denis Diderot (1757), Encyclopaedia, or a Systematic Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts, and Crafts

Ferguson, S and Al, and (eds) (1988), New Dictionary of Theology. United States: Inter-Varsity Press, US

Hardon, J. A. (ed.) (1981), Modern Catholic Dictionary. London: Robert Hale

Henry, M. (2006) Matthew Henry’s Commentary of the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in 6 Volumes with CD, USA: Hendrickson Publishers

McGrath, A. E. (1999) Reformation Thought: An Introduction. 3rd edn. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers

Our Wesleyan Theological Heritage, http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/our-wesleyan-heritage, last accessed: 22/4/15

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