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“Many are called but few are chosen.” Are we to take this statement literally? What does our Lord mean? Are there those who are doomed to be excluded from Heaven? Why can’t everyone but the worst people go there? Surely most people get to go to Heaven because most people are not murderers or rapists or thieves? Surely Hell is nearly empty? How many will be saved in the end? Elsewhere in the Gospels our Lord refuses to answer the question of how many will be saved. He will not answer the question. Why?
To understand our Lord we must understand a few things. First the passage I have just read must be understood in the context of our Lord’s confrontation with His fellow Jews who will not believe in Him. For generations, centuries, they had been promised a Divine intervention, a Saviour who would grant them the power to truly keep the Law. Our Lord is the fulfillment of these promises. He is God made flesh for us, the Word of the Father, the True and Perfect Lawgiver, and they owe Him obedience and worship. They have been called to the Wedding that is the Kingdom promised to them but have made excuses, preferring the things of this world to those of the next. Therefore, our Lord points out that the Gospel will be directed to those who are outcasts, the sinners, the Gentiles, us. Yet there is a condition on entering the Kingdom even for us; it is not a blanket welcome. The wedding garment that is asked of us may be the Sacrament of Baptism, or faith in Christ as God made man or a life of virtue. Indeed the wedding garment made of all three.
The “few” might mean that there are very few who will get to Heaven or that few among the Jews will or that few will freely co-operate with God’s grace and seek the heights of holiness. The “many” obviously means all mankind for, as St Paul says, “God wants everyone to be saved.” Earlier in Matthew’s Gospel we read that “many will come from East and West” to take the places in the Kingdom that should have gone to the Jews. The passage, therefore, is not entirely clear. Why does our Lord leave it so vague?
The reason our Lord refuses to answer the question of how many will be saved and does not clarify what he means by “many are called but few are chosen,” is that He wishes us to avoid two extremes, two dangers. These two dangers to be avoided are those of despair and complacency. If we think that few are saved, as many fundamentalist Protestants do, then we risk driving others and even ourselves into despair. On the other hand, if we think that few will be lost and most of us are going to heaven, there is the risk of complacency. The complacent make no effort to produce the fruit that our Lord asks of us while those who despair no longer try to avoid evil. Neither seek to repent and to change and make no effort to convert others to Christ. The complacent do so because they do not believe in God’s justice while those who despair do not believe in God’s mercy.
The Catholic understanding of our Lord’s teaching is that we do not know who is saved, apart from the canonized saints of the Church, but neither do we know who is lost. “Count no one lost before the day of Judgment” say the Fathers of the Church. They would add though that neither should we presume on our own salvation. St Paul tells us that we should do as he does and strive like an athlete in the Olympic games not to win a medal but to win eternal life. St Peter says that we should work out our salvation in fear and trembling. By this he means that we must avoid despair by making every effort to do our Lord’s will and co-operate with His grace but also know that without final perseverance we cannot be saved. We should fear and loathe evil, any sin of any kind, especially our own sins, while trusting that God is merciful to any and all who turn to Him. Now is the time that we have for salvation. Now is the time we have been given to win the race and enter Heaven.
What of those we love who no longer practice their Faith? What of those immersed in second unions, bogged down in addiction, or heedless of God’s commands? What of brothers and sisters, children and friends who have turned their back on God or so it seems? What about them? St Therese of Lisieux once took it into her heart to pray for a condemned murderer. She prayed earnestly for him and just before he was about to be executed he reached out, seized the crucifix the priest was holding and kissed it. This she took to be a sign of sincere repentance and that the man was saved. Only God knows how long he may have had to spend suffering in purgatory but at least he was on the way to Heaven.
If we want to see our loved ones saved then we must take our own salvation seriously. As a Russian saint said “become a saint and you will save a thousand souls.” God wants everyone to be saved for the very small price of faith, a gift He has given to all though many neglect to unwrap it. When we seek to become holy we become reservoirs of grace and when we pray sincerely and earnestly for others we become channels of Divine grace to them. We may not see the fruits of our prayers in this life but God always rewards faithfulness and obedience. He wants us to put our whole faith and trust in Him, to let Him be the center of our lives. When He is at the center then everything falls into its proper place and our lives and the lives of others are transformed. This is our time to become saints. We are running the race now. Let us not get distracted, fall away and lose.