Wednesday, March 10, 1999

The Children in the Marketplace

Chapter 5

Matthew 11:16-19; Luke 7:31-35

The Parable of the Children in the Marketplace

The occasion of this parable was the coming of messengers to Jesus from John the Baptist while he was a prisoner. John wanted confirmation that he was the Messiah. Jesus dispels his doubts, reconfirms his faith, and then goes on to extol John the Baptist as one who prepared the way of the Messiah.

Because the Jewish leaders did not acknowledge the prophetic message of either John or Jesus, he compares them to children in the marketplace calling to one another. "We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn." These children wanted everyone to dance to their tunes, but John the Baptist and Jesus refused. The Pharisees played the flute but John didn't dance. They wailed but Jesus didn't mourn. Therefore, both were criticized. "For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, 'He has a demon'; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, 'Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!'"

The Baptist comes in his sternness, and they want him to play at festivals. Jesus comes, taking part in social joy, and they want Him to play at funerals. Nothing that varies from their own narrow rules meets with their approbation. They doubt whether John is a prophet, and they are convinced that Jesus is not the Messiah, because neither conforms to their preconceived ideas. 1

This parable teaches that people who believe that everything they believe is "right", and everyone who disagrees with them is "wrong" are egocentric and pharisaical. This attitude is typical of those who "know the Truth". Many of us church members fit this description. We tend to be intolerant and dogmatic. No other truth can be entertained; nothing that differs from our preconceived biases is acceptable. We can talk with people whose religious views differ from ours, but only to convert them to our way of thinking. This attitude made it impossible for the Pharisees to accept the messages of Jesus and John. Like the Pharisees, are we calling the tunes that we want Jesus to dance to rather than the other way around?

The Pharisees rejected John even though he was as abstemious as they were. He didn't socialize with just anyone, and he was extremely careful about what he ate. Yet because he didn't "dance to their music", these "virtues" were criticized. "John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, 'He has a demon.'" Merton makes this insightful comment:

The very same behavior undergoes a complete change of evaluation in its transition from the in-group Abe Lincoln to the out-group Abe Cohen or Abe Kurokawa. . . . Did Lincoln work far into the night? This testifies that he was industrious, resolute, perseverant, and eager to realize his capacities to the full. Do the out-group Jews or Japanese keep these same hours? This only bears witness to their sweatshop mentality, their ruthless undercutting of American standards, their unfair competitive practices. Is the in-group hero frugal, thrifty, and sparing? Then the out-group villain is stingy, miserly, and penny-pinching. All honor is due the in-group Abe for his having been smart, shrewd, and intelligent, and, by the same token, all contempt is owing the out-group Abes for their being sharp, cunning, crafty, and too clever by far. Did the indomitable Lincoln refuse to remain content with a life of work with the hands? Did he prefer to make use of his brain? Then all praise for his plucky climb up the shaky ladder of opportunity. But, of course, the eschewing of manual work for brainwork among the merchants and lawyers of the out-group deserves nothing but censure for a parasitic way of life. Was Abe Lincoln eager to learn the accumulated wisdom of the ages by unending study? The trouble with the Jew is that he's a greasy grind, with his head always in a book, while decent people are going to a show or a ball game. 2

Jesus lived a very different life from John. In many ways he was a wise and compassionate Old Testament paragon of virtue, but he did not escape criticism either. "The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, 'Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!'" The lesson here is clear. We must be careful not to devalue in outsiders the qualities we admire in people like ourselves.

When given the power, pharisaical Christians make rules that outlaw what they don't like. And because of their egocentric view of truth, they tend to be hypercritical. People are either "in the truth" or "out of it", prayers are either too short or too long, beliefs are too narrow or too all encompassing, ideas are too uninformed or too confusing, sanctuaries are too gaudy or too utilitarian, preachers are too conservative or too liberal, music is too contemporary or too old-fashioned. Nothing satisfies.

The Jewish leaders of Christ's time did not reason, they rationalized. They acted irrationally and explained their actions with unfounded claims. They rejected the message of John because they said he was too ascetic, too much of a killjoy. They rejected gospel truths because they said Jesus was a glutton and a drunkard. When Jesus exorcised demons, they accused him of using the power of Beelzebub. Jesus revealed the foolishness of their claims by inquiring how Satan could cast out Satan.

In "The Parable of the Children in the Marketplace", Jesus counsels us not to be self-centered, close-minded, hypercritical, and rationalizing. This parable reminds us to dance only to the tunes that Jesus plays: love, compassion, kindness, wisdom, generosity, fearless integrity, and reason.

1. Alfred Plummer, An Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to St. Matthew (2d ed., London: James Clarke & Co., n.d.), p. 163.

2. Robert K. Merton, Social Theory and Social Structure (enl. ed., New York: The Free Press, 1968), pp. 482-483.

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