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16 “To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others:
17 “‘We played the flute for you,
and you did not dance;
we sang a dirge,
and you did not mourn.’
18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ 19 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her actions.”
For a reflection on this reading to make any sense, you need to think back to a reading a couple of days ago, when Jesus was talking about John the Baptist. If you recall, John the Baptist sent his disciples to ask whether Jesus was really the messiah or not. We thought about how odd that seems on the face of it, that John would have to ask that question. But we said that Jesus was so different from what the Jewish people expected the messiah to be like, that it seems that even John the Baptist was confused.
In yesterday’s gospel reading, Jesus talked about John’s rough manner and his strange way of life. (He ate bugs and wild honey and wore clothes made of camel’s hide.) But in spite of his oddities, Jesus declared that no human being had ever had a greater role in salvation history than John the Baptist. And that brings us to today’s reading.
Which is one of those passages in the Bible that can have you scratching your head when you first read it. But it winds up having something pretty interesting to say when you dig into it – when you “unpack it,” as the theological types say.
Jesus starts out by saying, “To what can I compare this generation?” And he isn’t using the word “generation” the way he would. Jesus really means people of the world in general. He’s saying something like, ‘People! You know what they remind me of?’
And then Jesus goes on to say that people remind him of a bunch of kids. In particular, the scholars say, kids in the Middle East of the time had a game they would play where the girls would pretend to play flutes at a wedding feast and call the boys to dance, and the boys would respond like they were at a funeral and call the girls to wail. (Probably a lot funnier in the original Aramaic, or at least I hope so.)
Anyway, the point Jesus was making seems to be this:
Because John the Baptist was known to walk around in his camel’s hair clothes (think about wearing rough wool or burlap in the hot sun of first-century Palestine), and to eat locusts and wild honey, some people said he ‘had a demon.’ Now, it’s possible that people really did think John the Baptist was possessed by an evil spirit, but I suspect that’s not really what Jesus was saying. I suspect that in the ancient world, where people had no idea about mental illness and considered it to be demonic possession, people just thought John the Baptist was “nuts.” Because, you know, walking around the Middle East in that getup eating bugs and honey you scoop out of a wild beehive does seem kind of nuts.
But on the other hand, Jesus lived what must have been seemed like a fairly normal lifestyle by comparison. Jesus ate normal food, went to parties, and accepted people’s invitations to dinner. Apparently he had no compunction about drinking wine, either (He could even make a pretty good batch when the situation called for it.) And while people criticized John the Baptist for being a crazy religious fanatic, they criticized Jesus for seeming too normal – not acting ‘religious enough.’
So maybe the point Jesus was making to his disciples was not to get too worked up about what people say about them – not to put a lot of time and effort into trying to fulfill people’s expectations of what the leaders of a religious movement should be like. Because those who are looking for something to criticize will always be able to find something. The point of this little lesson seems to be, as we would say today, “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”
Which brings us to the last sentence of this reading, the end of verse 19: “But wisdom is proved right by her actions.” In the Jewish tradition, ‘Wisdom’ was used as a way to refer to God’s presence and participation in the world. This way of referring to Wisdom had something in common with the way we talk about the Holy Spirit. You can find this idea expressed quite a bit in Proverbs, for instance. And interestingly enough, Wisdom was always portrayed as a woman. In Jesus’ day, most Jews read the Greek Bible, and the Greek word for wisdom is ‘Sophia.’
So what Jesus seems to be saying here is that while people might criticize both himself and John the Baptist, in the end both will be seen to represent God’s actions in the world. And, of course, that’s exactly how we see them. We see John as sent by God to prepare the way for the Messiah, and we see Jesus as God appearing in human form to bring about reconciliation between himself and humankind.
We might take a lesson from this passage, I suppose. No matter how we try to serve God, there will always be critics. Some will say we’re too religious, some not religious enough. Some will say we’re too liberal, some that we’re too conservative. Some will say our music is too stuffy, some that there aren’t enough of the great old hymns. Some will say we waste too much on mission, some that we don’t spend nearly enough. But rather than worry about what people say, we should focus on what God seems to be calling us to do and to be, and trust that in the end, as our master said, “Wisdom will be proved right by her actions.”
Let’s pray. Lord, you know how worried we can get about what “people say,” and how that can lead us to do and say things that are foolish and defensive. Help us to listen for your leadership in everything we do, and to be more concerned with what you say, and less concerned with what people say. Help us to trust that if we follow your call as we hear it, all will be well in the end. Amen.
Grace and Peace,
(The other readings for today are Psalms 89:1-18 and 147:1-11; Proverbs 6:1-19; and I John 5:1-12.)