“Saint Christopher and Saint John the Baptist” Jorg Glockendon, ca. 1480-1490. Wood cut and hand-colored. Public Domain.
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30 New Revised Standard Version
[Jesus continued speaking to the crowd, saying] 16 ‘But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market-places and calling to one another, 17 “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.”
18For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, “He has a demon”; 19the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!” Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.’
25 At that time Jesus said, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; 26yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. 27All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.
28 ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’"
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
Today’s gospel passage is a fascinating one that has something to do with criticism and confidence, doubt, and conviction. A little background helps us understand what’s happening here.
If you remember, there is a character in the gospels called John the Baptist or John the Baptizer. He was a cousin of Jesus, and at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, John is living a vocal and ascetic life in the wilderness near the Jordan River. In Matthew’s third chapter, John is described wearing clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist. His diet consisted of locusts and wild honey. Modern analogies are awkward for a person like John. Still, we might imagine him as a vegan who actively campaigns for animal rights or an off the grid environmentalist who chains himself to bulldozers. John was thoroughly committed to his cause, which had something to do with a return to God through corporate repentance of sins, ritual washing, and pious living. People from the regions came to John in the wilderness to hear his message.
The image we get from our gospels is that John was not a very “subtle” orator. He was highly critical of religious and political leaders calling them names and pointing out areas of corruption. He is deeply concerned for the impoverished and marginalized in Israel because they suffer most under bad leaders. But John is not all doom and gloom. He imagines and proclaims a coming leader that will be just and compassionate, a leader that will shepherd the people of Israel and lift up the let-down.
Calling leaders names, pointing out their corruption, and advocating for a different administration to an ever-growing group of followers go John in hot water. By chapter 11, John is in prison. At the beginning of our chapter, Jesus sends out his closest disciples to extend the reach of his ministry. They go about Judea and Galilee healing the ill, helping the troubled, and proclaiming an alternative way of life that stressed compassion, an end of oppression, and a closeness with God. While in prison, John hears about the work of Jesus, specifically that the movement is growing, so he sends some friends to find out more. In verse 2, they approach Jesus, asking, “Are you the Messiah, the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus’ answers,
“Tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
The answer is direct and tangible. Actual people are being transformed in physical, social, and spiritual ways because of Jesus and his followers. Change is really happening. This is the message that John’s friends take back.
As they leave, Jesus addresses a gathering crowd regarding John’s message and affirms a connection to his imprisoned cousin. After offering a commendation that feels a little like a preemptive eulogy, Jesus tells a strange little parable about children in the market place.
“This generation is like children who sit in the marketplace. They call out to one another, saying, “We played the flute for you, but you didn’t dance. We sang a funeral song for us, but you didn’t mourn.”
The parable imagines children musicians gathered in a market place playing songs for one another. We might think of a bustling city center where street performers play for crowds. Sometimes we’ve stopped and listened, even throwing a few dollars in the till, while other times, we’ve walked past, off on the next errand. But the street musicians in Jesus’ parable are doing something a little different. The joyful music they played was for a wedding. The sad music they sang was for a funeral. Weddings and funerals are taking place in the streets, but no one is stopping. These reverent markers of life and death, joy and sorrow, go unnoticed or unwanted by the crowds.
“You see,” Jesus continues, and I am paraphrasing a little here, “John lived a godly, Spartan, self-disciplined lifestyle and called others to do the same, and people called him a ‘demon.’ I settled into our culture, eating and drinking, and folks say, ‘look a glutton and a drunkard who keeps bad company.’ But the wisdom in all this will be proved right by our actions.”
Jesus understands his mission and John’s as one and the same, even though their styles were very different. John is the bug-eating wilderness prophet, while Jesus does much of his work over grand meals with shady company. John wears scratchy shirts on purpose, while Jesus wears expensive perfume. John addresses his audience as a “brood of vipers,” while Jesus opens his most famous speech with a blessing. And while the two are wildly different in style, the reception is the same. Rejection. John is too strict, pious, and demanding. Jesus is too inclusive, compassionate, and worldly. Whatever John and Jesus are, they are too much.
Today's passage is the first time that Jesus addresses mounting criticism in the gospel. And it’s helpful for us to see the way he handles it. First, he acknowledges that there will always be critics. This hasn’t changed, even after two-thousand years. Much of our media is built on criticism. One of the few remaining things I miss about living in Boston is sports talk radio and how the hosts could still find ways to pick apart the Red Sox even if they had just won by ten runs or spend two hours criticizing the New England Patriots play calling after a Super Bowl win. It was entertaining to listen to in a silly, obnoxious sort of way. Likewise, politicians in this country can actually do their jobs really well and still face rabid criticism from the other side.
Alluding to those that walk by as the wedding march or funeral dirge is performed, Jesus also points out that the sources of criticism are complex. The music wasn’t bad; people were preoccupied or not interested. I know that I am most critical of others after I’ve had a rough day. In those moments, my words or actions are really spreading around the misery and not about being analytical. I’ve also noticed that I become overly critical when I binged on too many news stories in the day. Last year the comedian Patton Oswalt described how a family member was experiencing “Fox News Poisoning.” When the family member had the news channel on all day in the background, steeping in awful stories of human nature, non-stop criticism, and vitriolic tribal language, he was a big jerk. Conversely, Oswalt could tell when the television had not been on that day because his family member was the person he remembered, kinder, and compassionate.
While Jesus acknowledges that there will always be critics, he doesn’t blow off criticism in total. “Wisdom is vindicated by her actions,” Jesus says. The actions and outcomes of his work matter. What he does and how he goes about it matter. And he is willing to make changes when his actions do not line up with his mission. In a few weeks, we get an interesting passage where Jesus talks about the importance of good speech and then calls a Canaanite woman and ethnic slur. The Canaanite woman calls him on it, and in doing so, changes Jesus.
Feedback is our friend if we can hear it and allow it to sit with us for a while without getting defensive. Sometimes, once the energy of receiving criticism disperses, there is something helpful.
There’s maybe one more insight that the Swiss theologian Ulrich Luz mentions when reviewing how this passage has been read and interpreted throughout the centuries. Many have written about having similar experiences as Jesus, being unjustly criticized or rejected. But Luz was unable to find a single sermon, devotion, or theological treatise where the writer related to “this generation.” For Jesus, “this generation” has become so callused to life that it critiques style at the expense of content, all the while passing by truly momentous life events like the start of a family or the death of a community member. There’s a heaviness to this insight, perhaps a historical blind spot in our reflections on faith.
I wonder where we would go if we pulled on this thread a little. Can we read a good news story without feeling cynical these days? Can we be inspired by the stories of people working for social justice, prison reform, or a better healthcare system if they are from a different political party, race, or ethnicity? What metaphorical and literal weddings and funerals have we missed because our criticisms of family members, friends, and neighbors, broke relationships? Finally, are the criticisms we levy against churches, communities, states, and nations thoughtful analysis spoken to make life and community better, or do they come from projecting our own inner sadness, loss, or hatred on others? The thoughtful follower of Jesus will be self-reflective enough to examine the sources of criticism when they well up and resist breaking others because of our own brokenness.
We are all pandemic-ing together, and after several months of anxiety, altered schedules, and constant change, work-life and family life can get a little strained. I pray that your people are gracious with you this week, and I pray that you can be gracious with your people, knowing that our God is always gracious and loving.