Jesus, like many great men and women before and after him, despaired at the contrariness of people. Nothing was ever good enough. When it rained, people wanted shine. When the heat beat down on the desert lands of Israel, they complained that God was punishing them. Nothing was ever enough. Everything was wrong. When there was something to criticize, it would be criticized.
In these four verses, Jesus explains this problem plainly. Yes, he uses the odd metaphor to make a quick and decisive point, but for once he doesn’t draw it out with allusions wrapped in allegory with a good bout of local history and culture that confuse modern readers.
So, what exactly is vexing Jesus?
People. Specifically, the people he came to save.
They are human and, naturally, have flaws, but the people of Israel would sometimes nitpick to the point of sheer madness–at least that seemed to be what Jesus thought. I’m sure Jesus sometimes felt like there was a big neon sign that followed him wherever he went, proclaiming him as the Messiah, the Son of God… and people were just too blind to notice the message on the sign, and instead became critical over the font or the color.
If we remember, Jesus is the long awaited Messiah, but the people of Israel knew that he was coming in some way, shape, or form, and hopefully sooner rather than later. They had been prepared since the time of Babylonian captivity. They had gotten the memo, but were now happily ignoring it.
One of the many ways God told the people of Israel that their Messiah was coming was through prophets. My personal favorite is Isaiah 60 (KJV) who was one of the greatest prophets God ever sent to Israel.
The most recent of prophets, however, was in Jesus’s own time, and was in fact his cousin John the Baptist. When John the Baptist went out in the desert to live off the land and baptize his fellow Jews, many asked him if he was the Messiah, but John the Baptist always reminded them that, no, “one more powerful than him was coming” (Luke 3:15-16 (NRSV)).
And, well, people loved John the Baptist but Herod still had his head cut off when Herodias asked nicely enough (Matthew 14 (NRSV)).
This insanity is what Jesus was dealing with on a near daily basis. It’s not enough that the Pharisees question him, it’s not enough that he’s going to his eventual crucifixion, the very people he came to save are worse than a fair-weather friend.
This is exactly what Jesus is lamenting.
And he doesn’t pull his punches.
Just How Bad are the People of Israel according to Jesus?
Short Answer: quite bad.
Long Answer: In Matthew 11:16 Jesus asks himself the hypothetical question: “But to what will I compare this generation?” Only, it should be hypothetical. This is the sort of answer, a person should never answer in public, as it usually comes back to haunt them later down the road…
But answer it he does, in scathing fashion. He compares the generation into which he was born as children in the marketplace. His imagery is precise. These are children who are doing nothing. They’re not purchasing anything from stalls, they’re not helping their parents unload goods, they’re kicking their heels and annoying the adults around them by calling out to other children. They’re idle, in a word, and many of us who have children or look after them know, nothing good can come from a bored and idle child.
And that’s exactly the picture Jesus paints.
These children cannot be pleased. They’re bored, they’re idle. Even when the flute is played (which is the height of fun and games), they don’t feel like dancing and being happy. They’d rather sit and mope. So, when the opposite is done and wailing and beating the chest and complaining is the name of the game, these children are equally unsatisfied.
Jesus shows two extremes: joy/dancing and wailing/mourning. These children, these idle dreadful children (Jesus’s sentiments, not mine) cannot be pleased.
By detailing the two extremes, Jesus is also using a form of expression from first century Palestine. In this “expression” or “condensed metaphor” if a person describes both extremes, he is also describing everything in between. So, not only are these kids hard to please with flutes and wailing, with joy and sadness, but with everything between these two emotions.
In a phrase: there’s no winning with these children. You might as well pack up and go home and let them idle the day away in the marketplace to cause mischief there because there is nothing to be done.
But, of course, Jesus isn’t talking about Children in a Marketplace
Instead, Jesus, if we remember, is talking about his generation. He’s talking about the men, women, and children that he came to save. And what have they been given?
Well, they were sent the prophet, John the Baptist, and the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. Two cousins and yet two extremes of the same thing.
John the Baptist emulated the life of early prophets who would go in the desert and live off of whatever he could scavenge there. He was an aesthetic. He avoided indulgence, wealth, and feasting in search of religious piety. Despite this very well documented way of life, people thought he was crazy. They said he was demon-possessed and shunned him.
To give a modern day equivalent, imagine that John the Baptist went out to California, started wearing homespun yoga pants everywhere, let his hair grow long, purchased free trade coffee, and spent all of his free time in the local Buddhist temple. We, here in New England, might hope he was going through a “phase” and come back home, but enough people have at one point or another done this so that it’s really not all that surprising, once the initial shock has worn off.
To get his mother to declare him insane and check him into the local celebrity rehab center (a modern equivalent of accusing people of being possessed) would be a bit preposterous given all the evidence.
On the flip side of this coin is Jesus.
Remember. We had joy/dancing and wailing/mourning, two opposites. So, too, here do we have opposites. Where John the Baptist is an aesthetic who would do well in a Medieval monastery where monks take vows of silence, Jesus is a very different creature.
Jesus is a social creature. He’ll sit down and share a meal with you even when he doesn’t agree with you, because you offered hospitality and to show that he cares and he is listening. Jesus, in many ways, is the friend who will always tag along to the All You Can Eat Buffet to listen to your latest break up story, even if he’s only picking at his meal. If there is a potluck at the local church, Jesus is the guy who will be first in line, and then will probably sneak back to the kitchen to help the church ladies distribute clean silverware between sittings.
Where John the Baptist not only changed his number but never had a mobile phone to begin with, everyone has Jesus on speed dial because he’ll always come over, always listen, always help, and he’ll probably make dinner in your kitchen for you so that you can put up your feet.
And still, their generation doesn’t like it.
They saw Jesus’s sociability, his kindness, and they deliberately misinterpret it. They call Jesus a party animal, accuse him of doing lines of cocaine in the toilet, when Jesus was probably the guy holding back a stranger’s hair after she had too much to drink.
John the Baptist is far too much one way, and Jesus, according to this, is clearly too far the other. And, as such, everything in between is unacceptable as well.
The Nail in the Coffin
For three verses, Jesus has been expounding on why the People of Israel are never happy. And it’s obvious. If you read any of the four gospels, you can see this contrarian opinion and this need to nitpick to the extreme play out again and again and again.
Even Jesus, who knew what was to happen, who knew where his path would lead him, must have been going silently insane over this repeated behavior. I’m sure every time a Pharisee popped up to pose a question where the two obvious answers were wrong, Jesus wanted to roll his eyes if not bang his head against the wall.
But he didn’t. Instead, we have Matthew 11:19. Jesus explains the problem, uses a bit of metaphor and a dash of colloquialism, and then declares succinctly: Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.
Translation: In the end it doesn’t even matter because wisdom will win out. As long as you do what you do through wisdom (whether it is dressing in animal skins in the desert or sitting down to dinner with a tax collector), then that’s all that matters. People will hopefully see in time and you will know, which is what is important.
If John the Baptist and/or Jesus of Nazareth had bent down to the popular beliefs of the time, if they had been moved by the Pharisees’ constant virtue signaling or what passed as ‘political correctness’… well, we wouldn’t really have much of a New Testament, and probably not much of a religion if we had one at all.
Think about it.
Think of what is wise and what is good in your life, here in twenty-first century America. Think of what Jesus would want you to do, the reaction he may have… and know that every generation has its faults, has its virtues, and has its ineptitudes. The point is to trust in yourself, trust in God, trust in your mind, and act accordingly.