31″To what then shall I compare the people of this generation, and what are they like? 32They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling to one another, “‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not weep.’ 33For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ 34The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ 35Yet wisdom is justified by all her children.” (ESV)
This passage from Luke’s Gospel contains a lovely and evocative comparison that on the surface seems quite simple:
“To what then shall I compare the people of this generation, and what are they like? They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling to one another, ‘We played the pipe for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not weep.’”
Our Lord goes on to tell us the comparison applies not only to “this generation,” but also to himself and to John the Baptist. On first hearing, the comparison seems obvious, but on reflection, we may realize that it has a sort of parabolic complexity that keeps us turning it over and over again in our minds. Indeed, this passage in Luke’s Gospel has been puzzled over for centuries.
In one possible reading, the children in the marketplace are “this generation” inviting wisdom’s children (St. John the Baptist and the Lord) to join them first in play-acting a wedding and then in play-acting a funeral. But when the children of “this generation” played the wedding pipe-song, St. John didn’t dance to their tune, but continued in his ascetic way by yelling back a call to repentance. And when the children of “this generation” later sang their funeral dirge, the Lord wouldn’t weep, but came to them feasting and drinking. So, St. John seems to them like a madman possessed of a demon who does not know how to behave at a wedding, and the Lord appears to them to be like a drunkard and a glutton behaving badly at a funeral by eating and drinking when he shouldn’t. In this way of reading the comparison, the people of “this generation” choose the tune, calling John the Baptist and Jesus each to a particular sort of game that has certain rules and expectations, but neither plays by the rules of the game being offered. Instead, they each propose an alternative.
In another possible reading, the flute player and the dirge singer, the “we” of the comparison are St. John the Baptist and the Lord: St. John is the singer of dirges when he calls upon the people to repent in preparation for the coming Messiah, and the Lord is the piper who calls the children of this generation to dance at the marriage feast that is the Kingdom of God. So, in this way of reading the comparison, the children who fail to respond appropriately are “this generation,” and they behave as children sometimes do when in a fussy mood; they refuse all the games that at other times they love to play. But more than a simple refusal, the children of “this generation” deride the ones offering the game by calling them names.
These are just two ways in which the comparison has been read; there are multiple variations. –At this point, I suspect, you may be waiting for me to tell you the right way to read and apply the comparison. That is, after all, the way sermons and homilies usually go. But, even if I were certain, in my own mind, that I had discovered the correct reading—maybe I should not reveal it. Like all the best puzzles, the best riddles, the most intriguing parables: the fascination, and the fruitfulness, of the comparison is found in its difficulty, the benefit of it only to be gained by turning it over and over in the mind or in discussion among friends, until at last you are almost certain that you have arrived at the best solution, but with a niggling doubt that you may not have it right after all. To reveal a “right” answer to the problem the passage presents would be to deny you the real joy of it.
So, instead, I’ll ask you to consider only what the readings have in common: the scornful treatment of the Baptist and of the Lord. And, of course, we know the murderous outcome of that scorn: the Baptist’s head brought in upon a platter, and Our Lord led to a Cross. But, lest we unfairly stigmatize the generation of that day, we must admit that our own generation is no less scornful: for instance, a hostile media is eager to misrepresent the Church and its claims, and to use its own misrepresentations of the Church’s message to destroy its effectiveness, to sideline, marginalize, and silence the Church and Christians in public life. But the tendency to scorn what is not understood—or to be unwilling to understand—appears to be a more pervasive tendency in fallen humanity. Consider, for example, the behavior of this generation in the online world of social media. In that arena, the tendency to scorn has attracted a special label: “haters” are those who diligently seek out some apparent misstatement or, if none is present, who manufacture one and generate from it an assassination of character. And “hater” is as good a label as any for the phenomena because scorn simply seems to be an objective, behavioral evidence of hate. Or, if that’s going too far, at least we could say that being scorned certainly feels like being hated, like having one’s own head presented on a platter. Many of you may have already felt the acid-burn of scorn: when you first heard your call to ministry, did any of you also hear—perhaps even from some close companion—an incredulous voice: “You, a priest!” It is not an uncommon experience: “The scorn of those who scorn you has fallen upon me,” says the Psalmist (69:10). As much as I wish that we might all evade a scornful reception, the Lord’s word is certainly true: “The disciple is not above his master, nor the servant above his lord” (Matthew 10:24). We are likely to get the same reception he got.
We might, however, hope not to encounter scorn within the Church, among those who have committed themselves to the Lord Jesus whose new commandment is to love one another as he has loved us (John 13:34). And yet, scorn slithers its way in here too. If we are not vigilant, we may find ourselves casting scorn upon an opponent in some controversy in the church. Even among seeming friends, scorn can come—in the jovial guise of humor.
But, scorn is particularly hateful when it occurs between brothers and sisters in a school of the Lord’s service like this House. We all come to this House unfinished, with much to learn, with many failings to correct, needing time and space to be transformed and fitted for ministry. And we have each of us committed ourselves to the spiritual program of this House. We must place our trust fully in that program. And if we find ourselves distracted by the errors and failings around us and if we are tempted to reform them or to scorn those who commit them, we should, instead, redirect our attention to our own hearts. (If you are anything like me, you will find more than enough there for reforming!) And if the temptation should reappear, consider this: we are all members of the body of Christ, and what is done to a part of the body is done to the whole (“as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.”—Matthew 25:40).
It seems to me that—no matter how advanced in years—we can all be—in some areas of our lives—like the littlest of children who haven’t yet learned the tune or how to play. If we really want to help our neighbor, the best way might be to learn our own parts well, trusting that the Holy Spirit is also piping in the secret places of the hearts around us, so that all may, at last, join the song.