Jesus stands out in history as a master teacher, and his use of the parable, a common Hebrew teaching device, remains my favorite of all his techniques.
In Matthew 11, Jesus creates a tiny parable with which he reproves the current generation for their languid and lackluster lives, which must have seemed to him almost immovably stolid. Yet, his person and his movement offered something far better — a heroic, meaningful life.
In Matthew 11:16-19 we read, “To what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces who call out to other children, saying, ‘We played the flute for you, but you didn’t dance; we sang a dirge, and you didn’t mourn.’” The beginning of the parable presents a humorous opening with bubbly, energetic children unable to get any response from their peers. Trying all the old tricks of both happy songs and sad songs, they registered no reaction whatsoever.
If you have children as I do, you’ve seen these antics many times. Often the desire of my eldest daughter to simply sit quietly and read creates unparalleled opportunities for mischief in her younger siblings. Soon their efforts to get her to play evolve into efforts to get any response at all! She doesn’t want to engage. She wants to be left alone.
Jesus explains his use of the parable by relating it to his current circumstance likening himself to someone who enjoys life and his relative, John the Baptizer, to one with a more ascetic lifestyle. He says, “For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘[John] has a demon.’ The Son of Man (here a title used for Jesus himself) came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look! He’s a glutton and a drunkard!’ ” Dismissing the messages of John and Jesus, these cynics remained entirely unimpressed and listless.
At this point in the Gospel of Matthew, a bit of irritation shows itself in Jesus’ public message. He and John both preached repentance and a life wholly devoted to God’s expanding kingdom, but the masses had not captured their fervor. Most still chose a normal, mainstream life excusing away these passionate and heroic personalities who left such indelible marks on the history of the world.
In an American culture engorged with frivolity, self-loathing and isolation, I often feel irritated at my own inability to express the magnificence of a life centered around the person and teachings of Jesus. Few would believe how wondrous and fulfilling life can be once yielded to him! In this regard, I understand a little of the heartbreak of Jesus—watching people struggle through life unnecessarily.
Here in Matthew, Jesus expressed that neither he nor John had much moved the needle culturally regarding repentance and a renewed life yielded to God’s better way. Thus, he leaves the listeners with one final, almost fatalistic challenge when he says, “Thus, wisdom will be vindicated by her actions.” Simply put, the validity of his teaching would be seen in the fulfilling life it produces.
Kyle A. Kettering graduated from Xenia Christian High School in 1998, Cedarville University in 2004, and Nyack’s Alliance Theological Seminary in 2017 with a degree in ancient Judaism and Christian origins. Kyle serves as a teaching elder at Church of the Messiah in Xenia.