Children in the Marketplace: Matthew 11:16-19

“But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another,

‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
    we wailed, and you did not mourn.’

 

For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the 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.”

Matthew 11:16-19 (NRSV)

This concludes Jesus’ commentary on John the Baptist, although this particular point will cause him to launch into a round condemnation of Israel’s unbelief.  Just to recap the context:

  1. Jesus is about to scatter his disciples throughout Judea to carry his message and works.
  2. Jesus warns them that such declarations and acts will bring increased persecution from the powers that be, and this will tempt them to lose faith.
  3. As if on cue, John the Baptist, who is in Herod’s dungeons for his proclamations, asks Jesus if he is actually the Messiah or not.
  4. Jesus responds with prophecies that explain what he is doing.
  5. Jesus offers effusive praise for John the Baptist and the reminder that the humble nobodies who will be persecuted for the kingdom are even greater than that.

Here, we get to an interesting bit that seems to stump a lot of commentators – this bit about children in the marketplace.  Nobody seems to know for sure what this mini-parable is really all about, and I’d count myself in that number.

If I were to take a stab at it, though, I’d say the basic point is, “No matter how we call out to you, you won’t respond.  John the Baptist came as an ascetic prophet in the wilderness calling to you, and you did not respond in faith.  I came as just a regular Israelite, and you did not respond in faith.  You said the guy eating locusts in the desert must be possessed, and you said the guy eating and drinking regular meals is a partier who hangs out with sinners all the time.”

The principle is illustrated by children out and about in the public square.  Some are playing the flute, and the people do not respond.  Some are crying, and the people do not respond.  If someone doesn’t care about these kids, there’s no approach that’s going to get a response.

This sentiment, if accurate, would explain why it’s a segue into the next section when Jesus condemns the cities that have seen his works, yet do not repent.

There are a couple of items of note in this section besides the little story.

One is that Jesus zeroes in on “this generation.”  This is a recurring theme with Jesus, especially when it comes to the topic of hearing his warnings of a coming judgement and repenting.  Although we might find similarities in our own generation, Jesus is bringing the focus to that specific time in Israel’s history and that specific crisis.  An impending doom is coming upon those very people and those people are not listening.  It is time sensitive.

Jesus’ frustrations are not simply that he isn’t being listened to; it’s that a terrible calamity is at the doorstep of that generation, and he’s trying to help.  It’s like knowing for sure a bomb is about to go off in your building, and you’re running around trying to get everyone out, but everyone just writes you off as a nutjob.  They don’t believe you.  The building looks fine to them, and the idea that a bomb is about to go off is absurd.  In that situation, you might well become frustrated, get angry, get loud, get extreme – but all of it is because a crisis is imminent and you care about saving people.  We know that, later, Jesus will weep regretfully over Jerusalem because they would not turn to him, and he will express his earnest desire that their sufferings are short.

Another interesting bit is the line about wisdom at the end.  The NRSV has “wisdom is known by her deeds” because that’s what the majority of our manuscripts say, but some of our older manuscripts say, “wisdom is known by her children,” which I think is probably more appropriate, not the least of which because it connects with the little parable.

But either way, Jesus is talking about a very old image in Jewish theology – that of Wisdom being a lady who is an agent of God.  As we see in Proverbs 8, Wisdom is God’s first creation, who is with Him in the beginning and works with Him as a master craftsman to create the world.  It is this same image that John will borrow from to talk about Jesus in John chapter 1.  We see all through Proverbs that Wisdom is pictured as a woman who is calling out to all who will listen, and those who listen, she calls her children (for instance, Proverbs 8:32-36).

For the purposes of Jesus’ allusion, it comes directly from Proverbs 1:

Wisdom cries out in the street;
    in the squares she raises her voice.
At the busiest corner she cries out;
    at the entrance of the city gates she speaks:
“How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?
How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing
    and fools hate knowledge?
Give heed to my reproof;
I will pour out my thoughts to you;
    I will make my words known to you.
Because I have called and you refused,
    have stretched out my hand and no one heeded,
and because you have ignored all my counsel
    and would have none of my reproof,
I also will laugh at your calamity;
    I will mock when panic strikes you,
when panic strikes you like a storm,
    and your calamity comes like a whirlwind,
    when distress and anguish come upon you.
Then they will call upon me, but I will not answer;
    they will seek me diligently, but will not find me.
Because they hated knowledge
    and did not choose the fear of the Lord,
would have none of my counsel,
    and despised all my reproof,
therefore they shall eat the fruit of their way
    and be sated with their own devices.
For waywardness kills the simple,
    and the complacency of fools destroys them;
but those who listen to me will be secure
    and will live at ease, without dread of disaster.”

Proverbs 1:20-33 (NRSV)

That whole passage could come directly from Jesus’ lips in the situation he is addressing, and that is likely his intent.  He is a child of God’s Wisdom calling out her words, but the foolish will not listen and, as a result, will have calamity come upon them “like a whirlwind.”  John the Baptist was also a child of God’s Wisdom calling out her words, and they despised his reproof.

These children were in the marketplace playing the flute and wailing, but nobody danced, and nobody mourned, and the complacency of fools destroyed them.

Consider This

  1. Are there people today pointing out that terrible consequences await if the Church does not change her course?  Are these warnings credible?  What is the price of being complacent?
  2. In Proverbs, following the Wisdom of God is depicted to bring you an easy and prosperous life.  How does this square with the life of Jesus and the Apostles?  How does this change what we’d expect to see from a faithful life?  What expectations should someone have for reward and prosperity if they are faithful?
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