Song of Solomon 2:8-13
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
I began a series in the last two weeks that I planned to continue, but I think I’ve said all that needs to be said. And it didn’t seem like a good idea to me to preach a series so internal to our congregation when our friends our joining us. I made my point and am ready to move on.
And to get back to the beautiful weirdness of the Bible. There are beautiful, easy to love sentences here. Who doesn’t love: “Come, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” (We all seem to feel weary, don’t we?) “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Well Amen to that.
Then there’s some things earlier in the passage that we might not be so comfortable with. In fact, our lectionary just skips over a bunch of verses that we’re not sure what to do with. This is when Jesus condemns whole Jewish cities who did not respond to his message and works of power. “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! … It will be more tolerable for the land if Sodom than for you.” I guess we’ve decided that these don’t apply to us.
But what about those first verses, do they apply to us? That’s what I want to talk about. These verses have always perplexed me. First of all, Jesus is talking about “this generation,” the people he has encountered in Israel in his own time. He is critiquing his culture. Let’s not assume it applies to us directly. We may have to take responsibility for critiquing our own culture. But let’s figure out what Jesus is saying in his time and place and what we can learn from it.
This generation is like children sitting as we are, out in the market-place, out in public. And they tell one another: “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.” Ok. Whom are they talking to? Jesus explains further that they are talking to the prophets of God that have visited this generation—a generation exceptionally blessed with important prophets. He means John the Baptist and himself. “For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they saw, ‘He has a demon.’ the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard!’” (Jesus often refers to himself as the Son of Man.)
Now as is often true with the Bible, this gets really interesting, the more sense you begin to make of it. Jesus and John are opposites. John is the abstinent messenger of repentance. He lived in the wild, and ate only the food of the wilderness—locusts and honey. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” he warned. So John calls each of us individually at the right time to personally examine ourselves and renounce the falsehoods and foibles of our existence. The right time for us to do this all together is Lent, but it could be any day for us individually. But for the generation Jesus finds himself frustrated by, John was an annoyance. They played the flute for him and he wouldn’t dance. “Lighten up!” they jeered. We have the temple, which sits at the very heart of Jerusalem! The Kingdom of God is ours already! Let’s just sit back and enjoy it. Even if there are all those Roman thugs bearing down on us.
But Jesus looks like a real contrast to John. He celebrated the Kingdom in our midst, happening now. But even though it looks the opposite of John, Jesus knows that they belong together. He just spent the first half of chapter 11 praising John: “Among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist.” But greater than repenting and preparing for the Kingdom is inaugurating it, declaring it in effect, here and now: Blessed are the poor in spirit, and those hungry for justice, and the meek, for there is the Kingdom. And so Jesus represents the feast, the banquet to which all the outcasts and downtrodden people have been invited by God.
If Jesus came to Granby, I don’t think his first stop would be our church. (And not Immaculate Heart either, with all due respect.) He might pay a visit to the Phinn’s Hill neighborhood, or some of the less illustrious streets where the houses are small and need a little work, and the lawns aren’t sprawling and immaculate. Or he’d go hang out with the immigrant labor working at Red Fire farms. (I don’t know this for sure, but based on the people we see him hang out in the Bible, that’s my guess.) And he’d gather them together into a new community. He’d challenge them, sure—to abandon their prejudices, to give up bad habits, to reconcile with their spouses and children. But he’d feast with them, and go down to Bruso’s for something to enliven the party. I think he liked the people for whom, what you see is what you get. I think he felt sad and frustrated with the pretentiousness of the Pharisees (and that would be me, I’m guessing)—those who are all about appearing a certain way, showing themselves to be the right kind of person, setting themselves apart from the rest. Perhaps by manners, or erudition, or by espousing enlightened political views. Jesus preferred to lift up those who had been put down by such people. But he didn’t exploit them for political gain, either, like the populists of our day; he rejected power and its egotistical machinations. Instead, he would simply want to get down to real life with real folks.
But back to Jesus’s day: when he came among the unsavory types and celebrated the Kingdom of God among them, the stuffy sorts, instead of humbling themselves and joining in the party, “wailed, and [Jesus] did not mourn.” ‘Why are you eating and drinking with those people,’ they said. A friend of tax collectors and sinners, indeed. And they got all self-righteous on him: a godly man doesn’t drink Budweiser while munching on beef jerky! (Drinking from a can, no less.)
Sorry—that’s not “this generation.” It’s awfully tempting to go back and forth, isn’t it?
The ones who wailed and complained that Jesus didn’t mourn were probably the Jewish elite. They complained about Roman oppression, and how hard it was to fulfill our religious duties at the temple, and how all this oppression cramps the purity of our lifestyle. About how it’s more important than ever to maintain pure worship, especially when those common people in their ignorance muck everything up. We have to be the bearers of propriety, good taste, right thinking, good morals. We have to preserve our noble tradition against those Samaritans and impure types who can only live in the present of their own needs. So they wailed.
And Jesus didn’t join them in mourning. He said this is not the time to get all into our personal, individual purity, separating ourselves from the people that our prejudices tell us are impure. No this is a time to get off our high horse, drop our pretenses, and get together to celebrate. And so when “this generation” zigged, John the Baptist zagged; and when they zagged, Jesus zigged.
Notice that “this generation” rightly understood that there is a time to dance and a time to mourn. They just had the wrong rhythm. But they still made a serious mistake. They sounded all the right notes, and so unfortunately they thought they had it right, but they ended up playing exactly the wrong tune. So John wasn’t dancing, and Jesus was not mourning with them, he was mourning at them.
Our generation is in no better position. What makes the things we say and do right and good? It’s not just what we say and do, but how, and when, and to whom, and in what context. Jesus spoke very differently and partied more joyously and forgave more bounteously among the neglected and disdained. But he spoke soberly and critically to the powerful, those with prestige, and those who supposedly knew better. We must each consider for ourselves how our attitudes and our social standing would map onto the generation to which Jesus spoke, if we desire him to speak to us.
And we find ourselves at an extraordinary time in which we need to ask: is this a time to dance? Or time to mourn? Do we gather together and celebrate our victory over covid-19, or keep practicing the mood of quiet repentance and isolation? And on this July 4th weekend, already knocked off kilter by the restrictions, do we boisterously celebrate our nation’s greatness? Or practice a quieter repentance, taking stock of why we have failed the covid test; repenting the continuing legacy of racism; and confessing the unfinished nature of what we call the American dream? Let us pray for the wisdom to discern the answers to these questions, because Jesus wasn’t talking to this generation—was he?