Jesus said, "I tell you, among those born of women no one is greater than John; yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he." (And all the people who heard this, including the tax collectors, acknowledged the justice of God, because they had been baptized with John's baptism. But by refusing to be baptized by him, the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God's purpose for themselves.)
"To what then will 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 flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not weep.' For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, 'He has a demon'; the Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, 'Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!' Nevertheless, wisdom is vindicated by all her children." - Luke 7:28-35 (NRSV)
Jesus’ parables are, by nature, hard to swallow in one bite. But I find this one in particular to be a little weird. Why are some children wailing and weeping (and others refusing to do so), when they were skipping and dancing a moment before? I've heard it suggested that the children may have been “playing wedding” and “playing funeral”—two common occurrences that children might imitate in their play. In Eugene Peterson’s Bible paraphrase The Message, he seems to hold a similar understanding of children’s play:
Jesus said, "Let me lay it out for you as plainly as I can: No one in history surpasses John the Baptizer, but in the kingdom he prepared you for, the lowliest person is ahead of him. The ordinary and disreputable people who heard John, by being baptized by him into the kingdom, are the clearest evidence; the Pharisees and religious officials would have nothing to do with such a baptism, wouldn't think of giving up their place in line to their inferiors.
"How can I account for the people of this generation? They're like spoiled children complaining to their parents, 'We wanted to skip rope and you were always too tired; we wanted to talk but you were always too busy.' John the Baptizer came fasting and you called him crazy. The Son of Man came feasting and you called him a lush. Opinion polls don't count for much, do they? The proof of the pudding is in the eating." - Luke 7:28-35 (The Message)
I often find that The Message gives me refreshing perspective on passages I thought I understood—or, in this case, passages I had never understood. On the other hand, I rather like what Peterson’s children are saying here—I don’t think they’re spoiled! Maybe nobody really understands this parable.
My interpretation is that Jesus is upholding the ordinary folks who sought baptism from John because they really want a relationship with God. They want to play and dance. The other children, the ones who refuse to do so, are the Pharisees. One minute they say, “John the Baptist is too austere,” and the next, “Jesus of Nazareth is too relaxed!” Do they want to play with God, or don’t they? Nobody likes to play with someone who cries “foul” every time the game doesn’t go his way.
In lieu of a pop music video today, here’s one of my own: my daughter dancing at a wedding a couple years ago. The thing is, since it was a Free Methodist wedding, there was no dancing allowed! At age 3, my daughter became an activist, dancing because she couldn’t imagine not doing so. And of course, it didn’t bother anybody at all.
As you light the second candle on your Advent wreath, make a point to relax and play and dance with God today. But don’t insist on playing by your own rules!