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In both Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels we read:
“To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others:
‘We played the pipe for you,
and you did not dance;
we sang a dirge,
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, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her deeds.” (Matthew 11:16-19, cf Luke 7.31-35)
One of the key images in the saying we are looking at is “the market-place.” In Ancient Greece, the agora, a “gathering place” or assembly, ” was the center for city politics, sport, religion, and art.
Easton’s Dictionary tells us further that the agora was “any place of public resort, and hence a public place or broad street (Matt. 11:16; 20:3), as well as a forum or market-place proper, where goods were exposed for sale, and where public assemblies and trials were held (Acts 16:19; 17:17). This word occurs in the Hebrew scriptures only in Ezekiel 27:13. In early times markets were held at the gates of cities, where commodities were exposed for sale (2 Kings 7:18). In large towns the sale of particular articles seems to have been confined to certain streets, as we may infer from such expressions as ‘the bakers’ street’ (Jer. 37:21), and from the circumstance that in the time of Josephus the valley between Mounts Zion and Moriah was called the Tyropoeon or the ‘valley of the cheesemakers.’”
So in 1st Century Jewish culture, the agora or marketplace was where social and economic life happened. When Jesus refers to the marketplace, he is describing an economic or civic gathering.
I hear some frustration in this passage. Both John the Baptist and Jesus had cast before the imaginations of their generation a vision of a society that was very different than the society they lived in. They weren’t simply waiting for Rome to collapse before reorganizing; they were working toward a new social order, which Jesus followers referred to as the “Empire” of God.
In God’s order, people took responsibility for taking care of people. This was a new social structure subversively seated in the shell of the old Imperial order. This order primarily focused on the local scene rather than the entire Empire and offered a new day for local laborers (see Mathew’s parable in Matthew 20.1-16).
Their vision involved resource sharing, food distribution, wealth redistribution, and care for the sick. It was a society centered in solidarity, interconnectedness, and interdependence. The point I want you to focus on most is that God’s “empire” was not a future state waiting for Rome to fall or Jerusalem to be liberated. It had begun already, while the current power structure existed, to help the very people being exploited. It presented people caring for people in place of hierarchical institutions. It showed people a means, a way, to take care of each other.
And yet, neither John, nor Jesus, nor their followers could awaken the larger portions of their lethargic society who seemed to be waiting for something big. They were piping and singing and yet the largest sectors of their society would not dance, and they would not cry in response to the children’s wailing. (I think of children who are presently in cages along the U.S. southern border.) They were asleep. Passive. Complicit. Remember, this was a time when Jesus’ followers and John’s followers were, although sizable, still a minority within their larger Jewish communities. We’ll explore further in next week’s saying why Jesus’ group of followers remained smaller.
The Asceticism of John
Asceticism is a lifestyle of abstinence, temperance, and withdrawal. An ascetic person doesn’t participate in luxury or simple pleasures. Luke seems to hint that John’s asceticism was rebellion against the Priestly aristocracy to which his father belonged.
John chose a version of Judaism that rejected economic exploitation of the poor in the name of YHWH. And yet he was accused by the religiously wealthy and elite of having “a demon.”
Jesus the Socialite
Jesus, on the other hand, did not choose the wilderness of the countryside. He chose the larger city metropolises of Galilee. He blessed the poor and pronounced judgment on the rich. (Luke 6:20, 24). Luke portrays Jesus proclaiming thirteen woes (or curses) on that group. Some scholars attribute the origin of the woe oracle to the cultic practices of curses (see Deuteronomy 27:15-26). The book in the Hebrew scriptures that holds the record for “woes” is Ezekiel and it only includes six.
As we considered in Liking Jesus, But Not Christianity, the wealthy tax collectors responded to John and to Jesus and Jesus embraced and welcomed them. Jesus includes a tax collector among his disciples and after Zacchaeus repents of stealing and promises to redistribute his wealth, Jesus says, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham” (Luke 19:9).Those like Zacchaeus, whom the religious wealthy labeled as “sinners,” shared the same economic class with them. The religiously wealthy and the tax collectors differences were in their feelings toward Hellenism and its influence in Judaism, but economically, they were very much the same. The well-to-do more fundamentalist rich regarded themselves as morally superior to those who were listening and responding to John and Jesus. They gathered around Jesus and he shared bread and wine with them. Yet his only reward was that those who saw themselves as superior to that crowd viewed him as a glutton, a drunk, and a chum of tax collectors and sinners. This couldn’t have been said about John. But it was said about Jesus.
A meme came across one of my news feeds last week that I think summed up the scenario nicely. It stated, “1% control the world. 4% are sellout puppets. 90% are asleep. 5% know and are trying to wake up the 90%. The 1% doesn’t want the 5% waking up the 90%.” If we were to view 1st Century Galilee through the lens of those categories, Jesus would certainly have been a part of the 5% calling for nonviolent resistance to Roman and Jewish oppression of the poor, and for a just distribution of food and resources. Our passages above teach us that the religious authorities refused to respond positively to John and Jesus, and instead undermined their influence in order to keep the “90%” asleep.
Just as a tree is known by its fruit, Luke’s version of this passage ends with, “Wisdom is vindicated by her children.” I love the feminine imagery used for wisdom in this.
In the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures), the Greek word for wisdom in Proverbs 8 is “Sophia.” Feminine imagery for wisdom has an intriguing history in Hellenistic Judaism. Philo of Alexandria was a philosopher and a contemporary of Jesus of Nazareth who lived from 25 BCE to 50 CE. As a Hellenistic Jew, Philo attempted to harmonize Platonic philosophy with Judaism. He used the Greek word logos to represent Sophia (or wisdom), and in the gospel of John, this became the word used to describe Divine Wisdom and the mysterious form of a pre-existent Christ. Sophia has a long history with feminine imagery for the Divine and affirms that women bear the image of God just as much as men.
I like the fact that Luke’s gospel community preserved this scene with Jesus stating that his teachings were an expression of the way of Sophia. Within a 1st or 2nd Century context, this would have subtly subverted social patriarchy.
I am overwhelmed by two thoughts as I’m writing this, especially in the context of what is presently taking place in the U.S. regarding immigration. First, how deeply asleep those who are comfortable in our society are today: people don’t seem to really desire justice as much as they desire comfort, and as long as they are comfortable, they will trade almost anything, even if grave human rights violations are taking place on their southern border and in larger cities around the nation.
Second, how awake those are who are deeply discomforted by the present atrocities. In the gospels, they would have been referred to as the “poor,” the “hungry,” the “mourning.” Howard Thurman referred to them as the “disinherited.” They are the oppressed, marginalized, and subjugated. They live with urgency about justice, out of necessity, that those who are comfortable in privileged positions fail to understand. And when any attempt at waking up society is made, a multitude of methods (shame, status quo explanation and apologetics, social exclusion, and coercion) tell people to simply roll over and go back to sleep. In the above passage, we are considering is Jesus’s call to WAKE UP!
Wake up to the call of living compassionate, involved lives with those presently suffering from injustice, violence, and oppression. Wake up and “put your hand to the plow” alongside those who are working for their own liberation. Wake up to the reality that we are not free till everyone is free. Wake up, and, in the words of this week’s saying, “dance” with those rejoicing in hard-won victories, “mourn” with those whose victories are yet future, and work, work hard, toward that day imagined in Micah where “everyone” will one day “sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid” (Micah 4:4).
Let others call you a “friend” of those labeled as outsiders in our time as tax-collectors and sinners were in the time of Jesus. Let them accuse you as they did John and Jesus of having a “demon,” being a “glutton,” or being a “drunkard.” These accusations are the status quo’s efforts to keep you quiet, passive, compliant, and asleep. So keep speaking your truth into the darkness of injustice. And may it not be said of any of us: “We fluted for you, but you would not dance; we wailed, but you would not cry.”