“We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.” (Matt 11: 16-24). Who is this current generation? And what does this mean? Going back to the beginning of Matthew 11, John the Baptizer’s disciples come to question Jesus. Is he the Messiah, the one John predicted? And Jesus answers citing the signs he has performed using prophetic scriptural references which will identify the One. The list includes hearing and cleansing. Now Jesus is lamenting that the people, either the Pharisees or the crowds, did not hear and were not made clean, some not even seeking John’s baptism by water. Remember when we were little and we played our games and the leader would tell everybody what to say, but if someone didn’t do it right the leader would say, “No, you have to say such and such”? That is one way to see the reference to the children playing wedding and funeral (and probably Romans vs. Jewish rebels). But this cryptic and probably somewhat cynical statement also refers to Jesus as the bridegroom and perhaps John for his imprisonment and death, but also a prophetic reference to Jesus’ own death. And here the children (little ones, the crowd, or even the Temple elite) did not dance when Jesus’ flute was played, nor did they mourn either John’s imprisonment and death or Jesus’ death. They couldn’t hear. They wouldn’t repent and open their hearts to the new Kingdom come to replace the old one. (We are always in a time warp when reading the Gospels. They were all written after the Crucifixion and Resurrection, so we never quite know if we are supposed to pretend that we don’t know what is going to happen or wink wisely and share in that secret knowledge.)
Jesus goes on to point out the ignorance and mean-spiritedness of those he walked amongst. John was an ascetic, and he acted crazy by normal standards, so he must have a demon (also said of Jesus on occasion). Jesus celebrates with the poor, sinners, ordinary people who yearn for the Kingdom, so he must be a drunkard. Are we not still doing that to each other today? In the marketplace, in our families, in our parishes? Styles change and the “frozen chosen” of years past may have shifted, abandoning their hats and gloves or suits and ties, to “young urban elite,” resplendent in designer jeans, trying so hard to look poor, but those on the edge, those who hear a different drummer, those who hear the Spirit calling for change well may be in danger of being the visible nail which must be hammered down or ridiculed and driven out. Is it just human nature to be suspicious of the Other? John was scary, but so was Jesus. Even the mercy of healing upsets the status quo.
After Jesus’ grim warning to those cities which didn’t hear his words the chapter ends with a pivot. In Jesus’ priestly prayer to his Father, a foretaste of the Great Priestly Prayer and Farewell Discourse in John (John 14-17), he thanks his Father that his teaching is hidden from the so-called wise but given to the simple, the little ones, those children in their innocence and willingness to humble themselves and hear. Only those chosen, those given to Jesus by his Father, only those Jesus discerns are his, are incorporated into this new way. And it is a way where what the Jews called the yoke of the Torah is replaced by the yoke of Jesus, one easier in terms of simplicity than the Law. Today we see it in terms of Jesus abiding love for his own. But given what his followers had to endure from the world, as Jesus himself did, it is not as easy a burden, not as a light yoke as Jesus suggests.
It is so tempting to ignore the warnings about the Judgment which will be laid on those cities, those people, who did not heed the words of Jesus and act on them. Yes, their eyes were sealed, their ears stopped up by the will of the Father. Much is made of the conflict between God’s time, kairos, and human chronological time, chronos. But it is always God who chooses the time, the place, and the actors. Marching along day by day with these readings from Matthew have been readings from Jeremiah, whom God orders to warn the sinner of the day to return to the Law. And he is very specific about the worship of other gods, so much so that the new Neo-pagan movement, various attempts to revive or reinvent ancient or ethnic polytheism, have drawn knowledge of rituals and gods from such Scripture. And throughout Jewish Law and the Prophets the worship in the High Places, the places where the Lord (El or Ba’al) and his wife (Astarte, Istar, the Queen of Heaven, and yes, Mary was not the first to have that title) resided with a post or tree (the original menorah) and a stone altar, brought God’s wrath upon the people. No more new moons, no more raisin and honey cakes for fertility, no more golden calves. Let’s face it, polytheism, even ancient Jewish/Canaanite polytheism with weak gods is a lot easier than obeying the Holy One, creator of all, Parent of all, and his Son, that most sublime of mysteries, who offers mercy and eternity.
From the moment we are baptized into Christ Jesus we are marked, visibly and invisibly, and written into the Book of Life. And we are vowed. The Church has made many concessions from the beginning using liturgy, ikons, music, or not, to touch us, each and collectively, to be open to receive the Spirit of God to guide and protect us. Most of us are not such literalists that we can’t see Harry Potter as a tale of redemption, Lord of the Rings as a tale of the triumph of the simple and meek (Samwise, more that Frodo), that Narnia can make room for Greek lesser gods (satyrs). And so long as we cling to the Cross, to the Son, and submit to the Father, we are fine. But like those towns where Jesus preached to no avail the warning is valid. We must seriously look at the threat of Cosmic punishment, from on high or brought on by our own action. Being a modern people who cling to the love of God, I trust that at the Parousia there will be tears, reconciliation, abundant love, healing. But we can get pretty slipshod about our faith in this world of shiny things. Either forgetting whose we are, distracted from who we are, not sufficiently formed in who we are, so that in the time of trial we are apt to turn toward the easy way. Romantic gods and rituals, secular or religious. The yoke slips right off. The Way is not only the triumph of love, of the Bridegroom, but the triumph of the Cross. The gate really is narrow. The Way is difficult. And a reminder that it requires us to be watchful, obedient, compliant. Not very 21st century attitudes. Our charge may be to find ways to make the Truth of God coherent with the current distractions, a way to renew our Church and let it grow. It isn’t going to be easy. But it is our job to dance to the Bridegroom’s flute, to wail with the Christ’s sacrifice for us. We were given this Grace. We wear the yoke.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is a parishioner at All Souls Parish, Episcopal, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.