January 15th, 2012

We shouldn’t be surprised if Jesus breaks our rules.

Luke 7:29-35

January 15, 2012

A child becomes an eagle

Few achievements within reach of a young person in our society rival earning the Eagle Scout badge.  By the time a young man pledges for the umpteenth time to keep himself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight, he has learned those words are more than a pledge.

(Interview Frankie Wyatt.  When did you start Scouting?  What sorts of games and activities were involved?  What was different about the final steps in your journey?  What qualities have you developed as an Eagle?)

There are other pursuits that also require discipline and perseverance: being an all star athlete, for example, or a consistent honor student.  But an Eagle Scout works without the adulation of crowds, and it’s not about self-advancement as much as it is about duty to God, country, and others.

A parable about playing

Last week I said that a parable is a fictional but true-to-life short story that drives home one main faith principle. 

Sometimes it isn’t.  Sometimes the “story” is implied, as in Luke 7:31-35.

As usual, the setting and the characters are everyday.  Jesus uses the Greek word agora for the place.  Think “The Square” in Hickory – perhaps in a time before the city spread out and added the mall and other shopping districts.  City hall is nearby, as is the railroad and post office.  Go back a generation or two, and you’ll find Hickory’s agora is right there in front of Dietz and Taylor’s, with the newspaper office down the street and the theater, Corinth church, the bank, and Daldee’s barbecue a block away.  Politicians politick, salesmen sell, shoppers shop, and children play in the agora.

On this day, the play isn’t going so well.  Some of the children create an improvised band.  They’ve brought along their flutes to play tunes.  They don’t want to leave the other kids out, so they call out, “Hey, let’s pretend we’re at a wedding.  Malachi and Esther, you be the bride and groom.”  They start to play happy music and say, “Come on, everybody, hit the dance floor.”  But the other kids just sit there.  “We don’t feel like being happy.”

So they change the music and alter the suggestion.  “OK, then, let’s play funeral.  Joseph, you be the dead guy.  Lie still, now.  I can still tell you’re breathing.  All right, band, let’s play a funeral dirge.  Everybody else be the mourners.”  Again, no response.  “We don’t feel like crying either.”

This is the only place in the gospels I can think of where Jesus says anything negative about children.  When I think of Jesus and children, I think more of Luke 18:16, where Jesus chides the disciples for pushing children away and says, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”

Some of what you see here is normal and healthy about children.  Their play is fantasy – pretending while their parents are attending to real life. Their play is physical, developing motor skills through music, dancing, and action. These children are also being creative with their music and dance. They’re expressing emotion – laughing and crying. Their play is a form of socialization – they are learning give and take.

But Jesus also shows the childish side of children.  Some of the children in this parable are trying to initiate and lead, but others won’t cooperate.  Everybody wants to do it their way – to play wedding or funeral music, to insist on the others joining their preferred time and way to play. They complain and withdraw when other children don’t cooperate.

The way to grow up is to be a kid.  Sometimes it’s painful, and adults intervene to stop the pain.  In certain situations, we should.  But not all the time.  Children playing on their own learn important and sometimes hard lessons about inclusion and exclusion, fairness and equality, power and submission, and more.  They realize that acting exclusively in your own best interests sometimes means you play alone.

Children learn through playing with others that life is not just about getting your own way.  It’s about listening others and learning to care about what they like.  It’s to learn how to do your duty to God, country, and others.  Or as Jesus would say it, to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself.

That doesn’t come naturally.

Childish grown ups

Here’s how unnatural that is.  When God himself showed up in human flesh, people not only didn’t recognize him, they childishly ridiculed him for not playing by their rules.  This story of Jesus is really about grown ups who still act like children.

The context of this parable is about Jesus’ own response to John the Baptist.  Because Jesus didn’t meet John’s expectations, John himself was a bit confused.  “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” John asked Jesus through two messengers (19). 

In response, Jesus reminds John of his miracles and good news for the poor, a persuasive display of God’s presence and power (22-23).  He goes on to affirm the ministry of John the Baptist, basically saying he’s the greatest (28).

Then comes a reminder of the division Jesus causes.  The people (29) respond to John’s message and are baptized, and acknowledge Jesus’ way as right.  At the same time, their religious leaders refuse John’s baptism and reject God’s purposes (30).  The Pharisees found examined themselves in light of Jesus’ teaching, and found nothing of which they needed to repent.  They had it together, in their own mind. 

At that point, Jesus gives his parable (31-32).  The people of this generation are like childish children playing in the marketplace.  You can’t please them.  Wedding songs are too happy, and funeral songs are too sad.

Jesus then makes his point explicit.  John was easy to dismiss as demonic because he lived in the wilderness, wore strange clothes, and refused common food (33).  Jesus interacted with the people, looked normal, and ate a common diet; he just did so among spiritual outcasts (34).  So they rejected him as well, calling him an alcoholic party binger.  As Simon Kistemaker says (Parables, 28), “The taunt that the Jews hurled at Jesus…was by no means harmless name-calling.”  Deuteronomy 21 says a rebellious son who is a glutton and drunkard (v. 21, NLT) should be stoned to death.

The problem, of course, was not in John or Jesus.  The problem was with those who didn’t want to face the truth.  They were going to nitpick the details to keep from having to confront their issue – a willful blindness. 

The same was true of Martin Luther King, Jr., whose legacy we recall this weekend.  His fundamental message was deeply rooted in the Christian faith, that all people are created in God’s image and worthy of dignity, freedom, and friendship.  Were there parts of his life and message open to criticism?  Yes, and in his case (unlike Jesus) some of the criticism was founded.  But when critics only find fault, we simply hide our own unwillingness to face the ugliness of racism inside us – his primary point.

The Pharisees remind me of a man in my first church named Joe, who said, “You just hand pick the Consistory.”  When I told Joe I wasn’t even involved in the process and hadn’t met with the Nominating Committee, he said, “Well, why not?  You should be more involved in these things.”  I later learned that what Joe wanted was to be nominated to the Consistory.  If I was meeting with the group preventing his nomination, I was in the wrong.  If I wasn’t with the group advocating for him, I was also wrong. 

The way childishness creates and sustains human conflict is sad enough.  The greatest tragedy of adult childishness is trying to make God play by your rules.

Jesus wants to penetrate the resistance of their hearts.  Sometimes, in order to do so, he will break all the rules of how we think he should operate.   He is, after all, God-in-flesh, stepping into space and time to show God to us, and to make a way for us to get back to God.  We shouldn’t be surprised if Jesus breaks our rules.

Little, bigger, biggest

In my view, verse 35 takes a hard right turn.  I read the verse and my first reaction is, “Where did that come from?”

Here’s what Jesus says:  “But wisdom is proved right by all her children.”

“Children” sneak back into the text.  Wisdom is the opposite of being childish.  So read, “Maturity is vindicated by what it produces.” 

Look at the result of John’s ministry, Jesus says – repentance, readiness.  Look at the result of my ministry – wholeness for the broken, life for the dead, good news for the poor.  Judge me not by what I eat and drink but by my “children” – by the lives that are transformed by my teaching and ministry.

In Matthew’s version of this same parable, the take home point is slightly different:  “Wisdom is vindicated by its actions.”

In Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase, The Message, both Matthew’s and Luke’s versions end like this:  “Opinion polls don’t count for much.  The proof of the pudding is in the eating.”

Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 13:11, “When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.”  The rest of the chapter is about what?  Love.

Whether or not you have “grown up” into wisdom is demonstrated by whether your life has become more about pleasing God and loving others than about serving yourself.

This mature wisdom is demonstrated in little things, like parking on Sunday mornings.  What if, instead of trying to find the best spot for ourselves, we tried to leave the best spots for others?

But there are bigger things – like serving, giving, risking scrutiny and even life for others.  Martin Luther King demonstrated that.  Eagle Scouts learned to pursue values such as delayed gratification, self-sacrifice, humility, and integrity.

Then there are the biggest things.  The most important way that maturity shows up is openness to the unexpected ways God “shows up.”  He showed up in John the hermit with a weird diet and wardrobe.  He showed up in Jesus, partying with the tax collectors and prostitutes.  Wherever he shows up, wisdom listens to him and lives are changed. 

God may show up in

·       an achievement…or a disappointment.

·       an answered prayer…or an unanswered prayer.

·       a tornado…or a special needs child.

·       an opportunity to serve…or a complaint from your spouse that you’re saying yes to too many “opportunities to serve.”

·       a person you love…or a person you can’t stand to be around.

·       a wedding…or a divorce.

·       a party…or a funeral.

·       an unmet need…or an underutilized talent or spiritual gift.

In some way, God’s constantly trying to get your attention.  “You’re mine,” he says.  “I want to see my wisdom vindicated by my children.”

Our response must be, “Speak, Lord.  Your servant is listening.”


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