But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their playmates,
“We played the flute 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, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.
Then he began to denounce the cities where most of his mighty works had been done, because they did not repent. Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. (Matthew 11:16-21)
As a physician, one of the things that always perplexed me was how two people could have such a different response to illness or death. At times I saw patients with the very same disease but contrasting reactions to it.
Some drew closer to God and became increasingly grateful.
Others cursed God or denied him. He had stolen from them or never existed at all, they claimed.
What makes a person fall into one category or another, I often wondered. And now that I have my own disease, with my life goals and trajectory altered, I think about my response to illness.
I never understood the passage cited above in Matthew. The reference to children singing and playing the flute seemed cryptic. So too the statements about John the Baptist, Jesus, and wisdom. And the statement of judgement seemed confusing and hard to bear.
Yet, I just heard the most lucid explanation of this text by Tim Keller, and one that confirms a conclusion I had already been reaching.
So what is it about?
The words quoted are those of Jesus and are given in a larger discussion about belief that occurs just before John the Baptist is killed while in prison.
Let’s look at the 3 main parts:
1 – In ancient Middle Eastern society, largely rural and without all of the modern activities that come with electricity, weddings and funerals were the main communal and social events. I’ve traveled to places that are still far ‘off the grid’ and have seen how these events involve the entire town and can stretch for days.
And as we know, children often play what they see.
So Jesus references some children who are essentially saying to others, we tried to play the flute and the happy wedding game but you did not like that one. Then we played the sad song and the funeral game but you did not like that one either.
2 – Jesus follows this up by saying that the people criticized John the Baptist for being too conservative—John didn’t drink or socialize, he was an austere prophet with a message of repentance.
But then Jesus says that the people criticized him for being too liberal—Jesus ate and drank with the outcast and sinners, demonstrating that God was for everyone and didn’t care what evil you had done.
The message of Christianity is unlike any other religion. On one hand, it is the most difficult teaching to hear—that we are rebellious, sinful, and thoroughly deserving of wrath. Yet on the other hand, it is the most generous and liberal of all teachings—that we are saved freely by God as a result of his great love for us, without regard to our actions, in spite of our persistent struggles with sin.
But this is the nature of the true story. It’s a tune that will seem to some as too harsh, and to others, too easy. Even most of us who are Christians will have difficulty keeping balance between both sides of the gospel message.
3 – Then the statement of woe about Chorazin and Bethsaida. Jesus is essentially asking: Why on earth have these cities not changed and turned to him in spite of an overwhelming number of miracles performed for them?
Jesus has apparently been in these cities performing dozens, if not hundreds or thousands of miracles (recall that at the end of the Gospel of John, the author states that Jesus’ miracles were so numerous it would be impossible to try to record them all). Jesus is not asking the people of Bethsaida and Chorazin for blind faith; he has showed them his power more directly than any of us may ever see.
Yet somehow they still don’t believe. Like the children in the market, the tune just isn’t right for them. At one point they call it too conservative, at another point, too liberal of a message to be accepted.
There’s always another reason why the message isn’t right.
As Keller points out, “Unbelief is not just the lack of faith because of a lack of evidence or a lack of cogent arguments, unbelief is the presence of something else.” “There is something within our hearts that resists and fears…the message of Jesus.” “All the evidence in the world doesn’t overwhelm it.”
Interestingly, in one of the most sincere passages of honesty—that speaks to the Bible’s authenticity as a document, for no one would write such material if it were not true—even Jesus’ disciples admit that after the resurrection and literally seeing and touching the risen Jesus, some of them still had doubts (Matthew 28:16-17).
How is this possible?!
If evidence doesn’t overcome unbelief, then what is the problem? What is the ‘something else’ that puts barriers between us and belief in Jesus.
Just like the children in the marketplace, the problem is not in the tune (the evidence), the problem is that we are not satisfied with anyone’s tune but our own.
As Keller says, we want the pipe, we want to be the leader, we want to be playing the tune.
And this is why we don’t believe: because believing means not just that we accept some evidence, but rather that we give up control of our life to God.
The same thing happens with illness. Illness and death immediately confront us with the idea that we are ultimately not in control. We forget it so easily, but are quickly reminded in the face of serious sickness. This certainly happened with me.
If we’re ok with losing control, if we understand that actually any semblance of control that we had in this universe was really just an illusion (after all, death is unavoidable for everyone), then we can draw close to God in illness rather than loathe or deny him.
To have faith in Jesus means to relinquish power to him. Often illness leaves us asking for more evidence, more proof of what God is up to. I remind myself that it’s not a lack of explanation or certainty or miracle that is the major threat to belief, but rather whether I’m willing to listen for God’s tune.