Jesus and John the Baptist
18 John's disciples told him about all these things. Calling two of them, 19 he sent them to the Lord to ask, "Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?"
20 When the men came to Jesus, they said, "John the Baptist sent us to you to ask, 'Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?' "
21 At that very time Jesus cured many who had diseases, sicknesses and evil spirits, and gave sight to many who were blind. 22 So he replied to the messengers, "Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy [a] are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. 23 Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me."
24 After John's messengers left, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: "What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? 25 If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear expensive clothes and indulge in luxury are in palaces. 26 But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 27 This is the one about whom it is written:
" 'I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.' [b]
28 I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John; yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he."
29 (All the people, even the tax collectors, when they heard Jesus' words, acknowledged that God's way was right, because they had been baptized by John. 30 But the Pharisees and the experts in the law rejected God's purpose for themselves, because they had not been baptized by John.)
31 Jesus went on to say, "To what, then, can I compare the people of this generation? What are they like? 32 They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling out to each other:
" 'We played the pipe for you,
and you did not dance;
we sang a dirge,
and you did not cry.'
33 For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say, 'He has a demon.' 34 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, 'Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.' 35 But wisdom is proved right by all her children."
In a recent post, I described my reluctance to switch over to DVD’s when they began to be popular. I had a huge collection of history documentaries and video on VHS tapes and simply did not want to switch over. To add to that I just don’t tend to like new things very much. I eventually did give in and get a DVD player and we have a few DVD’s now. In fact, I no longer have a working VCR and my tape collection sits in my basement collecting dust. But just as I began to get used to the whole DVD thing, albeit a few years after most people, I began to notice something new coming out called Blu-ray. At first, I didn’t pay any attention to it and thought it would go away. When it didn’t and more and more people began to talk about Blu-ray, I thought I might take a look at one. So, one day I was at a store and I picked up a box and looked at it. It looked just like a DVD to me and so I assumed that it was just another type of DVD that was perhaps a little clearer. I didn’t understand that it was entirely new technology and that you had to have an entirely different player for it. Blu-ray is not, in fact, just another type of DVD. It is something completely new, a whole new world of technology and you simply cannot cross over one to the other. Blu-ray discs won’t play on a DVD player and DVD’s will not do anything on a Blu-ray player. But once I finally watched a movie on Blu-ray I realized that these things really were incredible. They were a whole different thing than DVD’s and despite the fact that DVD’s were pretty good, not even the best DVD could come anywhere close to the technology and quality of picture that a Blue-ray can give.
This is something of Jesus’ point here as the attention turns back to John the Baptist for the first time since his arrest in chapter 3. John has been in prison for an undetermined amount of time and he apparently was beginning to have some questions and maybe even worries about Jesus and whether or not he really was the Messiah. His behavior was so different from what John was expecting that he was having trouble reconciling things. It all comes down to grasping that an entirely new reality was breaking into the present age. It was God’s new reality, his kingdom. But this new reality simply wasn’t compatible with the old age and could never be understood by using the old expectations and worldview. Even John would have to realize that the old ways of thinking wouldn’t work in this new world if one really wanted to understand and be part of what was going on.
Even the best of us can have days of doubt and disillusionment. John’s experience in prison is probably a good reminder of that. Many people have tried to come up with alternate explanations for John’s apparent confusion from prison but I don’t think we need to try to do any of that. The reality is that John was an incredible man of God, a prophet, but he was still just a man. He was weak, limited, and prone to his own preconceptions, even though he did have the Holy Spirit upon him, guiding and leading him. He was certainly capable of being led by the Spirit to speak more than he understood on his own terms. John, inspired by the Holy Spirit, had spoken rightly of Jesus as the coming Messiah, but that doesn’t mean that he completely understood fully what Jesus would be doing. John had spoken of the coming judgment of the Messiah (Lk. 3:17) but he likely had his own preconceived notions of what that would look like. His disciples had come to him in the prison and told him of Jesus’ incredible authority, but also that he was using that authority to minister to those on the fringes of the society. John surely was confused by this. Wasn’t this a time for the winnowing fork to come out? Wasn’t this the time to be cleansing Israel and bringing about a day of vengeance? Where was the ax that would be bringing down the tree (Lk. 3:9)? John doesn’t question whether Jesus was really sent from God or not. He needed reassuring of Jesus’ specific role. Was Jesus the Messiah or was he not? John’s problem was not with Jesus but with his expectations of what the Messiah would do. His conceptions were quite similar to the audience in the synagogue in Nazareth (Lk. 4:28-29). He had called for repentance and for people to prepare for God’s purging of the unrighteous. He simply couldn’t see how Jesus’ actions were related to that end.
Jesus’ response is somewhat cryptic but also very clear when we stop and look at his response carefully. He was far too wise to come up and say directly that he was the Messiah. This would have opened him up to all the misconceptions that people had about the Messiah but would also ramp up the intensity of those opposed to him before his time had come to go to his death. His response was a symphony of notes from different passages of Isaiah (35:5-6; 26:19; 29:18-19; 61:1). His ministry was to the blind, the lame, the ill and outcast, the deaf, and the dead. His ministry, in other words, was the one spoken of all throughout Isaiah, especially Isaiah 61. He was delivering and bringing judgment upon those who rejected him, but just not the way that John might have expected. John was still thinking in terms of the old world and was not seeing that this was God’s new reality breaking into the present. He simply could not grasp that Jesus’ ministry was pointing to God’s age to come when those who trusted in the life of Christ would be transformed and made completely whole. He could not comprehend that Jesus was calling people to embrace that future by giving out samples of what that would look like and then calling people to begin to live by the values of that age right now in the present.
John needed to change his categories and enter into the worldview of the new age and so did those standing there listening to Jesus. That was Jesus’ point in verses 24-28. What did they go out to see when they went into the wilderness? Jesus’ reference to a reed swayed by the wind could simply mean that they didn’t go to see someone who went along with the winds of public opinion but a more likely reference was to Herod Antipas, whose personal symbol that he had printed on coins was a reed. They didn’t go out to see just another reed, another man in fine clothes like Herod did they? No, they went out there to hear a prophet. But he was more than just a prophet. He was the one who would prepare the way for Jesus. If they went out there to hear something new from God, then they shouldn’t be surprised that they got much more than they bargained for. The new kingdom that they were getting simply far surpassed what they could expect under the old order of things. Jesus made this point clear by stressing that John was indeed more than a prophet, there was no one greater in the entire Old Testament than he as far as his vocation was concerned. Yet, even with all of that, Jesus makes the point that even the least in the kingdom of God is superior to John because he is of the old order. He would not live long enough to enter into the kingdom himself. The fact that the chief of the prophets would have less than anyone in the kingdom of God doesn’t speak to John’s deficiency but to the incredible access to God and privilege that those in Christ would have.
Luke adds the note onto Jesus’ exaltation of the new era that was dawning and the incredible grace that would be poured out to those in the kingdom by stressing that crowd that was gathered around, including even the reviled and lowly tax collectors knew that God’s way was right. But the leaders, the experts, and the Pharisees rejected it. They were too concerned with consolidating and keeping their own privilege and power in the present age and so would not accept John’s message of repentance and preparation for God’s new work. In rejecting John’s symbolic baptism, they would surely also reject true baptism into the life of Christ.
Jesus, as he often did, gave a descriptive example to show what that generation was like. The children’s song that he cited may have been a common folk song like a nursery rhyme or the like that would have been quite familiar to all of his listeners, although no one can say for certain where the song came from. The more important question, though, is what does it mean? This has been an oft debated and discussed topic through the years among biblical commentators and experts but the clue to the meaning of the little ditty is likely hinted at in the verses immediately following the lyrics in question. Jesus’ point was that many of the people, or at least those who considered themselves the religious leaders, were never satisfied. They were so beholden to their own expectations that they criticized and rejected whatever God sent. It was a classic case of the old saying, “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” John came “singing a dirge” about the wickedness of Israel and their need to repent before God judged the whole nation, but they rejected John’s serious and fiery message, claiming that he was demonic. So the message of condemnation didn’t work for the religious leaders but surely they would accept a more positive approach. Yet, Jesus came “playing the pipe” and they would not dance. He introduced the kingdom of God as a celebration and something that should be received with joy, singing, dancing, eating, and drinking. But that approach didn’t work with them either. The excuse became that he accepted sinners and those that should not be accepted and that he was acting like this was all a big party and thus demeaned the kingdom of God.
The fact is, “wisdom is proved right by all her children.” In other words, the discerning eye could see that these men weren’t going to accept anything other than their own will. John and Jesus’ message would be shown to be right in time. God would vindicate them and their message but the game of the religious leaders had been exposed. They were not going to accept God’s messengers regardless of what they said. They had decided that they would continue to follow their own blind guidance (Lk. 6:39).
Can you ever be like the religious leaders of this passage? Do you ever get so attached to how you want God to work that no matter what he does, you will reject it? It is so easy to pre-determine what you want God to do in your life and then sit back and miss the many things he sends into your life because it doesn’t match up with what you want. Are you refusing to dance to the pipe’s tune or cry at the dirge? Are you really open to God’s will?