Luke 7:31-32: 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.’
As I have been teaching through the “Parables of Jesus”, more so than any other series that I’ve ever done, this one has enlightened me to the absolute genius of Jesus Christ. It sounds almost silly to say it: “the creator of the universe is a genius,” but to see his poetic, analytical, perceptive, verbal genius in action in the midst of the human condition is incredibly impressive to me. This parable is an excellent example of Jesus’ unparalleled ability to quickly, deeply and meaningfully assess a broad and complex situation with a rather simple narrative metaphor. It may not be immediately clear as you read it what Jesus is talking about, so let’s take a brief look into his assessment here.
While this parable seems to have flown by at least somewhat under-the-radar and is unrecognized by many, it is actually quite important! So far as I know, this is the only place where Jesus makes such a direct assessment of “this generation.” Whenever he uses this term, he does so in a general sense, and he does so in a negative sense. He is referring to people – and more specifically, to the people who were rejecting John the Baptist, and who were rejecting himself, Jesus Christ. So when Jesus says “this generation”, he’s really referring to every people group, as applicable, since that time, including ours who are rejecting the truth of the gospel. So at the outset, we can see that what we’re about to hear is Jesus’ perspective, Jesus’ analysis, Jesus’ assessment of the people who have been rejecting them. And so if that’s the case, and Jesus is saying, here’s my assessment of the people, I really want to know what he has to say. This is an important parable!
Jesus starts us by comparing them to “children in the marketplace.” In ancient Israel, and I’m sure the entire ancient world, they didn’t have playgrounds, they didn’t have swing-sets, they didn’t have “My Gym”, and they didn’t have an organized soccer club where the soccer moms would bring the kids to practice every Tuesday and Thursday. So the children would often gather together in the town center of their individual small towns and villages to play. And Jesus uses this image to give us this little parable to illustrate his assessment of this generation.
He uses two scenarios to illustrate his point: (1) they sang a “dirge” and they didn’t cry, and (2) played a pipe and no one danced. A “dirge”, translated from the Greek word ethrēnēsamen, meant “to wail, to sing a song of lament,” and this word was especially and commonly associated with a funeral. Whereas “we played the pipe for you” is translated from ēulēsamen, which means exactly what it says, where a “pipe” is like a flute, and this would have been strongly associated with a wedding, or perhaps another type of celebration or party. And so Jesus describes these kids that are playing these games – perhaps pretending to do a wedding – and when they played the music, Jesus says the others wouldn’t dance; in other words, at some level, they wouldn’t play along, they weren’t joining in the fun, perhaps they refused to be satisfied. We can visualize a bunch of punk kids who refused to be a part of the celebration, and instead, they just sat there and sulked while the other kids played and had a good time.
On the other hand, when they played the funeral game, or whatever it was, they played the dirge, and the kids apparently refused to weep. Again, no one responded. He says, “you didn’t want to play that game either. No matter what game we play, you don’t want to join in. No matter how we design it, you’re stubborn and spoiled. We can go to the two ends of the spectrum, and yet you’re not satisfied, kids.” And in essence, by using these distinct and very different examples, he says “you know what? It’s not games’ fault – these are good games, useful games for the children – but you didn’t respond! It’s not the game’s fault, it’s your fault!” And that’s the narrative of the parable, and short of spiritual understanding and application, this represents the picture that Jesus paints for his audience.
In order to understand what Jesus is saying from a spiritual standpoint, and an application standpoint, first we must understand that this particular parable is contextualized amidst a dialogue regarding John the Baptist. John is in prison having been put there by the regional leader Herod because John spoke clearly to Herod regarding his unlawful marriage to his brother’s wife Herodias. The bible tells us that John “rebuked” Herod for marrying her, as well as for many other “evil things he had done” (Luke 3:19). And in some sense, this approach sort of characterized John’s ministry – he spoke openly about sin, he directly condemned sin, he warned of the consequences sin, he did not shy away from sin, and he did this often. John referred to the religious leaders as “vipers” or “snakes;” he told them that the Messiah was coming and that he would throw the “chaff” into the flames; he said that the ax was at the foot of their tree ready to cut them down, and that they needed to repent or they would face the wrath of God. I have to assume that he would likely not be a very popular guy in modern America. He could perhaps be described as the first fire and brimstone preacher.
Not only that, but beyond the fire and brimstone, John the Baptist’s behavior and lifestyle was not exactly in line with the norm either – he was actually pretty strange. He wore simplistic clothing made of “camel hair,” he ate grasshoppers and honey, and he lived out in the desert for pretty much his whole life until he was thrown in jail. This guy was a regular sack-cloth hippie prophet of God. And not just any prophet of God, but the people flocked to him, and they believed he was a prophet of God. The bible tells us that all of Israel came to the river Jordan to be baptized by him, and they listened to his message of judgment and repentance. He preached about wrath, death, sin and judgment. And they responded. People mourned over their condition, they recognized their rebellion against God, they cried over their sin, and they repented humbly and submitted to a gentile baptism for forgiveness.
But Jesus says not all of them did this. Some of them were self-righteous. Some didn’t like John’s message that we are all sinners in need of repentance and salvation. Some didn’t like being told they were under judgment and needed to repent. Some hated John’s message, and by default they hated John, as well. These were primarily the religious leaders and the Pharisees. And where John came in a sense singing the “dirge”, Jesus says, these people “did not cry.” Just like the spoiled brats on the playground who were too good for the game of funeral, the religious leaders and Pharisees didn’t want any part in John’s message of repentance. They were righteous already! Why do I need a repentance for my forgiveness when I’m already righteous by my own actions and goodness!
Then, on the other hand, and in stark contrast to John’s style of ministry, Jesus comes into the scene. His first miracle was turning 90 gallons of water into wine – where? At a wedding! The bible says he “revealed his glory” through the miracle of providing the choicest wine possible to a big wedding party. He got the party started. John stayed out in the wilderness, whereas Jesus was in community. John didn’t attend the weddings, the parties, the celebrations, whereas Jesus was at them all. John didn’t go out to dinner with people, but rather ate grasshoppers, whereas Jesus ate with Pharisees, Sadducees, prostitutes, tax collectors, and other “sinners.” John was disconnected, whereas Jesus was well-connected. John preached a message more focused on the wrath of God, whereas Jesus preached a message more focused on the mercy of God. In Matthew 9:14-15 the religious leaders asked Jesus “How is it that we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?” Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast.” John’s ministry was focused on death and damnation, whereas Jesus’ ministry was focused on life and celebration, and likens his own coming to a wedding. But here’s a key point: both of them were preaching the gospel. In fact, they were the only two people preaching the gospel at that time. Luke 3:18 refers to John’s message of God’s wrath and judgment, and the need for repentance and forgiveness as the “gospel.” Both of them were preaching it in their own style and focus. And whereas John came singing “the dirge” and they didn’t cry, Jesus came “playing the pipe” and they didn’t dance. And so in a sense, Jesus is saying “you know what? John came singing the dirge for you; he warned you of the absolute truth of God’s wrath, and the absolute need for repentance; he warned you of the consequences, but you didn’t listen. You rejected him. On the other hand, I came and I played the flute for you; I got the party going; I offer forgiveness of sins; I give you life and life to the fullest; but you didn’t sing. You didn’t want to join in that either. You rejected me, just like John the Baptist.”
And to answer his own profound question: “To what, then, can I compare the people of this generation? What are they like?” He says “they’re like spoiled little children who found reasons to justify rejecting them both.” Two different people, with two different styles, but both preaching the gospel, and yet they were both rejected. Both preaching truth – but the people Jesus is referring to simply didn’t like the truth. They thought they were righteous, so why do we need repentance? They thought everyone else was wretched, so how could Jesus offer them righteousness and forgiveness?
And so what are we to do with this? What’s the practical application?
We live in a time, especially in America, where – I think this is true – style trumps truth, at least a lot of the time. There is a movement, it’s been going on for some time, called “seeker sensitive.” And this is basically the idea that church ought to be very sensitive to the non-Christians who may show up on Sundays. That because they are seeking God, the message needs to be sort of watered down, or softened, and perhaps prepared very carefully so as to avoid too much reference to sin, especially to any particular sin, for fear that someone might be offended by it. And all of this is done, I believe, with a righteous motivation: let’s try and get people saved. Let’s do it. We should do whatever we can to do that, right? And while in some sense that is absolutely true – what Jesus says is that it’s not the style that matters because these guys rejected John and Jesus not because of their style, but because of the truth that they proclaimed. If truth is proclaimed and someone gets offended, then Jesus is saying that it is their problem not the message’s problem.
As an example, in many churches in America, it’s not popular to mention hell; it’s not popular to mention specific sins, even where they are mentioned in the bible. Again, the logic being that this might come across as too harsh and may be offensive to someone. Here’s the reality: when God’s Word is proclaimed, GOD will accomplish his purposes. Sometimes that means people will get saved, sometimes it means someone may walk out the back door. But God says his word does not return void, so perhaps that person walking out the back door will be convicted later, perhaps that person has a seed of hope planted in their heart, and perhaps God will send someone else along to finish what was started. This is up to God, not us. The good news is that the flip-side is true as well; and that is that even amidst some watered-down messages, or the avoidance of certain terms, people are still being saved. Why? Because God is accomplishing His purposes, sometimes in spite of us.
There’s a fine line here: we obviously don’t want to endorse false truths; but we also can’t condemn those truths that we simply don’t really like, or that are presented in a way that we don’t really care for or prefer. There is nothing wrong with having preferences; there is nothing wrong with preferring a certain type or style of preaching or teaching – we all do! But, there is something wrong with condemning someone for biblically dealing with the topic of sin, even particular sins. There is something wrong with condemning someone for biblically dealing with hell and judgment. There is something wrong with condemning someone for preaching a biblical message on the pure grace of God, the love of God, or the mercy of God. Because Jesus says when you do that, it’s not the preacher’s problem, it’s your problem. You’re being a spoiled little brat, just like the children in the marketplace. As John MacArthur says (not a verbatim quote): you’re rejecting truth, even while you might convince yourself that you’re rejecting style. As Christians, we are called to make disciples – that means broad, sweeping, biblical disciples who understand both ends of the spectrum. That means teaching what is found in scripture, even when it makes us uncomfortable. In fact, if you haven’t found something in scripture yet that makes you uncomfortable, keep reading and my bet is that you will soon. And when you do, you will be at a crossroads: do you trust in your human reasoning, or do you trust in God’s Word? Do you truly believe that God’s Word does not return void? Or do you believe you need to skip certain things, or avoid certain passages, or soften certain topics in your own wisdom to ensure that people get saved, or don’t get offended? If you’re a preacher or a teacher, give this some thought next time you prepare a message. Ask yourselves these questions. If you’re a Christian sitting in church on Sunday, give this some thought next time you’re tempted to criticize the preacher. Let’s not be spoiled little brats, but rather “wisdom’s children”, because just a couple verses after this parable, Jesus says that in the end, it is wisdom’s children who will be proven right, not the spoiled brats.