Lord of the Dance, Sort Of

I have changed my mind on how Matthew 11:16-19 was meant to be read.

“But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, 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, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.” (Matthew 11:16-19)

The piper inviting people to dance in the joyous feast of the kingdom is Jesus. The one wailing the dirge of God’s coming judgment is John the Baptist. The ill-tempered children who refuse to play either game are those who find excuses to reject and insult both prophets – and thus exclude themselves from the saving work of God.

I used to look at it the other way around. Some English translations seem to suggest that the members of this (implicitly bad) generation were the children playing the pipe and wailing the dirge. In this reading, the people of the world were angry with Jesus because he would not jump when they said jump. That reading, however, does not well fit the rest of the pericope or the wider context in Matthew and the gospels.

The sight of children playing in the market place must have been very common in Jesus’ community, with their make believe games sometimes imitating the grown up activities of weddings and funerals. If ancient people had cell phones, it’s the kind of thing that you would have seen on YouTube.

Some, however, don’t join in the game. Today, we would assume that it is because they feel unwelcome or out of place. Here, Jesus offers a very different reason: the bystanders are too good for the game because they are too good to associate with the players – the crazy ascetic John – or the banquet-attending Jesus and his merry band of reformed tax collectors and sinners. The bystanders don’t simply sit on the sidelines; they shout insults at the players.

Implicit in Jesus’ parable is the fact that John’s ministry of gloom and doom and Jesus’ prophetic celebration of the kingdom’s presence are both part of God’s one act of salvation.

Unfortunately, this new reading the text means that I might also have to reevaluate a 50 year old song that I have come to despise: Lord of the Dance. Or maybe I can still dislike it for other reasons. (See author Sydney Carter’s obituaries in The Guardian and the San Diego Union Tribune).