I find it to be a matter of common sense that you and I live in a fragmented world. We’re divided and scattered. Relationships are broken: between nations and neighbors, between races and religions, between partners and parties. Why, we’re even fragmented within ourselves: doing what we don’t want to do and unable to do what we most deeply want to do, as we heard St. Paul say in this morning’s reading from his letter to the Romans. We’re fragmented. Things are complicated. We don’t quite know what to make of it. We’re lost and we need to find our way again. We need to get our bearings, so to speak. We need context: we need to understand where it is that we are, how we got here, and how we can get to where we ought to be as individuals, as families, as communities, and as nations. This is the state of our generation on planet earth: fragmented, lost, Paul calls us “wretched.”
Into this maelstrom, enter Jesus. To quote Paul once again: “Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” And Jesus shows up in our gospel reading this morning with his usual wit and insight that cuts to the core of who we are and lays our souls bare for the healing. Here, Christ the great physician (Doctor Jesus) is practicing a kind of spiritual surgery in order to get inside us and expose what we are so that we might become what we ought to be.
And his surgeon’s tools, the scalpel and forceps he uses to simultaneously wound and heal his patients, are twofold: Questions and Stories. Anytime Jesus asks a question or says “Let me tell you a story…” smart people will head for the hills because they know it isn’t going to be pretty. And in today’s passage, Jesus does both. He asks his listeners, “To what will I compare this generation?”
He’s making a comparison: using the rhetorical art of analogy to provide insight and context. He’s showing us how to recognize the patterns of thought and behavior that we have become so unconsciously accustomed to by force of repetition and reinforcement by societal values.
And here is his comparison: “It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another”.
Children sitting in the marketplaces. Can you imagine anything more out of place? What if the New York Stock Exchange on Wall Street had an annual “Bring your kids to work Day”? What would it be like to have kids playing games and chasing each other around the trading floor? What would it be like to have a bunch of whiny babies throwing temper tantrums on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives? It would be chaotic and disruptive. They would constantly be under foot. Nothing could get done.
“Children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another”. According to Jesus, that’s the fragmented state we’re in as individuals and as a society. We’re tripping over ourselves, getting in our own way, and disrupting the divine plan with all sorts of mindless chaos and petty selfishness.
Jesus said that we’re “calling out to one another.” What is it that we’re calling out? “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance”.
That’s an interesting one to me, especially in this consumerist, hedonistic, entertainment-addicted society. The world is always “playing the flute for us” in one way or another, isn’t it? We are bombarded with advertisements from the moment we get up in the morning to the moment we close our eyes at night. Every single product and service promises a long and happy life, but none can actually deliver on that guarantee. Sensationalist media headlines are specifically designed to get our attention and provoke a reaction from us. They force our emotions out of us by making each new experience faster, funnier, sexier, scarier, or more intense than the last one. They keep us on the hook. The world plays the flute and we are expected to dance like puppets.
What else are we, as a society of “children in the marketplace” calling out to each other? “We wailed, and you did not mourn.”
This one is the mirror image of the last disruptive cry. Once again, the world is trying to provoke a reaction from us, trying to throw us off of our spiritual center of gravity. But this time, they’re using pain instead of pleasure, the stick instead of the carrot. If you follow current events (from either the right or the left), you’re probably familiar with this “wailing” tactic: there’s no such thing as a small problem in Washington. When is the last time you can remember either Republicans or Democrats sitting down together around a piece of proposed legislation and saying, “I guess we have a few minor disagreements about this bill” or “I’m sure we can figure out some kind of compromise”? Does that ever happen? No. Every little problem is an apocalyptic crises. Every opponent is a demon and every ally is an angel. It’s all just another form of sensationalism and manipulation.
When the world isn’t playing the flute for us, it’s wailing at us. It wants to provoke a reaction in us so that we’ll keep on playing these little games and sending our money to the big shots on Wall Street, or in Washington, or in Hollywood. Their game is simple: if we play, they win.
So, what’s the solution? Don’t play. That’s what Jesus said. He said: “John came neither eating nor drinking”.
Here Jesus is speaking, of course, of his cousin, St. John the Baptist. John was a prophet: the greatest of prophet who ever lived, according to Jesus. John was kind of like a monk: he lived a very simple, ascetic life in the desert and people would come to be baptized and listen to him teach.
The thing about John the Baptist is that he didn’t play the world’s game. He said “No” to the flutes and “No” to the wailing. He didn’t participate. He boycotted. He was a resistor. He was a fiery preacher who wasn’t afraid to call a spade a spade. He criticized the religious establishment and he called out political leaders.
And what did the dominant powers-that-be do to him? They demonized him. They arrested him. In the end, they killed him.
His experience reminds me of the Civil Rights movement: people marching in the streets, speaking truth to power, boycotting the bus system, sitting in at lunch counters. They said “No” to racism, segregation, and inequality. Like John, many were arrested and some were killed. They too were demonized with the worst possible insult one could think of in the 50s and 60s: “Communist.”
If St. John the Baptist had lived during the 1960s, they would have called him a Communist too. John said “No” to the world’s childish games and they said, “He has a demon.”
Saying “No” is an important step in the prophetic ministry. We have to do it if we ever hope to regain our moral and spiritual footing in this life. We have to say “No” to what the world is offering in order to say a deeper “Yes” to what God is offering us instead. And what is that deep “Yes” that we are called to say with our whole hearts?
Jesus shows us: “The Son of Man came eating and drinking”. Notice the dichotomy with John’s ministry: “John came neither eating nor drinking” (he said “No”) but “The Son of Man (Jesus’ favorite name for himself, it really just means “human being”) came eating and drinking” (Jesus is saying “Yes”).
Jesus, if you remember, got his start by working with John in his ministry. John baptized Jesus and Jesus’ message, in the early days of his ministry, is almost indistinguishable from John’s: Both of them baptized people and told them to “repent and believe the good news, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
But then a shift began to happen after John was arrested and killed. Jesus branched out on his own and took the movement in a new direction. As John himself said, “He (Jesus) must increase and I must decrease.”
Rather than disengaging from society and staying out in the desert, Jesus ventured back into the city streets. He got involved in people’s lives, loving without judgment. He scandalized the dominant powers of this world in a different way: by practicing such open acceptance, he defied their nicely defined ideological categories and the boxes into which they so conveniently put people and God.
As a result, they reduced him to the lowest common denominator and called him “a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.” Ironically, they couldn’t be more right. The reality of God’s love in Christ was far deeper and broader than they could imagine. Jesus envisioned a community where all people would be welcome at heaven’s table, not just those who passed theological or ethical muster. This was more than the powers of this world could handle. They just couldn’t imagine sharing heaven with such pathetic riff-raff.
During this time, the disciple’s eyes were gradually opened to the truth that this Son of Man is also the Son of God. The Church, after reflecting on this reality for centuries, came to affirm that Christ is both “fully human” and “fully divine”. The theological term for this is Incarnation – the belief that God has taken on flesh, that through Christ, God is present with us in the very stuff of this universe. Therefore, the stuff of this universe is sacred. Christ is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the Source from which all things come and the Destiny toward which all things are going.
In Christ, the universe itself finds healing and wholeness. Our broken world is fragmented no more. We are free to eat and drink once again, having overcome the clatter of this world’s childish wailing and flute-playing. We are now able to approach life with new eyes, the eyes of faith, strengthened by Christ’s Word and Sacraments, which point us back to the deeper truth of hidden wholeness beneath the fragmented surface of the world. All things come from Christ and return to Christ by way of Christ.
With that knowledge, we are able to put our worried minds at ease and our weary souls at rest, as Jesus himself said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”