NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Verses 16-17: So what can I say about these kind of people today? What are they really like? The people today are like children playing in the marketplace. One group of children yell at the other group, “We played flute music for you, but you did not dance; we sang a funeral song, but you did not mourn.”
Like in any culture, there are games that children play to express fantasies and make believe stories. Oft times they are children’s versions of adult games and activities. In this case, it appears that the one game came from a festival or wedding, and the other from a funeral or burial. But the point here is that some of the children did not want to play the game. So the kids who were pantomiming did not like it that their friends were so uncooperative.
But Jesus is using this to illustrate the attitude of many who did not take John the Baptizer seriously. God had set forth a plan of redemption and salvation, and the very people He wanted to reveal it to did not respond in a serious and meaningful way. Rabbi Johanan learned this from Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai, “What is meant by, ‘If a wise man contends with a foolish man, whether he screams or laughs, nothing is accomplished?’1 Rabbi Papa commented: That’s why men say, ‘You can weep or laugh for the person who does not know their future. But mourn for him who doesn’t know the difference between good and bad’.”2
So Jesus tapped into an already existing understanding of how people in the past had failed to abide by God’s will because they did not take His plan seriously. But none of this prevented the Messiah from coming when the time for His arrival came. And by the same token, nothing that has been done since His ascension back into heaven; no amount of doubt, skepticism, or unbelief will prevent His appearance in the skies to call those who have died in the faith from their resting place, and transform those still alive so they call all meet Him and each other in the air.
And as we look down the road of Revelation, there will be nothing that the Antichrist or the Beast or the Serpent can do in the future that will stop Him from coming to earth a second time to set up the Kingdom of God for a thousand years. So don’t let your heart be troubled, keep on believing, and you will see it happen as sure as there is a God who can make it happen. Then Jesus offers an example of applied theology:
Verses 18-19: Now in John the Baptizer’s case, when he showed up they did not see him eating or drinking wine like other people. Yet people keep saying: “He has a demon inside him.” However, the Son of Man came eating and drinking and people are saying: “Look at Him! He eats too much and drinks too much wine. He’s a friend of tax collectors and other sinners.” But the truth will be vindicated by the actual outcome.
Now our Lord turns philosopher. He wants the people to see how their actions and words exemplify their warped mentality. He uses an illustration of one group of children being disappointed because what they do does not have the intended effect. Could it be that our Lord was paraphrasing the story in Isaiah where the prophet uses a children’s nursery rhyme?3 In Hebrew it goes like this: Tzav la-tzav, tzav la-tzav, kav la-kav, kav la-kav, z‘eir sham, z‘eir sham. Then the Master points to the people and more or less says, that’s what you are doing to John the Baptizer and myself. In other words, you people had a preconceived idea of what both of us should be, but it hasn’t turned out that way and so you are upset.
This may also be true about many believers who even to this day do not want to admit that Jesus drank wine. Here we have our Lord’s own words that He did in fact consume wine. What type of wine is another debate. As far as John the Baptizer was concerned, he was following the advice God gave to the prophet Jeremiah, “And you are not to go into any house where there is celebrating to sit with them, eating and drinking.”4 And John the Baptizer also suffered the same scorn that many other prophets encountered, “The prophet is a fool. This man with God’s Spirit is crazy.”5
But the lament of the prophet Jeremiah would fit well with what Jesus was feeling at this moment, “My dear Jerusalem, what can I say about you? Who can I compare you to? Who can I say you are like? How can I comfort you, city of Zion? Have you been injured so severely that there is no remedy for your wounds?”6 But in the end, the fact, not the fiction, would prove that both He and John the Baptizer were in fact genuine prophets sent from God to awaken Israel to the Kingdom of God and salvation through grace.
One question any interested Christian would ask at this point may be: “What did John the Baptizer’s abstinence from meals served at festival with wine, and Jesus’ apparent acceptance of this as part of being who He was, have to do with the people’s acceptance of John the Baptizer as the forerunner of the Messiah, and Jesus as the Anointed One?” Our Lord is making the point that even though John the Baptizer was a self-disciplined, self-controlled individual who never stuffed his belly with more food than was needed and stay completely away from wine, they still found fault with him, even accusing him of being controlled by demonic forces. Meanwhile, the Son of Man ate normal meals with family and friends and drank the table wine that went with it, yet they accused him of getting drunk and hanging out with sinners. It is an early case of: “You’re cursed if you do and cursed if you don’t!”
The Jews had their own way of judging if a person drank properly. It is in a story about one Rabbi named Huna visiting the home of another Rabbi. After he arrived, the house staff asked: “Sir, would you please recline on the couch. After he reclined, they offered him a goblet, which he accepted at the first invitation and drank it in two swallows without pausing once.” The Rabbi he was visiting then asked him: ‘What is the reason that you call yourself Rabbi Huna?’ He replied: ‘That is my name.’ His host then asked: ‘What is the reason that when you were told to recline on the couch you did?’ He answered: ‘Couches are always reserved for distinguished visitors while others sit on ordinary stools. Also, do whatever your host tells you, do.’ His host Rabbi then asked: ‘What is the reason that when a goblet was offered you accepted it at the first invitation?’ He replied: ‘One may show reluctance to an ordinary man, but one must not show reluctance to a great man.” He was then asked: “Why did you drink it in two swallows?’ — He said to his host: ‘Because it was taught: He who drinks his goblet in one swallow is a swiller; in two swallows, shows good breeding; in three swallows, is highclassed.”7
Just watching Jesus would have told them He was neither a glutton nor a winebibber. But they chose to believe what they wanted to believe regardless of the evidence. There is no reason to believe our Lord would have failed the test of good manners as taught by one Rabbi: “A man should not begin to eat leek or onion from the top side, but from the leaves; and if he did eat so, he is a glutton.”8 Since neither of these two scenarios were true, their attitude was what got in the way of accepting what they were actually seeing and hearing. Jesus had one clear message that would be expressed today as: “The proof is in the pudding.”
When I lived and worked in Asia there were many guests who came from the United States on missionary trips to see the work. Often when I took them to a Chinese, Japanese or Filipino restaurant, they would look at the food and wondered it they would like it or not. I used this same maxim by telling them, “The proof of whether you’ll like it, is not in the looks but in the taste.” Perhaps the words of the Psalmist came to our Lord’s mind at this point: “Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in him.”9
How true this is of living for God through Christ in the Spirit. Many worldly people listen to believers and find nothing exciting in praying and reading the Bible each morning, going to church several times a week, staying away from sinful activities because they want to keep their bodies, hearts and minds clean for the One who sit on the throne of their lives. But all of us know that it tastes so good that it takes away all the desire for the things of this world. The pleasure they give only lasts for a moment, but the joy of the Lord lasts forever and ever.
1 Proverbs 29:9
2 Babylonian Talmud, Seder Nezikin, Masekhet Sanhedrin, folio 103a
4 (Jer. 16:8).
5 (Hos. 9:7).
6 (Lam. 2:13).
7 Rabbi Huna the son of Rabbi Nathan visited Rabbi Nahman ben Isaac: Babylonian Talmud, Seder Mo’ed, Masekhet Pesachim, folio 86b
8 Rami ben Abba Ibid., Masekhet Beitzah, folio 25b
9 Psalm 34:8