MATTHEW 11:16-19
Pp Luke 7:31-35

Child’s Play
Eating and Drinking

Jesus continues in His discourse concerning both Himself and John in these four verses and draws out the truth that, even though God had made His appeal through two very different channels, the people had largely rejected the purposes of God because they misrepresented the types of people both John and Jesus were - an indication that no matter what type of person could be raised up by God as a messenger, they would have rejected them also.

There’s one textual point which needs noting here before we move on to the text, and that’s concerning the very last word of the passage which the RSV renders ‘deeds’ but which it notes in the margin that other manuscripts use the word for ‘children’.

The latter of these two words is used in the parallel passage in Luke 7:35 and it’s generally accepted that the reason for it’s occurrence in this place in Matthew owes more to the fact of a scribal attempt at harmonising the Gospels than it does to the originality of the word in the first manuscript to be compiled and attributed to Matthew. Having said that, Matfran notes that the reading ‘children’ has much earlier textual support than does ‘deeds’ which would point us towards the latter word as being the alteration rather than the use of the former.

Mattask comments that the word ‘works’

‘...may be explained as the evangelist’s [that is, Matthew’s] adaptation of the saying’

However, it’s equally possible that a change to ‘deeds’ from ‘children’ was first brought about because the copier of the manuscript felt that he needed to interpret the verse rather than to let it stand as it was and so changed the original ‘children’ - which could have been misunderstood to represent natural offspring.

As with all differences in texts, we will probably never arrive at a satisfactory conclusion as to what the author of Matthew originally wrote but, in this case, either word makes perfect sense and doesn’t change the meaning. In these notes, however, I have chosen ‘deeds’ to better make sense of the verse and to allow the original text to give its own interpretation more easily.

Child’s Play
Mtw 11:16-17

Jesus uses the imagery of the marketplace in order to describe the present generation of Israelites who’ve been both hearing Him speak and seeing the miracles which were being performed in their midst. Mathen interprets the phrase ‘generation’ to be a descriptive label of the ‘Pharisees and your followers’ but this is putting too much into Jesus’ words seeing as that sect of the Jews hasn’t been so much as mentioned throughout Jesus’ speech up to that point - or will it be in mind until after the discourse’s conclusion - the following passage (Mtw 11:20-24) should also not be thought of in terms of referring to the religious leaders which we would have to do if we interpreted ‘generation’ in such a way here. Matfran points out that the following description of Jesus in Mtw 11:19

‘ that which the religious leaders rather than the crowds levelled against [Him]...’

but, again, this is only what we have a record of them saying. Their words are hardly likely to have been said solely behind closed doors and their intention would have been to declare them publicly to pull away as many from following Jesus as they could.

Better to accept the position of Matmor who interprets the word to mean that Jesus is referring, with exceptions

‘ the generality of His contemporaries’

and Mathag that the people of both John and Jesus’ day are

‘...a generation of unbelief’

Jesus will shortly go on to speak of the rejection of His ministry by cities in which He’d done a great many of His mighty works and in which He’d taught the people who’d come to hear Him. We shouldn’t limit the phrase ‘generation’ to refer solely to the religious leaders of His day and within those cities.

Jesus speaks of the population of the cities and villages of Israel with a picture drawn from the Jewish marketplaces and to which no one seems to be able to point towards contemporary evidence to substantiate.

The marketplace in the Jewish society of its day must have been a place of great importance seeing as there are a number of references to the area in the NT which show us the different roles which it performed. We should, however, ignore references to the markets mentioned in the Book of Acts, for these are mainly Greek arrangements which would have been somewhat different to those within the land of Israel (Acts 16:19, 17:17) - especially rural Galilee - even though the same Greek word is employed.

Because the marketplace was the area where multitudes of people gathered to perform business transactions (hence the Pharisees’ duty of ceremonially cleansing themselves when they returned from places, having brushed against all the ‘unclean’ of society - Mark 7:4), Jesus’ words concerning the Pharisees’ delight in receiving extensive greetings there, which would have bestowed on them some honour in the sight and hearing of the people, is immediately understandable (Mtw 23:7, Mark 12:38, Luke 11:43, 20:46) and, therefore, the area must have been a place where the gathering of people took place for social reasons as well as to do business.

The marketplace was also the place where unemployed labourers appear to have gathered in anticipation that someone would hire them (Mtw 20:3), though the interpretation of such a passage could equally well be understood to imply that the householder who sees them takes pity having found them doing nothing rather than they were there trying to find work!

It was also the place where the sick were laid when Jesus entered villages and cities that He might heal them (Mark 6:56). It’s difficult to know from this statement as well, whether this was something that was done specifically for those people who needed to be healed so that Jesus didn’t ‘miss them’ had they been elsewhere or whether it was normal for them to be there, begging for a living.

Most would parallel the present day eastern markets as being adequate representations of the situation in first century Israel and, although these may be the nearest thing possible to conjure in the mind what the set up was, most of these are Arabic not Jewish and there may have been different aspects present which we are now unaware of, especially as II Kings 7:18, although spoken in a severe famine, would indicate that traders gathered at the gates of a city to sell their agricultural produce, and which could, therefore, be regarded as some sort of ‘marketplace’.

Coming to the imagery used by Jesus in these verses, it’s difficult to be certain whether we’re supposed to think of the scene taking place after all the traders have gone or while they’re trading through the day. Wight comments that

‘In the [present day] Orient, children love to go to the market place where so many interesting things are happening. They watch with keen interest everything that happens there. They may play pranks and, of course, they have their games’

while Mathen takes an opposite view that

‘The picture [Jesus] draws is that of children who on those days when no business is being transacted on the market have gathered in its ample spaces in order to play games’

Of course, the point is hardly whether the market is taking place or not and any people subsequent to the picture are largely immaterial. But it does show that there’s such a sparsity of information on an array of ancient cultures that we tend to guess a situation that may not be wholly accurate!

The imagery is fairly straight forward here and Jesus speaks of children trying to encourage others to take part in the game they’re wanting to play - something along the lines of ‘weddings and funerals’ where modern kids would opt for ‘doctors and nurses’ (though the parallel is not without its limitations). The children, in mimicry of the adults they’ve seen participating in both, first pipe to the other children to get them to dance in celebration of the imaginary wedding - but they’ll have none of it.

Perhaps they’d rather mimic sorrow and sadness? Their lamenting is equally rejected and the children who are being encouraged to join in the game refuse to respond (the two line speech resembles some sort of proverbial statement which may have been used amongst the Jews at that time. However, it’s not been found in any contemporary literature and it therefore remains possible that Jesus is being totally original in His declaration).

Some commentators see the two groups of children each wanting to play their own game but are unable to get those from the other group to join with them. The two line verse of Mtw 11:17 would therefore represent one line from each of the two groups - but this seems to cut across the clear intention and interpretation of the picture which Jesus goes on to explain. The point is not that they only want to play their game and that they’ll respond to either John the Baptist or Jesus, but that they won’t respond to anything.

There is an echo of Eccles 3:4 here which uses opposites to show that both characteristics are equally applicable to a human’s life so long as the right time is chosen. It reads that there’s

‘...a time to mourn and a time to dance’

It’s not that the children have tried to make their fellows do that which is opposite to their desire and insisted on them dancing when they want to play-act mourning, but they’ve tried to get a response by using both alternatives and yet produced nothing in the children who’ve heard.

Such, says Jesus, is it with the present generation of Israelites - they are totally indifferent to the appeal of God whether it comes in one way or another. Indeed, the implication is that, even if God found another way of reaching them, they simply wouldn’t want to know for they’ve decided not to get involved at all in any move of God in their society and will dance to none of the tunes that God plays for them or will cry to none of the laments He brings to their attention.

Jesus goes on to explain this picture in the next couple of verses and we’ll deal with the application in the next section.

Eating and Drinking
Mtw 11:18-19a

Having told the story of the children in the marketplace, Jesus turns His attention to interpret the picture for His hearers and how it applies to ‘this generation’ (a word which is taken to mean the entire living population of the land of Israel though, specifically, those who regard themselves as ‘Jews’).

Paralleling the wailing of the children, Jesus speaks about the ministry of John the Baptist who came

‘...neither eating nor drinking’

where Jesus’ statement is not meant to imply that John ate nothing (Mtw 3:4) but that what he did eat was so meagre that it was as if he ate nothing (as will be seen below, Jesus is more likely to be using the estimation of John by those of the present generation who misunderstood deliberately those things which they observed of the messenger). Certainly, when compared to what Jesus must have had laid before him on occasions, the amount John consumed must have seemed minute. That John fasted is also likely from his disciples’ question to Jesus in Mtw 9:14 where it would be natural to expect the ‘like master, like disciple’ principle to hold true.

This appears to have been the bone of contention between both John’s disciples and Jesus for they were so much of a contrast as to beg the question whether they were actually part of the same move of God within their society - something which different denominations love to take today and use to insist upon the authenticity of their own way to the detriment of others. Even though God will deal with men and women on the basis of where they are and in a way that they can understand, we tend to think of our own methodologies that God can only work through them and that, should other people chose something which contradicts them, they can’t be of God - and, therefore, if we’re really radical, probably label the move of God as satanically inspired.

Of course, the true believers had responded not only to John but also to Jesus and followed whichever way they led even though they seemed to have had two totally different revelations of the Kingdom of God. The Pharisees, especially, refused to follow either moves and are more like the children who wouldn’t respond in the marketplace than any other section within the Israelite society of that day (though, as we saw above, the word is directed at the entire generation, not just one religious faction) and their rebuttal of both ventures was primarily because they had their own religious boundaries across which they wouldn’t go, both John and Jesus contravening their rules and regulations, failing to give them the praise they felt they deserved for being the ‘keepers of the Law’.

Mathag comments that, amongst all men and women

‘Those who oppose God will always seem to have reasons to resist. At one level the arguments can seem plausible. But at bottom they reflect unreceptive and unbelieving hearts’

If anyone is unwilling to accept a true move of God, there will always be things within a believer’s life who’s part of the move of God which can be used to negate what God is seeking to do. After all, no one is perfect (not even me - makes you wonder about the reliability of these notes, doesn’t it?) and we’re all moving towards being like Christ in everything - our imperfections are often what unbelievers (that is, people who even bear the title ‘christian’) take to destroy the work of God in their own lives.

In all probability, the Pharisees’ refusal to embrace either moves of God was because they would immediately have lost their control over the people, for both John and Jesus had come with a word of repentance (Mtw 3:2, 4:17) and, being ‘righteous men’, it was impossible that they should bow down to any word which insisted that they weren’t right before God. The ordinary people, however, found no such problem because they’d been repeatedly told that their lives were unacceptable to God by the religious - they saw in Jesus and John, then, not a condemnatory structure which pushed them away from acceptance before God as the Pharisees did but one which welcomed them back to God with open arms and which wiped the slate clean, so to speak, that they might live for God with no condemnation from their past to have to deal with.

In one very real sense, the condemnation of the populace by the Pharisees must have served as a great impetus to push ordinary men and women into the arms of God through the preaching of both John and Jesus.

Jesus speaks of the generation as condemning John with the statement that

‘...he has a demon’

a statement which was also levelled at Jesus (John 8:48) amongst the probably ‘lighter’ claims of the Pharisees that He was performing His miraculous works in the name of satan himself (Mtw 9:34, 12:24). Because John was an ascetic, the people naturally labelled him as being ‘driven’ by a spirit rather than being ‘led’ by God, and probably also due to his zeal and the fire with which he spoke. But, if this was really a true spiritual assessment of this person, why hadn’t they accepted Jesus when He came to them in total opposite to the Baptist who ate and drank in their midst?

Instead, they responded to Jesus with the statement

‘Behold, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’

This description ‘a glutton and a drunkard’ is paralleled in the Mosaic Law in Deut 21:18-21 where instruction is given concerning

‘a stubborn and rebellious son’

who has refused to be corrected and brought up as a valued member of Israelite society. The parents (not just the father) were to bring the child out to the gates of the city in which he lived and announce before the elders present (my italics) that

‘This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard

where the italicised phrase may not mean what we take it to mean literally due to the context of the situation that this passage speaks of. Taking the son to the elders of the city infers judgment being impartially given and it’s unlikely that the word of the father and mother would be allowed to stand over and above what the son said without there first being an examination of the situation to determine the facts.

When the decision had been made - and if it went against the son - the men of the city were then to stone the child with stones to remove the rebelliousness from their midst (a excellent way in this present day and age to deal with a rebellious child who would be a danger to society at large - only kidding. But there is a valid point here made by the Law that a child is to be made to grow up to benefit society, not to endanger it. Legislation which throws protective boundaries around children when they are directly being a danger or threat to society do not come from the heart of God and push those who are subject to their crimes of hate into despair, depression and into taking the law into their own hands. And I could tell you quite a number of personal experiences, too...).

That the men of the city stoned the child indicates that, though the individual responsibility of the parents is to bring the child up, if the son then rebelled against the parents’ rule, it was the responsibility of society in general to put right the problem rather than to commit the decision into independent organisations and legal structures.

However, for our purposes, all we need note is that the phrase ‘a glutton and a drunkard’ was one that was employed to speak of a ‘stubborn and rebellious’ son and therefore one who’s deserving of the death penalty. In Jesus’ case, there’s a natural attribution where those who’ve witnessed the things He’s done, far from accepting that Jesus needs to eat and drink to live, go to the other extreme of assessment and condemn Him for over indulgence.

Note here that both the generation’s assessment of John as ‘neither eating nor drinking’ and of Jesus as being ‘a glutton and a drunkard’ are both twists of the facts of the matter - as previously noted above, John did eat even though he ate little, and Jesus ate with ‘tax collectors and sinners’ (Mtw 9:10 - see my notes here) so that He might reach all sections of society for God.

But the people who labelled John and Jesus this way weren’t concerned about the absolute truth of the matter. They were more concerned to find justification for not having to respond to the message of the Kingdom of Heaven through either of them. They would readily have accepted anyone’s asceticism or their natural need for food and drink had they come with a message which was palatable to them (excuse the pun) but, because both John and Jesus presented too much of an offence, they twisted the facts of the matter so that they might not have to respond to their message. As Matfran concludes

‘They refused to hear God’s voice in either form, the sombre or the joyful, in judgment or in mercy, if it did not accord with their conventions’

Mtw 11:19b

I’ve separated this final phrase of Mtw 11:19 from the text immediately preceding it for it warrants special treatment. It may represent a proverbial saying of the day and age (in much the same way as Mtw 19:17 could have been - Mathag actually states that it was a proverbial statement) but the contemporary records of the age don’t seem to use it anywhere. If it was proverbial, though, the phrase would have retained its own unique meaning which wouldn’t necessarily be the literal interpretation of the words used, in much the same way that

‘a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush’

means nothing about food trapping and more about an attitude of mind to be content with what one has. However, the phrase seems to be fairly straightforward and is rendered by the RSV

‘...wisdom is justified by her deeds’

where I’ve chosen to retain the last word rather than the ‘children’ of the parallel passage (Luke 7:35) which may have been assimilated into this Gospel at this point (see the Introduction to this web page for a short discussion of this point).

Very simply, Jesus’ words convey the thought that

‘The way of doing things is justified by the results it achieves’

and so brings into question the attitude of those of His generation who have condemned both Himself and John the Baptist for practices which they’ve interpreted as being impossible to reconcile with a move of God. Jesus says, therefore, not that ‘the end justifies the means’ which would open up the way for all sorts of practices to be brought into Christianity which would even deny the teaching of Christ, but that the concluding outworking of a methodology can be seen to indicate the origin of that new move. As Mattask says

‘...God is proved to be right in the events of history...’

because the way He reaches into a society to meet people where they are is what becomes the effective way to bring them to acknowledge the importance and uniqueness of Jesus and of His work on the cross.

In John and Jesus’ case, both had seen the multitudes of Israelites - who had failed to be reached by the religious and religious interpretations of their day - flocking to get themselves right before God and to commit their lives to following after the Kingdom of heaven on earth.

While it was true that the hard of heart had turned themselves against God’s message to the people, crowds of people had heard the words and reacted positively and the testimony of their lives were what justified both John’s asceticism and Jesus’ participation in normal day to day life. Instead of looking at the end product of both their ministries, the unbelievers had condemned the methodology and practices.

Matfran sees the mention of ‘wisdom’ here as a personification of the concept which stands for God Himself (justification for which is borne out by an appeal to the Book of Proverbs in the OT), concluding that

‘ [God’s] superior wisdom, both the contrasting appeals of John and Jesus have their appointed place’

concluding with the present day phrase that

‘The proof of the pudding is in the eating’

but he appears to have missed the point of the passage which speaks of the outworking of God’s movement in the things which it produces. Jesus isn’t saying that the teaching through both Himself and John can be seen to be good in and of itself but that it can be shown to be good and from God by the effects which it produces within Israelite society (similar to the truth expressed in Mtw 7:20), the ‘deeds’ of the verse or, as in Luke, the ‘children’ (a personification of the deeds in action). As Matmor states (commenting on Luke’s parallel passage)

‘...the lives of those who accept Christ’s teaching show that it was excellent’

I can’t help but see similarities in Jesus’ words within the present day Church and the observant reader will probably not miss the parallels either, but we seem to have gone one step further in our opposition of new moves of God within the Body of Christ. Now, we also have at our disposal an assessment of those who embrace the new work but who fall away from Christ and so condemn it for producing ‘no lasting fruit’ or just ‘emotional responses’ in the lives of those who move over to where God is doing something.

The same could have been levelled at Jesus, of course, for Judas (one of the twelve) not only fell away, he also betrayed Him (Mtw 10:4) and the crowds who had so eagerly proclaimed Jesus as He advanced upon Jerusalem (Mtw 21:8-9) were the very same ones who cried out for His crucifixion (Mtw 27:15-23). Besides, it’s no wonder that the ferocity of opposition which often comes from within the Church is what puts many believers off from pursuing what God is wanting to do outside their own denomination.

While the people of God within a congregation must be protected from deceitful and errant theologies, we have, today, unfortunately used man-given authority (just as the Pharisees did - see my notes on Mtw 7:28-29) to oppose even moves of God which have been raised up within our own societies and, as I’m sure you’re sick of me saying, Church History points towards the fact that the persecutors of the new move of God are normally the recipients of the previous one!

Whatever, the outworking of a move of God demonstrates the authenticity of the source as being from God.