John, Jesus, and the Jews (Luke 7:24-35)

The next story in Luke chapter 7 flows out of yesterday’s dialogue between Jesus and the disciples of John the Baptist. You’ll remember that John sent them to check whether he had it right – that Jesus was indeed bringing in the kingdom, since there was still…ahem…one prisoner, Mr. Jesus, who had not been released. What’s going on? Jesus reassured him that yes, the signs of the kingdom were indeed happening. The blind received their sight, the deaf heard, the dead were raised – this isn’t the dress rehearsal, it’s the real thing, baby!

Which leads to the next bit of dialogue, all about the dress rehearsal. Otherwise known as John the Baptist’s ministry. Preparing the people so they’d be ready and know their cues when Jesus turned up on stage. But the dress rehearsal didn’t go brilliantly for everyone: reviews were mixed. Some responded to John’s call – showing they were ready for Jesus – but others didn’t. In a rather complicated passage, Jesus takes aim at those who rejected John, and who are now also rejecting him.

7:24 After John’s messengers left, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind?

Did you just go out to where John was ministering for the desert scenery? (That’s one way of taking it.) With the implication – of course not! You were looking for something, weren’t you.

Possibly the “reed swayed by the wind” is a metaphor. But a metaphor for what? Failure (a weak reed in the wind)? Or people-pleasing (a reed swaying in the wind of public opinion)?

Did you just go out to see him fail, like a fragile reed? Or did you just go out to hear someone telling you what you want to hear?

However we take it, Jesus’ point is that they went out looking for something. It wasn’t just idle curiosity. It wasn’t just to watch a car crash happen. They thought there was a chance something big was happening, and wanted to know what.

7:25 If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear expensive clothes and indulge in luxury are in palaces.

And you didn’t go out to the desert to hear a comforting message of prosperity, did you? Those kinds of preachers, as a rule, hang out in palaces, not deserts.

7:26 But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.

You went out looking for a prophet, didn’t you? Typically, prophets were controversial figures who said uncomfortable things. But they still went out. It showed they were looking for something. And they found it alright. But they found a bit more than they were expecting. He wasn’t just a prophet. He was the prophet who, according to Malachi 3:1, would prepare the way for the Messiah:

7:27 This is the one about whom it is written: “‘I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’

Which makes him the greatest messenger we’ve had so far.

7:28 “I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John; yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.”

By implication, John was greater than Moses. And Elijah. And Isaiah. And Ezra. The greatest in a long line of prophets pointing to the time when God would act and bring in his righteous rule.

And yet, even the least in the kingdom of God is greater than John. This is Jesus’ way of saying that something far greater has come – what all of the other prophets were pointing towards. This is no longer the dress rehearsal. The main actor has taken centre stage for opening night.

So how did they respond to this claim? We see two, opposite responses.

7:29 All the people, even the tax collectors, when they heard Jesus’ words, acknowledged that God’s way was right, because they had been baptized by John.

The first response is from those who did well in the dress rehearsal. (Even the poorly paid extras.) They responded to John’s message in repentance, preparing themselves for the coming performance. Because of this, when Jesus did turn up – the one John was pointing to – they recognised him and embraced him. So far so good.

7:30 But the Pharisees and the experts in the law rejected God’s purpose for themselves, because they had not been baptized by John.

The Jewish leaders, on the other hand, had rejected John’s message of preparation. So it comes as no surprise that they flubbed their lines and forgot where to stand once the curtain went up and Jesus stepped on stage.

They rejected John and they’re now rejecting Jesus. Why? Because they didn’t behave the way they wanted them to. They didn’t tell them a reassuring message, but confronted them with their rebellion and hypocrisy.

7:31-32 Jesus went on to say, “To what, then, can I compare the people of this generation? What are they like? 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.’

Both John and Jesus refused to dance to their tune. And they didn’t like it. Jesus goes on to point out that there’s no pleasing them. Have a listen:

7:33 For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’

John fasted. He ate locusts and wild honey, living off the land, Bear Grills style. He didn’t drink. All the things you’d expect a prophet to do to symbolise mourning over the state of God’s people – fasting to express his longing for the justice of the kingdom to arrive, living out in the desert ready to re-cross the Jordan and take the land once more. John did what any prophet would do, and you accused him of having a demon!!

OK, what about Jesus, then? He didn’t do all that ascetic, hippie, desert-dwelling stuff. So surely they’d accept him?

7:34 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’

So Jesus does the opposite and he’s still in trouble. More’s the point, just like John, he’s doing what you’d expect the Messiah to do (if you knew your prophecies): bring in a time of abundant food and wine, and reconcile the poor and marginalised to God!

There’s no pleasing anyone. But in the end, it will all come out, and those who’ve embraced John and Jesus will be shown to be in the right:

7:35 “But wisdom is proved right by all her children.”

Wisdom will be vindicated by what happens to those who follow it.

To think about

I’m aware that it’s mostly believers reading this, but still the text forces us to ask: what are we looking for? Presumably, we’re seeking God. (If you’re out in this deserted place of the internet, that’s the only explanation I’ve got.)

So when we find that God’s message to us doesn’t quite fit what we were wanting to hear, what do we do? Do we embrace it anyway, repenting where it calls us to? Or keep whining that God won’t dance to the tune of our flute?

Although these questions are first and foremost in relation to our acceptance of Jesus as God’s Son, we can also ask them whenever the nature of the kingdom isn’t quite what we were expecting:

  • When the kingdom’s attitude to refugees doesn’t quite fit with our political ideology (whether Right or Left).
  • When the kingdom is a little more open to the “sinners” of our day than we’d like.
  • When the kingdom is a little less open to people continuing in immoral behaviour than we (or our society) would like.

We, like Jesus’ and John’s contemporaries, have a choice. To continue to play our flute hoping Jesus will start dancing to it. Or to get in step with the soundtrack of the kingdom which one day will drown out our easily swayed reedy flute playing anyway.

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