I’m about to blatantly steal a story from one of my friends, Jeff.
Jeff is a multi-talented man. Leading and arranging worship music is one among his many gifts. Somewhere along the way of developing this talent, Jeff encountered a teacher who theorized that there are only two kinds of song: love songs, and pirate songs.
I’ve thought about that story this week because of the opening image from today’s Gospel text.
“’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.’”
The children in this story don’t care what song they play. They only care that others play along.
They’ll play a happy song so long as you dance, or a sad one if you want to cry. It doesn’t matter which so long as you follow their lead.
These children are playful, but they lack imagination. They demand everyone else conform to their expectations and be either happy or sad, dancing or wailing according to their cue. They think they are only two types of songs.
Now, my friend Jeff, when he encountered this teacher who said there were only two types of songs, decided to have a little fun with the idea, and so he took a song, one we all know, even if it’s not one we used today, and arranged it to be both.
He separated the bass and treble lines. He pushed the sopranos and altos into a higher key along the traditional melody line, which, I can’t sing, to create the “love song” portion. Then, he crafted a new bass line for the tenors, baritones, and basses: Come thou fount of come thou fount of come thou fount of come thou fount of…those four words and notes repeated throughout the song to create the pirate song. While the words and rhythm of the bass line never varied, the order of the notes shifted to create the harmony that merged the two types of song into something different.
These children in Jesus’ story, they don’t do that. They’ll play any song, so long as it’s familiar.
Jesus continues, connecting the metaphor to the moment, “’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!’”
We want what we know. We want the familiar.
The people looked at John the Baptist, the ascetic, and think “I don’t want to fast all the time, live in the desert and eat locusts. Gross. That path is too hard”
They looked at Jesus, and saw him “eating and drinking,” spending time with “tax collectors and sinners” and, just a side note, since here in the US in 2020 we have 10 more days to file our taxes, the complaint against tax collectors here isn’t like how some of us might complain about the IRS. It isn’t just that that the taxes are too high, or the collectors too punitive. Jesus lived in a land under foreign occupation. The tax collectors weren’t working for the Judean or Galilean government, but for Rome. They were collaborators.
They looked at Jesus and thought: “How can he be holy man, much less the Son of God. His path is too easy. If he can eat and drink, spend time with sinners and collaborators and be holy, how will we know who we get to look down on?”
We want God to be in our image. Not even our collective image, but our individual image. We want God to be like us so that we can be right. We want God to care about the rules we care about and be forgiving of only the rules we break. We want our holy people, our heroes and our saints to be perfect, so good that we are excused from emulating them. We want there to be two kinds of people, the holy, sainted, heroic kind that set the bar too high for us to try, and the ordinary, people like us who we don’t need to emulate because there’s no point. We don’t want to think that, maybe if we tried, we could be more like John the Baptist or Jesus. The people Jesus was talking about today wanted to be able to look at him and see nothing worthy of emulation.
Paul is getting at the same thing in his letter to the Romans.
Paul knows better. Paul has glimpsed the resurrected Christ, but Paul knows that even still he struggles.
Admitting these struggles is something it’s hard to imagine from Paul’s past life, when he was still called Saul. It’s hard to imagine Saul, so filled with certainty that his way was the right way that he presided over stonings, over executions, of people he thought were heretics, over other early-Christians.
Paul’s encounter with Christ has freed him of that certainty, freed Paul from the idea that there were only two kinds of song. Paul writes: “Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”
It needs to be noted here, that when this passage is put in context with the preceding two chapters, Paul is not saying that the Law is bad. It might sound that way from this one passage, and that’s the unavoidable danger of excerpting. No, Paul’s complaint is not about the Law itself, but about how Israel, Jewish authorities, and even Paul-when-he-was-Saul, had been using it.
They had been using the law as a litmus test, as an excuse to decide who was in and who was out. They had decided which rules mattered and needed to be strictly enforced, such as the rules about purity and keeping the Sabbath—rules that could be applied to enforce the social order by punishing those without the resources to take a day of rest, by excluding from the temple those who could not afford the proper rituals and sacrifices—and which could be ignored, like the rules about protecting the poor, the immigrant, and the stranger.
This pattern wasn’t unique to Paul’s time. Seriously, go back to the Hebrew scriptures and read *any* of the prophets. They are all complaining about the same basic things: idolatry and the worship of false foreign gods, decadence of the rich and powerful, and mistreatment of the poor in their own society, immigrants, and strangers. They complain that Israel was established as the nation of the chosen people of God, but they failed, time and time again, to even acknowledge, much less realize, the implications and ideals that implied.
This is Paul’s key insight. The Law, the Torah, is not a cage, but a path. It’s not a means of limiting us, of controlling ourselves and others, but a map to an ever better society, perhaps even a more perfect union.
Paul realized that, in Christ, there was no plan to move backwards. God’s goal was not to re-establish the Kingdom of Israel, but to bring about the Empire of God, a place where, to paraphrase Amos, justice would “roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.”
This is the promise that led Abraham to follow God to Canaan, that led Rebekah to repeat that journey, following Abraham’s servant to meet and marry Isaac: the promise that God is always working in us, and through us, toward a better future, a more just future not only for us, not only for the people we deem worthy, but for everyone.