instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Call and response

If I were asked what the people of Jesus' generation were like, I doubt my answer would come close to Jesus':
They are like children who sit in the marketplace and call to one another, "We played the flute for you, but you did not dance. We sang a dirge, but you did not weep."
This seems an odd simile, although Jesus goes on to explain it:
For John the Baptist came neither eating food nor drinking wine, and you said, "He is possessed by a demon."
The Son of Man came eating and drinking and you said, "Look, he is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners."
Now, this explanation could stand an explanation, because what I thought was the most natural explanation is the exact opposite of what the Fathers thought.

I'd have said that the children who called out were the unbelieving and unsatisfiable critics of Jesus and John, while John would not dance and Jesus would not weep. The children, after all, are what that generation was like, and we know how Jesus complained about that generation. Also, isn't a child sitting in the marketplace calling out an image of questionable dignity for the Son of Man? Finally, this way the parallel is maintained between simile and explanation of who is speaking of whom in what order.

The Fathers, though, understood Jesus to be the one who played the flute, John the one who sang a dirge, and their unbelieving and unsatisfiable critics the ones who would neither dance nor weep. As Jerome put it:
If fasting then pleases you, why were you not satisfied with John! If fullness, why not with the Son of man?
And on reflection, that makes far more sense than my interpretation.

This generation -- whether Jesus' or our own -- has initiated nothing. Everything, everything we do is in response to what God has already done, even if we think we're acting first. Yes, sometimes we pray to God to do something, then wait to see if He dances or weeps as we've directed Him. But it is an illusion to think our prayer is the first movement, that it creates the relationship -- and just as well to see it as an illusion, since the terms on which we create such a relationship will sooner or later lead to ruin.

It is, rather, God, always, Who calls to us. The Son came [action verb] to reveal [action verb] the Father. The story of salvation is the story of God's action and our response (or, as in this simile, our lack of response). The Way may be narrow, but there are many places to step onto it, and God invites us at each place.