Literary Reading in the Gospel of Luke

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There’s a passage in the Gospel of Luke to which I have historically applied some bad reading habits. It’s the scene where Jesus compares his listeners to children calling out to one another in the street, saying “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not weep.” (7:32) To be honest, I usually just keep on reading right past this verse and move on to more accessible material.

Recently I decided to take a run at this passage from a little way back and try to understand it in its context, figuring that the techniques of careful reading that I espouse in my literature classes might help me with the Scriptures, too. The whole scene begins in chapter 7, when John the Baptist, languishing in prison on king Herod’s order, sends a delegation to question Jesus in public. “Are you the one who is to come,” they ask, “or shall we look for another?” (7:20)

We learn in the first part of verse 18 that John has been kept abreast of Jesus’s career – still, it seems that Jesus has so far failed to meet the Baptist’s expectations. Why? How?

To answer those questions, I went back in Luke’s story even further and reviewed John’s recorded speeches to see if they could tell me what his expectations actually were. Here’s what I found:

    • “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (3:7)

    • “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance!” (3:8)

    • “The axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (3:9)

    • “He who is mightier than I is coming, … to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (3:16-17)

John’s expectations for the work and message of the coming Messiah seem pretty clear in these passages. (I find it odd that Luke calls this “good news” in 3:18, but that’s beside the point.) Clearly, John expects the Messiah to rule with a pretty firm hand when He gets down to business. He’ll be swinging His winnowing fork in wrath and judgment and taking names from the start.

If you look at what Jesus has actually done before chapter 7, however, the reason behind John’s nervous questions becomes apparent. Here is a complete list:

    • Jesus proclaims freedom for prisoners. (4:18)

    • Jesus delivers a man from an unclean spirit. (4:31)

    • Jesus heals Simon’s mother-in-law from a fever, and also heals every single sick person that comes to him that day. (4:38-40)

    • Jesus preaches good news in the synagogue. (4:43-44)

    • Jesus heals a leper. (5: 12-13)

    • Jesus heals a paralytic and forgives his sins. (5:17-25)

    • Jesus feasts with tax collectors. (5:27-29)

    • Jesus declines to fast. (5:3334)

    • Jesus breaks the Sabbath. (6:1)

    • Jesus pronounces blessings on the poor and meek. (6:20-23)

    • Jesus heals a centurion’s servant. (7:1-10)

    • Jesus raises a widow’s son from the dead. (7:11-15)

It’s hard to ignore a glaring incongruity between John’s prophecy and Jesus’s so-called fulfillment. In all of his preaching and acting, Jesus utters hardly a word of judgment or condemnation. There is no winnowing fork, no unquenchable fire, no wrath to come. Instead, it's an unbroken string of forgiveness, healing, blessing, feasting, and welcoming into fellowship. No wonder John is confused. He probably thinks he's got the wrong guy altogether. His question, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” (7:20) could be restated as, Hey, where's the judgment? Will you or will you not burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire, and if not, shouldn’t we be looking for someone who will?

Jesus responds by rehearsing the list of his accomplishments – His miracles of healing and deliverance – that I have summarized above. Look again, He says. These miracles are the heart of the Messiah's work , because they symbolize the relationship between God and man in the Gospel. They image the good news. God is coming – indeed, He has come – not in judgment, but in mercy.

Jesus’s answer ends with a sentence aimed directly at John: “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” (7:23) I know this sounds unfair, He says to John, but if you can embrace this unfairness, if you can understand that a divine canceling of debts will accomplish what wrath and judgment never could, you will be blessed indeed. It must have been frustrating for John to hear a response so contrary. The Gospel always comes to us athwart our expectations.

It intrigues me to notice that this exchange occurs in public, in front of an audience. I think this is by design, because the spectators in the scene are its most important players – they represent us believers, on whom the forces of Law and Gospel always operate. In between verse 23, when Jesus finishes his answer to John, and verse 24, when he turns to address the crowds, I can imagine what they are thinking: I knew it. I always thought John was a crackpot, and Jesus just confirmed my suspicions. John’s message was too pushy, too heartless, too demanding. All that sackcloth and ashes came across as extreme, too. Inflexible, judgmental, fanatical – that’s John to a T. He’s nuts, obviously. Probably has a demon.

But Jesus doesn’t let them get away so easily. Having just crossed and confronted John’s expectations, he gives the crowds the same treatment. “What did you go out in the wilderness to see?” He says. “A man dressed in soft clothing?” (7:25) In other words, What did you expect from the Law? Did you expect it to be soft, flexible, and easy? Did you really expect the standard to be one you could keep? Did you suppose you could avoid judgment by re-creating it in your own image?

Jesus then defends John before the crowd in the strongest terms, calling him the greatest man ever born, the one messenger chosen to prepare the way of the Lord. (7:26-28)

Look folks, Jesus seems to say. John's career is as symbolic as mine. He is imaging the relationship between God and man just like I am. His asceticism symbolizes man’s death in trespasses and sins. His inflexibility symbolizes the demands of the Law and the threat of judgment. His anger symbolizes the wrath of God against sin. These are the necessary preconditions for my coming. This is what it means to prepare the way. To realize a miraculous salvation, you must first stand condemned. Law must precede Gospel for Gospel to be understood.

But sinners reject both Law and Gospel, it turns out – and in finally delivering that strange passage about the children in the street, Jesus drives this point home to us, the onlookers in the crowd. “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not weep.” (7:32) My Father and I offer the Gospel and you refuse its freedom, He says. We send John to rehearse the Law and you rebel against its demands.

We cringe at the inflexible demands of God’s Law, objecting to its severity. Perversely, we’re also offended by the price at which the Gospel is offered, refusing the implication that its terms make us charity cases. We will not weep; we will not dance.

Luke’s story of John the Baptist suggests that both dirge and flute – Law and Gospel – come from God. Both are the children of wisdom, by whom she is justified. They call to each other in the street to mourn and dance alike, for the threat of the Law and the deliverance of the Gospel are ever present in this fallen world. The voice of John the Baptist makes eternal preparation for the continuous coming of the Messiah with healing and deliverance. Side by side in every moment, John's dire warning constantly guarantees judgment, while Jesus’s miracle continually, and unfairly, delivers us all.

May we learn to weep and dance in turn.