“But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their playmates,
“‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.’
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 at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.” (Matthew 11:16-19 ESV)
Jesus often points to the sins or excesses of a particular group. He often rails at the Pharisees, for instance. But here he is speaking against an entire generation of people. Specifically, he’s talking about a generation of his Jewish contemporaries. He speaks of them as if they were children playing a game of pretend.
Children’s pretend games are nearly always based in something they’ve seen their parents doing. Kids play dress-up and act out the lives of adults. They go to the office. They make dinner in the kitchen. In this case, they have a festival or a funeral. The problem with these fantasy games is that little kids can’t write scripts very well, and a group of them will all have a different idea of what happens next. “Wait Johnny! I was playing the pipes. You’re supposed to dance,” and things like that.
That’s about how sophisticated Jesus says his contemporaries are when it comes to spiritual matters. They saw John the Baptist fasting and praying and assumed that because he was dressed oddly and spent much of his time out in the desert that he must be demon-possessed. They see Jesus going to parties at the homes of tax collectors and they assume he’s just there for the free food and drink.
But what was coming out of all that fasting? What were the results of Jesus eating, and yes, drinking with tax collectors, prostitutes, and other undesirables?). There’s a great play on words in the original language. Jesus calls this generation “children” and then goes on to say, “wisdom is known by her children.”
The “children” of John’s fasting people from all over Israel and Judah who came out and be baptized by him in the Jordan. The “children” of Jesus going to the dinner parties and hanging out with sinners and tax collectors were that he was in the right place when a woman came weeping in joy because she was forgiven much. He was where he needed to be so Zaccheaus would decide he’d had enough of defrauding people.
We well might have cautioned John the Baptist about his weird behavior and told him to change his hair shirt or told Jesus to be careful who he hangs out with. On the other hand, how many people who spend their time only in safe places or with safe people can say they’ve been leading large numbers of people to repentance or turned their hearts to the Lord?