To what will I compare this generation? I find that an interesting question. One thing we all know, or should know, about Jesus is that he was very creative in his comparisons. His parables are filled with ordinary, everyday things and events, which he used as illustrations to get his various points across: laborers in the vineyard, weeds and wheat, lost sheep and marriage feasts. Jesus was not a man given to theological abstractions, unlike many of his followers. No matter what the occasion, he never seemed to lack for a simple image that embodied what he was trying to say.
So, when he asks, “To what will I compare this generation?” it could be this was a rhetorical question. He might have already known what he was planning to say. On the other hand, it’s not hard to picture him asking the question, and then looking around for something close at hand to drive the point home. “To what will I compare this generation? Hmm. Let me think. Oh, perfect. You see those children over there, playing in the marketplace? That’s what I’m talking about.” Then he went on to explain.
Both he himself and John the Baptist were messengers of God. Both of them had suffered ridicule and rejection for their efforts, but for different reasons. John’s message was hard and dark, “repent before you are consumed by the wrath to come.” He led an ascetic, spiritual life of fasting and prayer, and so they accused him of being possessed. Jesus, on the other hand, had a lighter message. God loves you. God loves the world; so much in fact, that he sent me to help you find the kingdom of heaven. Jesus’ message was kinder and gentler than John’s, and he also chose to deliver it differently. Rather than living rough out in the wilderness, Jesus was often found at festive gatherings where food and wine were plentiful. So, when his rejection came, he was accused of being too quick to party, and associating with the wrong sorts of people.
But, Jesus didn’t seem to be overly bothered by these accusations. As was his usual practice, he took the things people were saying about him and turned it around on them. “So,” Jesus says, “here we are, two great spiritual leaders, myself and John the Baptist, exactly the kind of people you all say you have been waiting for. And yet, for one reason, or for another, you have found perfectly good excuses to ignore us both. Now isn’t that interesting. To what shall I compare you?”
When he pointed out the children, playing across the way, the comparison was perfect. You see, the children weren’t just playing random games. They were playing at being adults, as children often do. They were acting out the rituals they had seen their parents perform: specifically, a wedding and a funeral. Weddings, they had seen, were happy times. They involved flute music and dancing. Funerals were times of wailing and mourning. Clearly, the children were practicing, in a playful sort of way, the kinds of skills they would need later in life.
The reason that this comparison was so on target, is that the funeral play easily represents the dark message that John had been preaching, while the wedding play was more in keeping with the joyful message of Jesus. And what is most interesting, in both cases, is that the children who are trying to get these games going were not having much success. They were calling out to the other children, “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.” John had invited people to mourn their sins. Jesus wanted them to dance. Yet in both cases, the people, most of the people, preferred to stand apart, condemning and criticizing the messengers. They refused to play. What a beautiful image.
Now, typically, the needs of children are simple and direct. When a baby cries, a good parent will simply go through the list: are you hungry, dirty, tired, or going through a growth spurt? I used to ask my children if they were having an existential crisis, but they never seemed to think that was very funny. Children, usually, have simple needs, at least to begin with. But one of the hallmarks of growing up, is that we gradually become more and more complicated. Saint Paul put it beautifully. “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I gave up childish ways.” He wasn’t saying there was anything wrong with childhood, just that it’s something we grow out of. That’s what we do. When we grow up, we tend to put away the things of childhood.
But isn’t it interesting how affirming of children Jesus was? “Let the children come to me. Do not hinder them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.” “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” As adults, we take such pride in our sophistication and complexity. But too often, it closes our hearts and minds to the simple joy and beauty of God’s abundant life. The people Jesus was talking to might have thought it was unreasonable to be asked to follow off after Jesus or John. But the story should make it clear. They weren’t being asked to be reasonable. They were being invited to play.
Now I have to admit, play isn’t something I’m terribly good at. I’m very good at working. I got my first job at 11½ delivering newspapers and I’ve been working ever since. Most of the time I’m perfectly happy to put in long hours week after week, and when I do have time off, there is always a long list of projects at home. I remember my kids asking me, a time or two, why I needed to work so hard. I told them I’m very fortunate in that I truly enjoy what I do. I get so much satisfaction from getting things accomplished. But of course, in hindsight, my children weren’t really looking for an explanation. Mostly, I think they just wanted to play.
You know, one of my favorite old children’s books is The Cat in the Hat, by Dr. Seuss. I can’t begin to say how many times we read that as a bedtime story. Normally, I find I can relate to the cat fairly well, running around like mad trying to have fun. At one point he jumps into a juggling routine that always felt like it hit pretty close to home. “Look at me! Look at me! Look at me now! It is fun to have fun, but you have to know how. I can hold up the cup and the milk and the cake! I can hold up these books and the fish on a rake! I can hold the toy ship and the little toy man! And look! With my tail I can hold a red fan! I can fan with the fan as I hop on the ball, but that is not all. Oh, no. That is not all.” Then, of course, it all comes crashing down. “That is what the cat said. Then he fell on his head! He came down with a bump from up there on the ball. And Sally and I we saw all the things fall!”
It feels a little bit like that right now doesn’t it; like everything has come crashing down. Of course, in the cartoon world of the Cat in the Hat, crashing down is all part of the fun. No one gets hurt, the play continues, and the house is even cleaned up just as mother comes walking in. In real life, crashing isn’t nearly so much fun. Our current circumstances have thrown us all for a loop. We’re all trying to figure out how to pick up the pieces, get everything organized, and start moving forward again.
That’s as it should be. It’s all part of coming to terms with a situation none of us saw coming. When we use the word “unprecedented,” which we’ve all been hearing a lot lately, what it really means is that we don’t have prior experience to draw on. We’re all sort of making it up as we go along, as best we’re able. Now, think about that for a minute. When we have prior experience, we tend to lean on it pretty heavily don’t we. We’re all pretty comfortable doing what we know has worked in the past. That’s where tradition comes from. We do something. It works, and so we keep on doing it. Before long, we can’t remember or even imagine that we ever did it any other way. But when the times are unprecedented, it sends us all back to the drawing board. How do we know what to do when we can’t measure it against what we have already done?
You know what’s interesting? In the church, way before the pandemic arrived, unprecedented was already where we were. That’s exactly the conversation we’ve been having for the last couple of years; the conversation that started with Tod Bolsinger’s book, Canoeing the Mountains. What we have always done wasn’t working anymore. We were already trying to figure out how to move forward, because the landscape of the church had already changed. The question we were already asking is this: What do we do when what we’ve always done stops working? The answer is, we go back to our core values. We get back in touch with the values that always were the driving force behind it all. The values of the Spirit of Christ; love, kindness, patience, generosity, and yes, playfulness.
Jesus seems to want us overly serious adults to remember our childhood. Children know something that adults too easily forget; that life is often simpler than we make it out to be, that play is the path to abundant life, that spiritual wisdom lies not in hard personal effort, but in the gift of simplicity. Abundant life comes to us from the one whose yoke is easy and whose burden is light. We often don’t feel we’re being faithful unless our burdens are difficult and heavy. But Jesus comes to us with a message of playfulness, of light burdens and easy yokes. As we all struggle to deal with Covid-19, it might help to realize that, as hard as it is, we’ve been given an opportunity, not just to rush back to the way things were, but to think through what’s really important, and maybe make some changes for the better.
Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of Why Bad Things Happen to Good People, wrote another beautiful book, which he called, When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough. In the book, he shares a story that I’d like to share with you.
“I was sitting on a beach one summer day, watching two children, a boy and a girl, playing in the sand. They were hard at work building an elaborate sandcastle by the water’s edge, with gates and towers and moats and internal passages. Just when they had nearly finished their project, a big wave came along and knocked it down, reducing it to a heap of wet sand. I expected the children to burst into tears, devastated by what had happened to all their hard work. But they surprised me. Instead, they ran up the shore away from the water, laughing and holding hands, and sat down to build another castle. I realized that they had taught me an important lesson. All the things in our lives, all the complicated structures we spend so much time and energy creating, are built on sand. Only our relationships to other people endure. Sooner or later, the wave will come along and knock down what we have worked so hard to build up. When that happens, only the person who has somebody’s hand to hold will be able to laugh.”
Of course, these days, when we talk about holding hands, we do mean metaphorically, or virtually. But the message should still be clear. We need each other. We need to work together. And we need to not fret overly when things come crashing down. We just need to get back to the playful business of building it up again. Truly, the times we are living through are unprecedented. As we figure out how to deal with them, let us all remember our core values: love, laughter, playfulness, community, and the deep knowing and trusting of our Christ, whose yoke is easy, and whose burden is light.