What do the people of this generation remind me of? What are they like? They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling out to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, but you wouldn’t dance; we sang a dirge, but you wouldn’t weep.’ Just remember, John the Baptizer appeared on the scene, eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He’s possessed.’ The Human One appeared on the scene both eating and drinking, and you say, ‘There’s a glutton and a drunk, a crony of toll collectors and sinners!’ Indeed, Wisdom is vindicated by all her children.’”
The Fellows of the Jesus Seminar wrestled with this saying attributed to Jesus. It is also found in Matthew’s gospel, but not in Mark. If Mark is written first and Matthew and Luke each copy Mark and add to it, where did the sayings and deeds of Jesus originate that Matthew and Luke share in common but not in Mark? The hypothesis is that these sayings and deeds are from a separate source. Scholars call this hypothetical source “Q” which is the first letter of the German word “quelle” that means source.
Did this saying originate with Jesus? The Fellows voted and it received a gray vote. This can mean that it sounds like Jesus but there are some problems. The problem is this label “Son of Man” or “Son of Adam” or as the Jesus Seminar translated it “the Human One.” The Gospel authors use the phrase “son of man” to refer to an apocalyptic figure who will come to establish the kingdom of God. They applied that designation to Jesus. Did Jesus think of himself as such or did he think there was another “son of man” yet to come or is Jesus here using that phrase as a parallel to “yours truly” and speaking about himself in the third person? The Fellows of the Jesus Seminar couldn’t agree.
This is from The Five Gospels published by the Jesus Seminar:
Most Fellows were convinced that Matthew, Luke, and Q understood this phrase in a messianic sense, in which case the saying cannot be attributed to Jesus. Other Fellows argued that son of Adam was Jesus’ way of referring to himself in the third person. The difference between a pink and a gray designation hangs on the thread of that single expression. P. 303
But they did agree that this sounds like Jesus. This sounds like the difference between Jesus and John the Baptist.
John the Baptist is like the children who play the dirge and Jesus is like the children who play the flute. John the Baptist tells people that the kingdom of God is coming and that the wrath of God is as near as the axe at the root of the tree so repent! The basic message of John is to stop behaving unjustly toward your neighbor.
Jesus sees things differently. He tells people that they are the light of the world and the salt of the earth, that the kingdom of God is not coming, but is already within them. Dance.
As the comparison continues, John is an ascetic. He takes no pleasure from wine or food. Jesus, on the other hand, is a party animal. He is accused of being a glutton and a drunkard. John the Baptist tells the sinners to repent. Jesus parties with the sinners.
If this saying does go back to Jesus, Jesus is scolding the religious leaders. They call John possessed because he is an ascetic. They call Jesus a drunk because he celebrates with his cronies. The religious leaders aren’t happy with either one or with either message. They won’t mourn when John plays a dirge. They won’t dance when Jesus plays his flute. All they do is complain.
Jesus is saying there is no way to communicate to you. John couldn’t and neither can I. Both John and Jesus were trying to communicate the kingdom of God or the presence of God, in their own distinct way. The religious leaders would have none of it.
Both Jesus and John were in their own ways holy fools. John wore his camel skin and leather belt, eating locusts and wild honey in the desert. John challenged the powerful, including the king to repent of their injustice to their neighbors. This is the content of John’s sermon according to Luke:
The crowds would ask [John], “So what should we do?”
And he would answer them, “Whoever has two shirts should share with someone who has none; whoever has food should do the same.”
Toll collectors also came to be baptized, and they would ask him, “Teacher, what should we do?”
He told them, “Charge nothing above the official rates.”
Soldiers also asked him, “And what about us?”
And he said to them, “No more shakedowns! No more frame-ups either! And be satisfied with your pay.”
That is John the Baptist. He is playing the dirge. He is the prophet crying out in the wilderness calling on people to do justice.
Jesus’ approach was a bit different. This is how Luke reports Jesus’ first sermon. Jesus goes to the synagogue in Nazareth and reads from the scroll:
The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to announce pardon for prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind;
to set free the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s amnesty.
He puts the scroll down and he says that he is going to be doing these things not in his hometown but elsewhere. Jesus plays the flute.
Jesus wanders the countryside healing, telling stories, casting out demons, befriending the friendless.
Different approaches. Different messages. Different ways of understanding God and the way God acts in the world. They are not mutually exclusive. It isn’t that one was right and the other wrong. They are both calls
to open mind and heart,
to crack the hard shell of cynicism and prejudice,
to feel the pain of the neighbor as one’s own pain.
That is the role of the holy fool. Both John and Jesus played this part. The holy fool calls attention to himself or to herself for the purpose of challenging conventions or to communicate wisdom.
Saint Juniper is an example of a holy fool. Listen to this description:
Saint Juniper, an early follower of the Franciscan order, was known for taking the doctrine of the Franciscans to the extreme. Whenever anyone asked for any of his possessions, he freely gave them away, including his clothes. He once even cut off the bells from his altar-cloth and gave them to a poor woman. His fellow Franciscans had to watch him closely, and strictly forbade him from giving away his clothes. While such behaviors were embarrassing to his brothers, he was also recognized as a pure example of the Franciscan order and thus esteemed.
John and Jesus as well as other holy fools each in their unique way invite us to uncover the vulnerable, sacred quality of life. They encourage us to remove that protective layer of propriety or status and discover the human within us and embrace that human being, that beloved you. When we are able to discover that holiness within we can connect with others at the deeper level of feeling. We can connect with people quite different from us, or who we thought were different from us.
The political contests are so shallow whether they are the contests of secular or church politics. They are little more than people covered in heavy armor hitting other people who are covered in heavy armor. Even as we might participate in it or observe it, we feel cheap, sickened and used at the end of the day. There is no content, no humanity, no vulnerability, no holiness.
When that becomes normal, when beating each other while wearing our armor is all that life has become, the holy fool has to play a dirge or play a flute, something, anything, to create feeling once again. The holy fool breaks convention, regards the outcast as royalty, pokes fun at pretentions, calls the righteous “sinners,” and the sinners “saints.”
“Mourn, dance, do something!” pleads the fool.
To be a holy fool can be a dangerous calling. John the Baptist was beheaded and Jesus was crucified. People don’t like it when you try to remove their protection. If you take a risk to remove your armor someone might attack you when your defenses are down. That does happen. I would be lying if I said it didn’t. Nevertheless, what is life if we never take off our armor? What is life if we never see another person without her or his armor? What is that life? It is lonely. And it is never-ending war.
What gift can we offer another or ourselves? What if we could be a person, or if we could create a space, or could form a community that was safe for people even if just for a little while, to remove armor and to be human with one another?
I think we can and I think we have. I have seen this community be that. It is something that cannot be taken for granted and that needs nurture and attention. It takes a courageous person to be the first to remove the helmet, put down the sword and shield and step out of the armor.
It takes a courageous, holy fool to say:
“This is who I am.
This is where I hurt and this brings me joy.
This is what I fear and this is what I hope.
Tell me about you.”
It is risky. There are no guarantees.
The religious leaders, “this generation” as Jesus called them could neither mourn nor dance. I understand it, but I find it sad nonetheless. There must be more to life than polishing our armor. I think we all deserve better than that.
May you heed the call of the holy fool,
to take a risk and find your heart.
May you find other cronies of Jesus
who will give you the gift to be yourself.
May you find the courage to remove the armor,
even if just one piece at a time.
May you find yourself mourning and dancing
in the company of sacred and holy fools.