Commentary on Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
In Matthew 11:16-19, Jesus highlights two possible responses to divinely ordained ministry. The first is disapproval and recrimination; the second is an assent to heavenly wisdom that may not always cohere with earthly expectations. The Gospel asks its readers which of these responses they will choose.
Jesus begins with a parable to describe his contemporaries: “But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn’” (Matthew 11:16-17). He continues, “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, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners’” (11:18-19a).
One understanding of this parable associates the “children” with Jesus and John: the flute-playing children represent Jesus—who comes joyfully “eating and drinking” (11:19)—whereas the wailing children represent the ascetic, fiery John. Those who neither dance nor mourn are the people of “this generation” who respond negatively to the two preachers.1 This view of the parable sees John and Jesus as the disgruntled children who are unhappy with their generation’s unfavorable reactions to their respective messages.
Yet, Jesus does not assert that he and John are the “children” complaining about improper responses to their music and mourning; instead, Jesus likens “this generation” to the “children” who express disappointment after they offer serenades and exhibit sorrows. Thus, a better way to understand the parable is that Jesus’ generation (the children) would have preferred to be piping and jigging with joy, but John came preaching repentance and retribution (see Matthew 3:7-12). Likewise, whereas “this generation” wanted Jesus and his disciples to wail—even John’s own devotees are confused by the lack of fasting among Christ’s followership (see Matthew 9:14)—Jesus refuses to have his disciples “mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them” (Matthew 9:15).2 The parable implies that “this generation” will be dissatisfied with any nonconformity to its desired dispositions—be it John’s rejection of joviality or Jesus’ lack of lament.
But who is “this generation”?
Since the narrative context of our passage has Jesus speaking to “the crowds” (Matthew 11:7), it may be tempting to interpret his negative assessment of “this generation” as an indictment of the assembled masses or even all first-century Jews. However, a close look at the pronouns that Jesus employs across his monologue disallows this all-encompassing interpretation.
At the outset of his address, Jesus asks the crowds about John’s desert activities using the second person plural (“you”): “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? […] A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet” (11:7, 9).
But as Jesus explains his parable about “this generation” he switches from the second person plural (“you”) to the third person plural (“they”), thereby indicting others: “For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say (lēgousin), ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’” (11:18-19a).
The “they” to whom Jesus refers cannot be the onlooking Jewish “crowds” (ōchloi), which Matthew almost always presents as favorably disposed to Jesus and vice versa (see also Matthew 4:25; 7:28; 8:1; 9:8, 36; 12:15; 14:13-14; 15:30-32; 19:2; 20:29; 21:8-11, 26, 46; 22:33). Instead, “they” must refer to alternative interlocutors—perhaps on the outskirts of the crowds or absent altogether—who had accused John of being demon-possessed and Jesus of being an over-indulgent associate of sinners.
In the narrative surrounding our passage, Matthew provides the key to identifying these specific critics. First, according to Matthew 9:10-11, as Jesus was “at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?’” Since the Pharisees complain about Jesus’ company here, readers should expect that the Pharisees are also the “they” who have called Jesus a “friend of tax collectors and sinners” according to 11:19a. Next, when Jesus heals a demon-possessed man in Matthew 12, “all the crowds (ōchloi) were amazed and said, ‘Is this not the son of David?’ But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, ‘It is only by Beelzebul, the ruler of demons, that this man casts out demons’” (12:23-24).
For Matthew, it is the Pharisees who grumble over dinner guests and make accusations about demon-possession. Conversely, the “crowds” marvel at Jesus and wonder whether he might be the awaited “son of David”—the broader Jewish populace is not critical of Christ’s work. Therefore, it is best to see the target of Jesus’ parabolic critique in Matthew 11:16-19 as the Pharisees—a relatively small group in Israel—as opposed to all the “crowds” or the entire generation of Jews in Jesus’ day. Whereas Matthew’s Jesus has “compassion” for the crowds of his fellow Jews and desires to be their “shepherd” (9:36), the Gospel does not offer the Pharisees the same sympathy.
The accusation that Jesus is a “glutton and a drunkard” (11:19a) reuses language from Deuteronomy. Moses declares that if parents cannot reform their son’s behavior, then “his father and mother shall … say to the elders of his town, ‘This child of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard’” (Deuteronomy 21:19-20). The Deuteronomistic background of the slander against Jesus highlights Matthean irony: the Pharisees assume a parental posture when they call Jesus a “glutton and a drunkard,” but Jesus’ previous parable had just cast them as children at play in the marketplaces.
Jesus concludes, “Yet, wisdom is vindicated by her deeds” (Matthew 11:19b). By referring to wisdom’s works after a parable about Pharisaic “children” who criticize eating habits, Matthew pushes readers back to verses from Proverbs that encourage hungry children let divine wisdom dictate their deeds: “Will [God] not repay all according to their deeds? My child, eat honey, for it is good, and the drippings of the honeycomb are sweet to your taste. Know that wisdom is such to your soul; if you find it, you will find a future, and your hope will not be cut off” (Proverbs 24:12-14). The Matthean allusion to Israel’s Scriptures encourages Gospel readers to avoid acting like children trading complaints, which breed ad hoc accusations, and aspire to behavior born of God’s wisdom.
1. See, for example, Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew (SP 1; Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991), 161.
2. See W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel according to Saint Matthew (3 vols.; ICC; London: T&T Clark, 1988-1997), 2.262.