With a sharp parable Jesus pronounces judgment on his generation, which has rejected something greater than the Law and Prophets rejected by many of their ancestors (compare 12:39, 41, 42, 45; 23:29-36).
Jesus Teaches with Graphic Illustrations (11:16-17)
Probably he compares his opponents to spoiled children, but this is debated; the parable of complaining children (vv. 16-17) can fit this context (vv. 18-19) in one of two ways. Some interpreters suggest that the children represent Jesus and John, Jesus addressing the generation from the vantage point of joy and John of mourning; yet the generation rejects both witnesses (for example, Wimmer 1982:108; France 1985:196-97). On this reading, the children's complaint is true: Jesus and John approached the generation from two angles, but the other children would not play either game. Jesus scandalously paints the kingdom in terms of children's play. But this assumes an exact analogy that among other things would require two groups of children, one piping and the other mourning, a picture not explicit in this text (Dodd 1961:15-16; Schweizer 1975:264).
Another interpretation is probably more likely. Children in the marketplace complaining that others would not play their games would strike most ancient hearers as spoiled. These spoiled children thus resemble Jesus' opponents, who are dissatisfied no matter what (Dodd 1961:16; Jeremias 1972:160-61). They piped to John and he would not dance; they wailed to Jesus, but he refused to mourn (vv. 17-18). This interpretation makes the analogy between the parable and its application less exact, but makes more sense of the image.
In either case, the striking image of the parable is clear: the generation is committed to refusing the truth, even if fickle in their reasons for doing so (compare Is 29:11-12). The piping refers to weddings, and the dirge refers especially to women's role in funeral processions. Mourners expected all bystanders to join in funeral processions; rabbis might exempt their students from such duties, but only under special circumstances (ARN 4A; 8, 22B). On either reading, the generation rejects both John and Jesus.
The World's Dogmatic Disbelief Is Inconsistent (11:18-19)
John came leading disciples to fast over Israel's sin (Mt 9:14; 11:18), but Jesus came celebrating the kingdom like a wedding feast (9:15-17; 11:19). The charge that John the prophet has a demon may suggest a familiar spirit, such as those that belonged to magicians (Kraeling 1951:11-12), a capital offense. Likewise, the charge that Jesus was a glutton and a drunkard alludes to the "rebellious son" of Deuteronomy 21:20-also a capital offense (see Jeremias 1972:160).
God has different kinds of servants for different missions, but we need all the kinds of servants God sends (Mt 11:18-19). Neither Jesus nor John accumulated earthly resources for earthly pleasure; but Jesus accepted invitations to upscale banquets, while John was a wilderness prophet. Jesus came partly as God's ambassador to initiate relations with sinners (9:10-13), whereas John primarily took the role of biblical prophets in times of persecution (3:7); Jesus was a missionary within the culture, John a critic from outside it. Both models are biblical but suit different situations. When we can influence a culture from within without compromise, we should do so; when the culture becomes so hostile to our Master that we must stand as witnesses outside it, let us do so without regret. Thus Paul had friends who were Asiarchs (Acts 19:31); but a generation later, during widespread persecution from the imperial cult, believers had to "come out from among them" (Rev 18:4). Christians today need more sensitivity to both kinds of prophets; often each kind of prophet also needs to recognize the value of the other's call.
Jesus indicts his generation for the ultimate offense: they have consummated the sins of previous generations by rejecting God's ultimate agent (Mt 23:31-32, 35). Yet Jesus' and John's opponents were like many opponents of God's message today: while claiming intellectual integrity, they merely use whatever argument works against the gospel, giving no thought to its consistency with earlier arguments.
True Wisdom Is Vindicated in the Eyes of the Wise (11:19)
If some people choose to reject God's message, which he has confirmed by strong evidences, this hardly brings the message into question; it merely brings into question either the sense or the moral honesty of those who reject it. Wisdom's "deeds" (NIV actions) here alludes loosely back to Christ's "deeds" (NIV "what Christ was doing") in verse 2 (Meier 1980:124), paving the way for the identification of Christ and Wisdom in verses 28-30 (see also 23:24).