Chicago, 29 May 2005
A Parable of musically talented children
How to play and sing in unison?
Some of you know that I have three children. All of them have musical talents, they play musical instruments and sing. I also have many opportunities to observe them while they are just playing with each other. I have to confess – and perhaps it is my own fault – that sometimes I feel I begin to doubt the evangelical truth that “Except ye … become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 18:3). Children possess numerous wonderful, positive traits, which Jesus must have had in mind when he said these words. However, they also have weaknesses. I’m sure all parents will agree with me. The Apostle Paul, who probably didn’t have any children of his own, said: “Be not children in understanding: howbeit in malice be ye children” (1 Corinthians 14:20). Fortunately, in most cases, when we see our kids’ mistakes and improper behavior, we think: they will grow up, they will get wiser. So, even if we sometimes compare somebody’s wrongdoings to typical mistakes made by children, it is with kind-heartedness and understanding. Children can still change and they will for sure do so. Adults change only a little and with difficulty.
Despite His great love for children, Lord Jesus also told another story which shows a less praiseworthy side of children’s mentality. It is the parable about the children sitting in the marketplace, recorded in two Gospels and short enough to quote both versions in our study, even though the difference between them is not very significant.
The first instance is found in Matthew 11:16-19:
[quote:] “16But whereunto shall I liken this generation? It is like unto children sitting in the markets, and calling unto their fellows,
17And saying, We have piped unto you, and ye have not danced; we have mourned unto you, and ye have not lamented.
18For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, He hath a devil.
19The Son of man came eating and drinking, and they say, Behold a man gluttonous, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners. But wisdom is justified of her children.”[End of quote]
Better manuscripts render the last phrase as “wisdom is justified of her deeds”, instead of “of her children”.
The other version of this story is recorded in Luke 7:31-35:
[Quote:] :31And the Lord said, Whereunto then shall I liken the men of this generation? and to what are they like?
32They are like unto children sitting in the marketplace, and calling one to another, and saying, We have piped unto you, and ye have not danced; we have mourned to you, and ye have not wept.
33For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine; and ye say, He hath a devil.
34The Son of man is come eating and drinking; and ye say, Behold a gluttonous man, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners!
35But wisdom is justified of all her children.” [End of quote.]
According to the Sinaitic manuscript, this Scripture also mentions “deeds” and not “sons”. Other old manuscripts, however, have the word “sons”. We will talk about the significance of this difference later on.
These two Scriptures we have read are practically identical. Yes, Luke explains, what John the Baptist did not eat and drink, but this information is rather obvious. The only significant difference is the word “all” added by Luke: “Wisdom is justified of all her children.” We think that this emphasis is quite important in the interpretation of this statement and we will return to it in the later portion of our study.
Jesus liked children. He Himself was once a child and I’m sure he remembered playing with his friends. Besides, in small towns, where he grew up, the kids played together in the streets. Even in my childhood, we spent all of our free time outside, playing with the neighborhood kids. Today it’s different. My kids spend most of their free time at home and if they want to play with their friends they set up appointments by phone, just like adults do. Nowadays Lord Jesus would probably find it hard to observe social behavior in children. In His times it was much easier; probably more so, since there were many more children than today.
While observing kids, Jesus noticed one of the main reasons of conflicts amongst them: the problem with deciding what to do together. Little kids sometimes fight over a toy that only one of them can play with at a time. My kids, who are a bit older, most often face a different problem: one of them would like to ride a bike together, but the other feels like reading a book right now. When he is done reading, he would like to play checkers, but the first one has already started painting. Such situations teach kids how to deal with conflicts in a group. The disappointment caused by the other kid’s refusal is an important piece of information for the future. The child learns that sometimes he has to act against his current preference, because this will give him a chance that his friend will later on accept his idea for an activity performed together.
The children in our parable have two ideas: some of them are playing pipes and would like the other kids to dance; meanwhile, the others are intoning mournful songs and persuading their friends to lament, or rather pretend that they are lamenting someone’s death. Most likely, one group of kids wanted to play make-believe wedding and the other – funeral.
Children often play recreating scenes from the adults’ life which they have observed. But playing school, church, cooking, shopping, cleaning or car-fixing becomes real fun only when a larger group of kids are involved; when one is a teacher and the rest pretend to be students, when one is an elder at the meeting and the others sing and pray, creating a make-believe fellowship. This is where the problem begins. First, the game has to be invented, but then everybody has to agree to play along. If there are two ideas and each of them finds some followers, an argument starts. They rarely manage to reach a reasonable solution and say: first, we will play school, then church, first wedding and then funeral. No; everybody would like their activity to happen right now, immediately, because otherwise he won’t want to play at all. As a result, the kids sit offended at each other and give up on all games.
Unfortunately, many times our adult life is not much different. In many areas we have lots of ideas, but not enough time and opportunity to put them in practice. It is especially true about the projects that require the involvement of a larger group of people. We also have numerous ideas and suggestions as far as views and morality are concerned, and sometimes it is difficult to fit all of them next to each other. And this is what our parable is about.
Jesus told this parable referring to a specific situation, which He explained in the words that followed. The immature people, who would not play along and were sitting resentfully in the marketplace, were the pharisees. John the Baptist was the one intoning a mournful song; on the other hand, Jesus, who spoke these words, encouraged a joyful, wedding-like attitude. Pharisees, the most popular trend in Judaism, did not give in, would not mourn over their sins, nor would they rejoice together with the Bridegroom; what is more, when they saw others accompanying first John and then Jesus, they cursed them, saying that John the Baptist had a devil, and Jesus the Messiah is a gluttonous man and a winebibber.
These are serious slanders. One can really wonder that Jesus spoke so gently about these people’s attitude, calling them simply immature children, who need time to understand that the teachings of both John and Jesus did not deserve criticism, but rather should have been received with gladness. First, they should have “buried” their sins with John, so that they could participate in the wedding joy of the Son of Man. Instead, the pharisees not only walked around demonstrating how insulted they were, but on top of that they threw curses and slanders at the messengers of God, in whom they supposedly believed with great zeal.
Their attitude was really strange, considering the fact that Jesus preached an ideology quite similar to what they confessed. He openly defended the belief in resurrection, which once one of the pharisees appreciated a lot. At one instance, the Lord said even: “2The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat: 3All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not.” (Matthew 23:2-3). The question arises then – why did the pharisees hate Jesus so much? Could we possibly imagine a situation in which He would gain their support?
From our everyday experience we know people who can never be satisfied. There is a Chinese tale illustrating this attitude. Once upon a time, there was an elderly father traveling with a little son. The father was riding on a donkey and the son was walking next to him. The inhabitants of this land shook their heads saying, “what a cruel father! he is riding comfortably, and making the child walk on foot!” So the father got off the donkey and put his son on it. They didn’t have to walk away too far before the upset people started shouting, “What a spoiled brat! The old father has to walk, while the youngster is riding on a donkey!” So, the father told the son to get off the animal and they both walked on foot. Then the people around were almost splitting their sides with laughter: “Foolishness, the donkey is running idle, and the old guy with his boy are walking!”
This is exactly what the pharisees were like. It was impossible to please them. Their customs simply did not allow for anything to be praised. In their opinion, only themselves and their own views were appropriate. However, if we asked them, “tell me then, what ARE your views? what do you expect from me? tell me and I will do so” – it would most of the time turn out that their concepts of God, ideas, principles and ways of life are a vague cloud where it would be difficult to pinpoint any concrete notions. If you don’t fit into this cloud, they will reject you as a heretic; if you do something that more or less belongs to their way of thinking, then the scary “BUT” appears right away – “yes, well, ok, BUT…” And then the old familiar criticism. For in this rotten world there is absolutely nothing deserving a word of praise.
In my professional life, I came across a composer who was slightly hearing-impaired. We were recording his music. He was quite a nuisance during the rehearsals. He must have had a special concept of his composition which he was unable to hear from the outside, most likely due to his hearing impairment. This concept of his was like a moving target, impossible to hit. If the music was too low first, a moment later it was too loud. It was never just right. I also met another man, who created, so to say, “unfinished” pieces. His compositions were open to interpretation by the performer, who was able to engage his creativity and in a way add his part while performing the piece. This composer could be pleased with any creative touch added to his music.
It seems to me that our Heavenly Father is also this kind of Creator. Having a precise concept of the final shape of His creation, He leaves His awesome piece at a certain stage of development and allows people, angels and sometimes even coincidence to finish this wonderful process, and He rejoices in the results of this joint venture. He does it just like a wise father who lets his little son hold the screwdriver while he is fixing something at home, and then the boy tells his Mom that he was repairing the broken appliance together with his dad. The little girl, who was allowed to peel a couple of vegetables and stir the soup in the pot, will be proud that she made dinner. Our contribution in the work of creation is not much greater – maybe just a little bit; nevertheless, God does include us in His work and is able to enjoy a certain variety introduced into His masterpiece by the free will of His creatures.
And here we come to the true meaning of our parable. One could elaborate much longer about the pharisees’ bad attitude, gently criticized by our Lord in the story he told. However, we would like to find out as well what the proper attitude is; how they should have acted in order NOT to be criticized by Jesus in this parable.
The answer based on this parable is, I think, quite simple and we have already mentioned it: to avoid the sulks, they should have played funeral first, and then wedding, because both of them could be interesting and informative. Translated into the reality of that time, the parable has the following meaning: it would have been sufficient to receive John the Baptist’s message first, to be converted, receive the baptism of repentance and wait for the Messiah whom they could follow. Afterwards, one should have rejoiced together with the Bridegroom, who after millions of years in heaven and thirty years on earth, finally met the first representatives of His Bride, longed for and beloved since the beginning of the world.
We, however, live almost two thousand years later; the only way to accept John’s message of repentance and Jesus’ invitation to the wedding feast, is to do it in the spirit. Nowadays it’s no big deal anyway, as 2 billion people all over the world believe that Jesus was the Messiah and the Bridegroom, and that John was His predecessor. Nevertheless, the lesson from this parable – the ability of harmonious collaboration in God’s work – is still very true. And the difficulties in achieving this harmony haven’t diminished, either.
The simplest and perhaps the most appropriate summary of this parable for us, the believers who do not have direct contact with John, Jesus and the pharisees, would be the following statement: “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.” (Romans 12:15). The follower of Jesus should learn to become like the Master: to weep when His friend Lazarus died (John 11:35), or when a magnificent city, Jerusalem, was to be rejected (Luke 19:41); but also to rejoice at the wedding in Cana, or even in the dubious company at the feast in the home of Matthew the publican: “And it came to pass, as Jesus sat at meat in the house, behold, many publicans and sinners came and sat down with him and his disciples.” (Matthew 9:10). Jesus did not get up and did not leave this company although He found Himself amongst inappropriate individuals. Above all, He was able to rejoice in Matthew’s joy.
In the Gospel of Luke, directly associated with the parable we are discussing, we find a description of a feast in which Jesus participated. He accepted an invitation from a pharisee and visited his home, despite the criticism of this faction which He has just expressed. On the other hand, though, He defended a woman, a sinner, whose presence the host deemed inappropriate. In Luke 7:37-38 we read:
[Quote]“And, behold, a woman in the city, which was a sinner, when she knew that Jesus sat at meat in the Pharisee's house, brought an alabaster box of ointment, and stood at his feet behind him weeping, and began to wash his feet with tears, and did wipe them with the hairs of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment.” [End of quote]
If this kind of situation happened today and involved a well-known celebrity, there would be an immediate suspicion of some moral scandal, or even a conspiracy aimed at bringing disgrace upon that person. A prostitute kissing the prophet’s feet! It must have been a shocking appearance and the host’s reaction is hardly a surprise. However, Jesus was above it all. He showed in practice how to rejoice with the pharisee – He did not disdain his feast – but at the same time, how to weep together with the poor woman, who desired to give up her sinful life. Here is an example of true greatness – an ideal impossible to attain!
This simple statement – “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn” – is more difficult to put in practice, than it may seem. How can I rejoice in someone else’s success, if I am unsuccessful? Am I able to be happy that my brother made a lot of money, when I am barely able to make ends meet? How can we mourn the brother’s poverty or sickness, when we are well-off and we are so busy? We will pray for them once or twice, shake our head over someone’s illness, sadness after somebody’s death – but a few days will pass and life will go on just as it used to. And the sickness or the sadness nearby are not over yet.
There is still another possibility. Job’s friends came to him and “they lifted up their voice, and wept; and they rent every one his mantle, and sprinkled dust upon their heads toward heaven. So they sat down with him upon the ground seven days and seven nights, and none spake a word unto him.” (Job 2:12-13) Seven days and seven nights – they spared no time. Later on, though, when they spoke, they expressed more grief over their own compassion, than over their friend’s unfortunate condition. Here we have a huge opportunity to learn, test, experiment – to become a human being sensitive to the neighbor’s feelings. So that when we hear about someone’s child’s success, we don’t tell a story how great our own kids are, but rather rejoice together with the proud mother in her happiness. So that when an elderly sister complains about the pains of her age, we don’t sum it up “well, we all have to get old and die”, but rather join her for a few moments in mourning the weakness and degradation of the mortal body. Sometimes, though, a grieving mother needs to be distracted with a different subject; maybe the elderly sister needs to hear about a wonderful discourse at the latest convention. These are truly great skills.
When we look closer at the conflict between the pharisees and the followers of Jesus and John, we notice yet another problem. John did not need compassion. Jesus did not require people to rejoice with Him. Incidentally, He did not have too many reasons for joy. John the Baptist proposes to the people a way of mortifying their sins, of repenting. He was a tough hermit, wearing sackcloth and eating whatever he could find in the desert, completely denying the needs of his flesh.
On the other hand, Jesus stands up in an intricately-woven robe, joyful, bringing joy to others, multiplying bread and wine, healing and speaking in sweet words. John’s disciples, directed by him to Jesus, must have been greatly perplexed: is it for sure the same mission? Is it the same God standing behind these two teachers? How can it be that the same truth is presented in such different ways?
Next to these two individuals – a tough, harsh hermit and a gentle, sensitive Teacher, who plays with children - we have people holding high offices, recognized by the society, wearing ceremonial vestments or prayer robes adorned with long tassels, carefully washing their hands before each meal, discussing detailed legal matters. These are three different worlds! How can they possibly be harmonized? The differences lie not only in the customs, clothing, behavior or the way of praying and praising God. There are also deeper differences, in understanding God’s eternal purpose. How can these varying attitudes and opinions be harmonized?
It seems to me that it wasn’t a coincidence that Jesus used the example of playing and singing children. Playing music together is a wonderful lesson of unity, or – which is worse – mercilessly uncovers the lack of it.
It so happens that my job consists in harmonious singing in a group comprised of many individuals. But that’s not all. Our singing has to agree with a large orchestra and the soloists. The ability of singing or playing in an ensemble requires humility. One has to be aware of his or her role, but also must conform to the other performers. While doing this job for a number of years, I have made some observations which, first of all, facilitate the appropriate performance on my part, and they also became a valuable lesson to apply in spiritual life. Here are a few of these observations.
1. In choir singing there is a principle that if you hear your own voice, you are singing too loud. It is a basic and at the same time most difficult skill to be able to listen to your section and then to the sound of the whole choir in such a way that you blend together with the rest of the singers and your voice becomes undistinguishable from the rest of the group.
I think the spiritual lesson is self-explanatory. If in my fellowship I’m mostly listening to my own voice; if while performing a task I am not able to lose my individuality, it means that I am not singing in a harmonious choir, my sound is not in unison with the others. On the other hand, if having done my work I can see the accomplishments of the whole group, it proves that I am an complaisant child, willing to play nice.
. It happens quite often, both in the choir and in real life, that someone is doing something incorrectly: he is singing too loud, too fast, too slow, or perhaps he is hitting wrong notes. The first reaction of people unfamiliar with this profession is impatient wriggling, holding one’s ear, turning towards the culprit or giving him dirty looks. Others, seemingly “more experienced”, are trying hard to show him how to sing correctly, overemphasizing the element that he missed. If someone’s tone is too flat, they will sing a higher note, thus making the overall effect even worse. If someone is too slow, there will always be an individual trying to even it out by singing faster than needed. All this does not improve the situation; on the contrary, the noise and confusion become even bigger. All these reactions, although they may seem right from the teacher’s point of view, in reality bring out the lack of skill and experience. A qualified professional simply keeps singing as if nothing happened. Later on, he would talk to the person about the mistake, or ask the conductor to go over this fragment again, but while singing, one must keep cool and simply go on.
I think this principle can also be applied to our spiritual actions. Quite often, when we notice even a minute mistake we let everybody know right away that we saw it. I have seen situations when a discourse was interrupted to correct some tiny mistake that the speaker made. There are brethren who on hearing someone’s one-sided interpretation, immediately try to show the other side of the issue. We think that this is the way to harmony. Most often it turns out, however, that instead of one truth we get as a result two extreme errors. I think that the principle can be applied here that the truth does not depend on the reactions and prejudices of the people around. It does not change under the influence of error.
Here is an example. While talking to a catholic, we might avoid saying that Mary was a blessed woman because we are afraid that our interlocutor will find in it a confirmation of his idolatrous adoration of some traditional cult. Sometimes we avoid certain places in the Bible knowing that the person could use them against us. The truth remains true independent of the circumstances. Many times a half-truth equals the whole error. We don’t always have to talk about all the aspects of the truth. But bending it to counterbalance error is as wrong as singing higher in order to make up for someone whose notes are too flat.
Point 3. Performing convoluted compositions, based on coordination of different sound groups requires great self-discipline and not relying on one’s own ability to hear the entire thing. In large concert halls with complicated acoustics one can be very mistaken judging the sound, when listening from the middle of the ensemble. The smartest thing to do is to rely on the conductor. Sometimes one must consciously act against one’s conviction and then, when listening to the recording, find out that the sound as heard from the outside was quite different.
Brethren! The compositions which we are preparing for the grand day of the glory of God and His Anointed, are extremely complicated. Their harmonies are convoluted, the performing apparatus is huge and the concert hall is as vast as the whole universe with all possible acoustic levels. Relying on our own judgement of the situation would lead to big mistakes. The only thing we can do when we aren’t sure if our melody is beautiful enough and well-performed, is to look up to our great Conductor, who never makes mistakes. He will surely lead us through trials and through the performance of His magnificent composition.
I know that this advice is as beautiful, as it is impractical. In reality, the ability to read the Master’s instructions is almost as difficult as learning His music itself. And I am sorry that I cannot give you any better advice at this moment. We all have to rely on our spiritual intuition in this matter.
In closing, we would like to comment on a Scripture which seems to sum up our parable. Let’s quote it once again from the Gospel of Luke (7:35): 35But wisdom is justified of all her children.” We mentioned before that according to some manuscripts, wisdom is justified of her “deeds”. It seems that “children of wisdom” may be a Hebrew expression signifying the fruits, the results of wisdom, which would really mean the same – wisdom is justified from her fruits or deeds.
I would translate this lesson into the simple language I sometimes use when solving conflicts among my children. I tell them simply that the wiser one gives up. Wisdom can be seen in the ability to adapt to the needs and requirements of the weaker one, even if they are not quite reasonable. Whenever the principles are not involved, whenever we can play wedding first and then the funeral, whenever we can discuss one subject first and then the next one – let us show understanding to each other and as much kindness as possible.
Jesus said: “ 41And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.” (Matthew 5:41). Sometimes we are positive that following the way of our brother’s reasoning or acting in a given matter will not bring about any results. We may even be right. But – let’s go with our brother the way that he would like us to; and not only the one mile that he is asking for, but let’s add another one. This is a deed that proves our wisdom; the wisdom that doesn’t seek its own, but another’s wealth. (1 Corinthians 10:24).
In his version, Luke adds another word that we won’t find in Matthew’s account: he says that wisdom is justified of ALL her children. Let us remember that variety is the principle of God’s actions. He showed it as the Creator of nature, and also as God of all the people with their various inclinations and opinions. God allows us to finish His magnificent creation, add to it a few touch-ups. We however behave sometimes as if we were the creators, the owners of copyright – and we forbid others to sing their parts in their own voice. Let us remember that the piece we are learning to perform is God’s composition, and that its beauty consists in a harmonious unison of the variety of wisdom’s children; searching for the unity of sound is the only way to find the true and deep beauty of the New Creation.
Dear brethren! From the parable of the musical children we would like not only to learn that God’s children are often unsuccessful in performing music together, but we also tried to show a few practical ways of facilitating harmonious singing. Let us remember that our experiences in the fellowship of God’s people are only a rehearsal before performing God’s great symphony. These experiences resemble the play of little children; although they don’t change much in God’s plan, they give us an opportunity to learn important things; for God, the results of our playing provide important information about our progress on the way to unity. He is watching if we are perhaps sitting too often in a sulky mood in various corners of His “marketplace”. May it not be so; may our practicing of spiritual unity be always a wonderful musical workshop, where we are already creating beautiful melodies, which will eventually become a part of the fantastic final concert with the participation of the Lamb and the 144 thousand:
1And I looked, and, lo, a Lamb stood on the mount Sion, and with him an hundred forty and four thousand, having his Father's name written in their foreheads.
2And I heard a voice from heaven, as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of a great thunder: and I heard the voice of harpers harping with their harps:
3And they sung as it were a new song before the throne, and before the four beasts, and the elders: and no man could learn that song but the hundred and forty and four thousand, which were redeemed from the earth.
I wish you, dear brethren, the participation in this grand final concert; may God make it a reality! Amen!