Wisdom’s Recalcitrant Son

The Judean people in the days of our Lord Jesus’s earthly ministry were characterized by their expectation that things had to be done a certain way to meet their implicit societal standards. But it was also impossible to satisfy and be approved by them if you weren’t playing their cultural game within the bounds of their expectations and standards. Jesus described it this way:

But to what shall I liken this generation? It is like children sitting in the market and calling to their playmates and saying: “We played tunes on the flute to you, and you did not dance. We lamented with a dirge to you, and you did not beat your breasts and wail.” 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: “Behold, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners.” But wisdom’s vindication comes from her children.

– Matthew 11:16-19 (my translation)

There was just no way to win with that generation. John came as a hardened wilderness prophet, calling upon the whole nation for fasting and repentance. The Judeans had their excuses to not listen to him. He was possessed by a demon, they said. They played happy songs for him, they said, but John just wouldn’t get with the program and be grateful and content with all the blessings that the nation enjoyed. And then Jesus came celebrating the heavenly wedding and proclaiming the heavenly kingdom with a ministerial ethos rather different than John’s supposedly dour doings. And the Judeans had their excuses to not listen to him either. He was a glutton and a drunkard, they said, and he was way too friendly with socially unacceptable outcasts. They intoned solemn laments for him, they said, but Jesus just wouldn’t get with the program and show some humility and solidarity with the nation for its sorry state under Roman rule.

Does that sound really capricious and double-minded on the part of the children in the market? Yeah, I think so too. It seems to me it amounts to the Judeans being just solemn and aggrieved enough on the right occasions and being just joyous and upbeat enough on the right occasions to feel they’d done their duty for God and country without having to change their ways. The Wilderness Prophet and the Festive Messiah were rocking the boat on both sides, disturbing the status quo.

Then Jesus concludes his explanation with a peculiar declaration: “Wisdom’s vindication comes from her children.” Here, I’d like to explore the specific accusation of gluttony and drunkenness and then arrive at the conclusion regarding the justification or vindication of wisdom.

Lady Wisdom is the most prominent metaphorical figure in the Book of Proverbs, and the Proverbs of Wise King Solomon have a thing or two to say about gluttons and drunkards:

Listen to me, my son, and be wise, and guide your heart straight on the path. Be not among wine-guzzlers, among riotous eaters of meat. For the drunkard and the glutton shall come to ruin, and their sluggishness will clothe a man in rags.

– Proverbs 23:19-21 (my translation)

There are worse implications than Lady Wisdom’s pleadings about straying from the path and coming to ruin by a life of gluttony and drunkenness. The words of that generation were: “Behold, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners.” It’s very reasonable to understand these words as the actual accusations of various people in the community about Jesus. And if they are, then this amounts to far more than speaking ill of Jesus. It amounts to a severe legal indictment coming from the Pharisees and others.

In the holy law under the Old Covenant, there was a pretty sobering sentence meted out upon a son who’d come of age but was a thoroughly useless menace to society:

If a man has a rebellious and contentious son who will not listen to the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and after they have chastised him, he will still not listen to them, then his father and his mother shall seize him and bring him out to the elders of his city and the gate of his place. And they shall say to the elders of his city: “Our son is rebellious and contentious. He will not listen to our voice. He is a worthless glutton and a drunkard.” And the populace of the city shall pelt him with stones so that he dies. So you shall expunge the evil among you, and all Israel shall listen and fear.

– Deuteronomy 21:18-21 (my translation)

When the Pharisees called Jesus a glutton and a drunkard, they weren’t just insulting him. They were invoking the ritual language to call for his public stoning. And it was something they were legally capable of doing, because the concept of fathers and mothers within the covenant community wasn’t strictly that of blood lineage. Honoring fathers and mothers extended well beyond biological parents. As the Westminster Larger Catechism explains, father and mother in the Fifth Commandment refers not only to our natural parents but also all of our superiors in age and giftedness. It especially means our superiors in places of authority over us, whether in the family, the church, or the commonwealth (WLC 124).

The fathers of the covenant community were seeking to purge the evil from among the people. Yet we’re assured Christ was no recalcitrant son of Israel. He wasn’t a gluttonous drunk who threatened the welfare of the holy society of God’s chosen nation. He was the sinless Son of God. So how did the Pharisees and others come to the condemnation of Christ as a recalcitrant son?

It seems to me the obvious explanation is the Pharisees had a myopic and deformed view of true godliness. One could quite reasonably say the essence of Christ’s rebukes of the Pharisees was the incompetence of their supposed expertise in the holy law. They were out of touch with the spirit of the holy law, and they had a very deforming disposition toward the letter of the holy law. Christ accused them of neglecting the weightier things of the law (Matt. 23:23) and negating the effect of the law of God by their traditions (Matt. 15:6).

And we shouldn’t overlook the psychological and sociological grip of entrenched tradition. The Pharisees (the “distinguished ones”) were the custodians of the cultic and cultural tradition of Judean life—outside of the Sadducees (the “righteous ones”) who had a grip on the temple operations. Christ’s indictments of that deformed tradition threatened their social standing and the cultural order. From within that tradition, the Pharisees could only perceive Christ as a menace to society. And from within their tradition (their form of godliness), they could only see the manner in which Christ celebrated, feasted, and rejoiced with his followers as ungodliness.

Christ told the Pharisees to become more faithful doers of the law. Yet they were so self-assured in their faithfulness to God that they heard the prophetic voice of this younger man, this inferior in age though superior in giftedness with public authorization from God (Matt. 3:17), as a rebellious and contentious son of Israel. A son who would not listen to the voice of his fathers.

Jesus responds to their assessment and indictment: “Wisdom’s vindication comes from her children.” He seems to be saying, “You think I’m a fool and a son of worthlessness. But don’t be so sure that wisdom is what you think it is. Wisdom is vindicated by her children—her offspring, her fruit, her purpose, her results, her outcome.” Jesus ministered life, restoration, and reform to the nation. Lady Wisdom was vindicated by the fruition of her “recalcitrant” Son who confronted a recalcitrant nation. Like the Prophet Jeremiah, Christ was called “to root out, to beat down, to destroy, to tear down, to build, and to plant.”

There’s an application or two I draw from this passage. Wisdom and godliness may not always be what we think they are. And apart from theoretical abstractions, wisdom and godliness are often messy and circumstantially diverse and unique in their individual expressions. We need to be alert to myopic and deformed traditions (subcultural cults of personality) of what constitutes maturity, discernment, and true devotion to God.

I never assume the Church (or any segment or locality of her) ever has or ever will arrive at full maturity in this age. Or at least I have to examine myself regularly to see to it I’m not making that assumption. The vision and promise of the unblemished Bride of Christ is our teleological and eschatological aim—the reality of the age to come at which we gaze and toward which we make course corrections. But rest assured, there’s always a need for course corrections. Every individual Christian and the Church at large must continually be reformed according to the word of God. And it is Christ the Lord then, now, and always who does the reforming of his Church. Reformation isn’t an innovative reinvention of the Faith but a turning back from deformity—a lifestyle of repentance.

Regarding the scriptural record of the ancient Israelites, the Apostle Paul told the church at Corinth: “All these things happened to them for examples, and they were written for our admonition.” We must have the same regard for Scripture. When it comes to the people of God—to ancient Israel and Christians from all nations—there is no “them” and “us” to be had. There is only “us”. There is one olive tree into which branches are grafted and from which branches are severed. We are united in organic covenantal solidarity as the people of God under various administrations at various times. Pharisaism is a Church problem and a part of Church history. Pharisees can only be found in the Church.

We can’t build local churches and found ministries in Christ’s name to distance ourselves and say, “If we’d been there in those days, we would have stood with Christ and not been a part of shedding his blood.” If we say that, we don’t really know ourselves, and we don’t believe the testimony of God. That’s exactly what the Pharisees proclaimed to distance themselves from those who killed the prophets of old (Matt. 23:29-31). But Jesus said, “By this, you are witnesses against yourselves, that you are the children of those who killed the prophets.”

The Lady Wisdom’s vindication comes from her children of fidelity. And the Harlot Folly’s condemnation comes from her children of fornication. Whose children will we be?

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