They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.

We Played the Flute and You Didn’t Dance

…To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others:
‘We played the flute for you,
and you did not dance;
we sang a dirge
and you did not mourn.’
Matthew 11:11-19

“We Played the Flute for you and you did not dance, we sang a dirge and you did not mourn”
Just like I had done on several other statements by Jesus in Matthew 11, I read over these comments in Verses 11-19 and never really tried to understand what Jesus was saying. I just decided that it was something that was only known to that culture and time period. It was kind of interesting to find the source of this little saying and it almost certainly is an Aesop’s Fable!

Aesop was a real person who lived during the time of King Croesus, in Sardis, in what is now modern day Turkey. Aesop was a member of King Croesus’ court and was one of the wise men that Croesus sought advice from.  He wrote a whole collection of stories and they were all stories that had a hidden meaning or moral to the story.  Even though they were written several centuries before Christ, you can buy a copy of Aesop’s Fables today in the bookstore.

There is a lesser-known fable of a fisherman who went down to the seashore and began to play a melodious tune on his flute. He just knew that his wonderful tune would have the fish jumping out of the sea and on to the shore.  When the fish wouldn’t respond, he became angry and went and got his net. He threw the net into the water and caught a bunch of fish and then threw them on the shore, where they lay flopping and dying. He said to the fish, “I played a tune for you and you did not dance,  and now all  you can do is dance.  In other words, “I gave you plenty of opportunities to follow my voice, but you didn’t take advantage of my offer”.  This little story was passed down through the generations and would have been familiar to them just like we are with the “Three Little Pigs”, or other favorite nursery rhymes.

Now back to our Matthew passage. Jesus was quoting an Aesop’s Fable when he compared this generation to children in the marketplace calling out to others this little story with a hidden meaning. He was telling the crowd, “John the Baptist and I have been piping and singing and you have not been responding”.  “You have certainly had your chances”, would have been Jesus’ message to the crowd.  Also, since Jesus mentioned that he had played both a happy tune and a sad song and they didn’t respond to either, there could be an additional message here.  He could have been saying, you have rejected John the Baptist’s (sad or stern) message and you have rejected my offer of salvation. We have come at you from every angle, yet you are not responding (a stiff-necked generation).

Now re-read the passage and see if that doesn’t make sense.  Once again, it helps to know the culture to try to understand more clearly what Jesus was saying. Just as we have many idioms and witty sayings that have been passed down for generations, so it would have been with their culture.  Let’s be careful not to just pass over some of the things that Jesus says that don’t seem to make sense at first glance. A little digging can result in some exciting and interesting findings.

3 thoughts on “We Played the Flute and You Didn’t Dance

  1. Thank you for the work you do for the breaking open of God’s Word for all of us to benefit from. I am researching this passage for a homily and wanted to just make a brief comment on the proposed speaker of the words mentioned. This is from Matthew 11:17, but in 11:16 it points out that the ones saying this are the people of that generation, (the Scribes and Pharisees).
    “16 “But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, 17 ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’
    I only mention it, because I never even considered that it was Jesus saying he played the flute, and your reference caused me to revisit the scripture and so for that I thank you. Anything that turns me to the Word of God is a blessing. I still seem to deduce that it is not Jesus who is proposing to quote the poem, but instead puts those words in the mouths of the generation.

  2. Thank you for your explanation! Could Jesus be alluding to the fact that no matter what sign is sent from God, that they do not respond?

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