Over the past number of days, the Prime Minister of Turkey has faced something of a crisis. A protest that began in Istanbul over plans to demolish a city park, has developed into a more widespread protest against his authoritarian tendencies. There is concern among some in that secular country that Prime Minister Erdogan wants to turn Turkey into a religious, Islamic state.
And one of the things that has secularists in Turkey up in arms is a law recently passed that puts significant restrictions on the advertising and sale of alcohol. Many in Istanbul have protested, or expressed their opposition to these restrictions on alcohol. Within much of Islam, of course, alcohol is forbidden – but alcohol sales are legal in Turkey and there are many restaurants and bars serving alcohol in Istanbul.
In the face of these protests, and in the face of this opposition, the Prime Minister has waged a rhetorical war. Appealing to religious and political conservatives, Erdogan recently said that anyone who drinks alcohol is an alcoholic. As far as he’s concerned – or at least as far as his rhetoric is concerned – there’s no such thing as a moderate or acceptable level of alcohol consumption – if you drink any alcohol at all, you will necessarily drink too much alcohol.
In making these comments, Erdogan isn’t only entering into debate and conversation about the place of alcohol in Turkish society. He’s also branding his opponents – he’s branding them as alcoholics – he’s branding them as disreputable – he’s branding his opponents as irresponsible and out of control. It’s a classic move. Brand your opponent as irrational – brand them as out of control – brand them as alcoholics, and then you don’t have to have a real conversation with them – you can just dismiss them.
As we come to our text for today from the gospel of Matthew, chapter 11, the first thing we should know is that in the background to this is a kind of children’s game – maybe an ancient version of British bulldog. I remember my elementary school days, playing British Bulldog in the schoolyard. You would have one group of kids lined across the middle of the field holding hands with each other; and you would have another group of individual kids who would run like crazy to try to break through gripped hands of the kids in the middle. If you couldn’t break through those hands, you stayed with the group in the middle – but if you could break through, you continued to the other side, with another chance to run.
Jesus is speaking in Matthew 11, verses 16 and 17. He says: “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’.”
We don’t know the exact background to what Jesus is saying, but it’s quite possible that Jesus is describing a common game or activity of children in that ancient context. Not exactly British Bulldog, but something that passed the time for kids. In that ancient culture, men often performed the dance at a wedding, accompanied by flute; and in that culture, women were very often the professional mourners.
And so here we have children calling out to one another, fulfilling those traditional roles. Perhaps it is the girls who call out to the boys: “We played the flute for you, but you didn’t dance.” Perhaps it is the boys who call out to the girls: “We wailed for you, but you didn’t mourn.” They are playing their game in the city street.
Why does Jesus appeal to this ancient game? Well according to Jesus, the people who rejected John the Baptist have used the first line of that children’s game in rejecting him: “We played a tune for you and you didn’t dance.” John, you’re so dour and serious and negative and judgmental. John, what’s your problem? Why would anyone want anything to do with you? John, you have nothing positive or constructive to say, nothing joyful to say about our temple and about our religious traditions and about the law of God. We played a tune and you wouldn’t dance, you wouldn’t show any joy.
And according to Jesus, the people who have rejected him have used the second line of that children’s game: “We wailed and you did not mourn.” If John was too serious for many of his contemporaries, then Jesus wasn’t serious enough. Jesus, don’t you know that the religious life is a serious business? Don’t you know that following the law is a rigorous and important business? Why are you so busy laughing and dancing when there is this strict religious life to which we are all called? Jesus, we wailed for you, but you did not mourn.”
Jesus summarizes all of this in our reading by saying: “For John the Baptist 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’.”
You can’t win. The ascetic in the wilderness is too serious. And the one who celebrates in the towns and cities isn’t serious enough.
Prime Minister Erdogan of Turkey has dismissed his opponents by calling them alcoholics. He diminishes them and their point of view by insisting they’re nothing but irresponsible drinkers. “My opponents are nothing but a bunch of drunks. Don’t listen to them.”
It’s a classic approach to one’s enemies and opponents – dismissing them in this way. And it’s the same approach that has been taken by Jesus’ opponents.
“Look at this guy Jesus – how can he claim to be a teacher of Israel – how can he claim to embody the way of God – how can he possibly be the one who embodies God’s new way among us? He’s nothing but a glutton and a drunkard. He’s always feasting and partying and drinking. He’s always spending time in company with outcasts, with people who are unclean and who don’t know the first thing about keeping pure according to the rituals of our religious tradition.”
When you are going to attack an opponent in a public way, it’s always best to accuse them of something that seems at least plausible or possible. It’s all about optics…
Opponents of Stephen Harper probably won’t get very far by accusing him of not caring about terrorism or crime – but they might get somewhere by accusing him of being a control freak.
Opponents of Justin Trudeau probably won’t get very far by accusing him of not understanding the diversity of the country – but they might get somewhere by accusing him inexperienced and entitled.
I don’t raise these two examples for any political reason, except to say that in a political and public context, very often attacking an opponent means trying to find something plausible – something that has the ring of truth, even if the attack is over the top.
And so the religious leaders, especially, accuse Jesus of being a glutton and a drunkard. And the fact that they accuse him of being a glutton and a drunkard suggests that was something about his life and person that made such a charge plausible to others who were listening to those critics.
This isn’t to say that the religious leaders, his opponents, were right. There’s nothing in the gospel narratives to suggest that Jesus was out of control in his behaviour or attitudes – though he did make quite a scene in the temple that time. There’s nothing to suggest he had an alcohol problem.
But the charge of being a glutton and a drunkard would have at least sounded plausible to some people, because Jesus spent a lot of time at dinners and banquets. His first miracle, after all, was turning water into wine at a wedding. Reading through the gospels, especially in Luke’s gospel, there are so many instances when Jesus is reclining at table. And not only is he always reclining at table – he always seems to do it with the wrong kinds of people. So the charge that he is a glutton and a drunkard is used by the religious authorities because it seems like a charge that just might stick – and who knows, maybe they believed the charge themselves.
Now none of this is to suggest that there was anything frivolous about Jesus – about his words or actions. None of this is to suggest that Jesus didn’t at times have strong words for his disciples and others around him. None of this is to suggest that Jesus wasn’t a person of deep prayer, spending time as he often did going off to be alone with his heavenly father in prayer. None of this is to suggest that taking up a cross and following Jesus way of humble service isn’t a serious business.
But at the same time, it is nothing short of astonishing that Jesus is out feasting and drinking and celebrating often enough that the charge of being a glutton and a drunkard almost sticks.
This week I posted on my Facebook wall a tweet from Rachel Held Evans, who is a young American writer and blogger. She has come out of an evangelical tradition, but you might say that she has been pushing her own tradition beyond some of its cultural captivity. This past week I copied her tweet to my Facebook wall because it resonated so deeply in terms of what I was thinking about in terms of our passage for today. Here’s that tweet:
The church is God saying: “I’m throwing a banquet. All these mismatched, messed up people are invited. And so are you. Here, have some wine.”
Are her words irreverent to some degree? Absolutely. But she is making a vital point about what it means to be the church. The church is a means by which God communicates to the world around us, and that is what God wants to say through us: “I am throwing a banquet. All of these mismatched, messed up people are invited and so are you. Here, have some wine.”
Irreverent? Perhaps it is. Come on into God’s banquet – come to the Lord’s Supper – have a good time, have a glass of wine. These words may sound irreverent in our church context, given what we are used to. But perhaps we need some holy irreverence, especially when we come across passage like the one we’re looking at in the gospel of Matthew. We need to understand that the kingdom of Jesus Christ, the new life he brings,
is a celebration of human community,
is a celebration of those who have been forgiven,
is a celebration of those who have discovered the truly human way of Jesus,
is a celebration of the God who creates and redeems.
In many ways we have attached our celebration of communion to Jesus’ last supper with his disciples, in that upper room. We have thought about our participation in communion strictly in terms of Last Supper – in terms of that meal where Jesus’ suffering and death are anticipated. And the Apostle Paul certainly makes the connection explicit for us. So very often the Lord’s Supper has had a somber or reflective or heavy feel to it.
But for the earliest Christians it‘s just as likely that the Lord’s Supper, communion, this meal, was thought of and shared in continuity with the many meals Jesus had with disciples and friends and acquaintances – meals of celebration and joy and conversation and community. A joyful feast of the people of God, loved and restored through Jesus Christ – a feast in which he draws near to refresh and delight us.