Coping with social pressure (Matthew 11:16-19)

How do you handle the pressure people place on you to conform to their expectations? What did Jesus do?

Open Matthew 11:16-19.

You know that deep desire to be accepted, to belong, to really matter to significant people? It’s a good thing: it can keep you from heading down a destructive path towards isolation. But it can also limit you, squeezing you into a mould that prevents you from developing your strengths or hanging around with those who are on the outer.

Do you think Jesus experienced that kind of social pressure? Listen to his frustration:

Matthew 11:16-19 (my translation)
What is this generation like? They’re like children sitting around the town square, complaining to the others, 17 “We played happy music, and you didn’t dance. We lamented, and you didn’t mourn.”
18 John was no party person and they say, ‘He has a demon!’ 19 The son of man was a party person and they say, “Look, a glutton and wino, a friend of tax collectors and ‘sinners.’” Wisdom is proved right by her works.

Those people who want to call the shots are in every community: family, school, work, politics, even church. They like to be in charge, to have everyone dance to their tune. What we do nowadays is plug earphones in so we can dance to our own tune. But Jesus didn’t disengage; he chose to confront.

So, who were these people who set inappropriate expectations for Jesus? John the Baptist was one. John was ready to give up on Jesus, since Jesus hadn’t formed a posse to free him from Herod’s prison (11:3). We know from the War Scroll that there were others who expected a Messiah to lead the sons of light in victorious battle against the sons of darkness. Jesus refused their expectations: his kingdom suffers violence; it doesn’t advance through violence (see on 11:12).

But it wasn’t John’s expectations that are frustrating Jesus here. The Pharisees were the ones sitting in the town square, watching everyone, complaining about those who wouldn’t toe the line and dance to their tune. It was the Pharisees who accused John of being under evil influence because they couldn’t control him. It was the Pharisees who accused Jesus of socializing with the decadent, people who were a danger to Israel and should be ostracized.

Jesus was right: you couldn’t please them. In terms of lifestyle, John and Jesus were chalk and cheese. John was an austere ascetic, living separate from everyone. Jesus was into food and wine, partying with everyone. The Pharisees weren’t happy with either. They couldn’t control John, so they accused him of being under the influence of evil. They couldn’t control Jesus, so they borrowed phrases from Deuteronomy 21:20 to make it sound like Jesus was a stubborn and rebellious son deserving of death.

Jesus felt the pressure of the social rulers, but he resisted it. How could he be so sure he was right? The proof is in the pudding. “Wisdom is vindicated by her results.”

The wisdom of the Pharisees was to save their society by excluding the bad influencers. Jesus’ wisdom was to re-establish God’s reign by rescuing those captured by bad influences.

That’s why Jesus openly resisted the social pressure of the Pharisees. He saw that:

  • The real reason Israel’s leaders ostracized those they couldn’t control was exactly that: it’s about power.
  • No one can be rescued by excluding them; only by befriending them.

The wisdom of God befriends tax collectors and sinners. It took a lot of courage to befriend those who financed the oppression of God’s people and disregarded his authority.


What others are saying

Michael J. Wilkins, Matthew, NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004), 418–419:

When children invite other children to join them in playing games, childish children insist on having their own way. The current generation is like such children, who continually want to set the agenda of games. They are like pouting, petulant children who criticize other children because they wouldn’t go along with their agenda. When they announce to everyone by playing a flute that the game they want to play is “wedding,” they become upset when other children don’t go along by dancing. Then when they change the game and announce a funeral game by singing a “dirge,” they are upset when the other children don’t immediately fall in line by putting on a face of mourning. Selfish childishness insists on having its own way.

Likewise, this generation rejects the invitation to the kingdom of heaven because John and Jesus don’t play the game that they want. They rejected John because he did not dance when they wanted to be merry, and they are rejecting Jesus because he does not mourn when they want to fast (e.g., 9:14–17). Like hardhearted sinners, the generation of Jesus’ day expected John and Jesus to conform to their expectations and refused to allow God’s agenda to alter their own. …

God’s wisdom will be “proved right” (or “vindicated”) by her actions in the ministries and lifestyles of John and Jesus. Wisdom is the application of knowledge to life in such a way that a person’s activities are a concrete example of a life lived well in God’s presence.

[previous: Advancing forcefully or suffering violence?]

[next: Why woe?]

Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia

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