Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John, “What did you go into the desert to see? A reed vibrated by the wind?” “To what shall I compare this generation? It is as children sitting in marketplaces, calling one another, ‘We played the flute for you, but you did not dance, we sang a dirge but you did not mourn.” “He will not quarrel, or cry out, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets.
A bruised reed he will not break nor a smoldering wick will he quench, until he brings charity to victory.” The flute is of the woodwind family. Like most woodwinds, it produces notes by vibrating wind inside it. John the Baptist is the bruised reed Jesus will not quench. An important rhetorical devise used in the first century was G’zerah Shavah/גזרה שווה. The writer uses foreshadowing of words to bind sections of the Gospel together. Another rules is, “בניית אבא מכתב אחד,” or “Building up a father from one writing.”
Another important rhetorical tool was, “דבר הילמאר מ ענין” Find the context, where the section begins, and where it ends. This tells us how to interpret a word, a sentence, or a paragraph. The idea of reeds/ woodwind instruments ties the section together. That is how the bruised reed of Matthew 12:20 refers to the vibrating reed in Matthew 11:7. The flute players who do not dance refer to John the Baptist.
Jesus tells us, it does not matter whether or not we play the flute or sing dirges. There is time for each in the seasons of our lives. Jesus asks, “How much more valuable a person is than a sheep?” This is the Semitic rhetorical rule of “קל בכומר.” If the rule applies to something as light, as sheep, it should apply to something heavier, like people. The rabbis wrote:
Of Sabbath it is written: “It is holy to you.” To you: The Sabbath is for you, not you for the Sabbath. R. Simeon b. Menasseh says: “The children of Israel will keep Sabbath.” The Torah enjoins us: Violate one Sabbath, to keep many Sabbaths. Samuel said: If I had been there, I would have said better; namely, it is written, “You will keep my customs and my correct judicial precedents, if a man do them, he will live by them, live by them, not die by them.”
“Sabbath is made for man, not man for Sabbath.” Mishnah says this. Jesus says this, Matthew 12:8. Jesus says, “Something greater is here.” There is something greater than the temple here, and it still is, human life.” Jesus is the Son of Man; he epitomizes human life. Jesus silences the rabbis with his arguments. He teaches well within Jewish tradition. They do not like it.
Jesus replied to the followers of John, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the Good News proclaimed to them.”
Declare the tree beautiful and its fruit beautiful, or the tree sapron/rotten and its fruit sapron. A tree is known by its fruit. Brood of vipers, how can you say noble things when you are toilsome? From the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks. A noble person brings nobility out of a store of nobility, but a toilsome person brings forth toil out of a store of toil.
Jesus is the beautiful fruit. Likewise is John. “The blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor hear Good News proclaimed to them.”
The poor hear the Good News, not the wealthy and powerful. The wealthy and powerful dress in soft clothes and they live in castles.” The saints are men like John the Baptist, who dress in camel hair with a living skin around his waist. Jesus’ complaint against the Pharisees and the grammarians of his day is about attitude. They are about toil and pain. They are about the rules. The rules keep people in their place. The rich and powerful like it this way. Jesus and John the Baptist are about life.
“This Mitzvah which I give you, this day, is not too wondrous or remote for you. It is not in the heavens, for you to say, “Who will go up to the heavens to get it for us?” It is not across the sea, for you to say, “Who will cross the sea to get it for us?” No, it is something very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to do it… I set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, that you and your descendants may live.” This is from the famed 613 Mitzvahs the Jewish Community finds in Torah.
The Mitzvah is always to choose life, for oneself, for each other and for the community. “You will not ascend to my altar by steps.” One is either ascending or descending. We are either promoting life, life lived to its fullest for ourselves, for each other, and for the community, or we descend. The beautiful fruit is ascending the ramp of the altar. Creating a life of toil for others or ourselves causes us to descend that ramp from the altar and from God.