You may have heard the story about the statistician who stood with one foot in a bucket of ice water and the other foot in a bucket of scalding water. Questioned about his plight, he calmly replies, on average, I feel pretty good. In a similar way the Pharisees and lawyers in today’s gospel find themselves caught between the extremes they see exemplified in John the Baptist and in Our Lord, and they feel, on average, pretty uncomfortable. Still coming to terms with the popularity of the recently deceased John, they now realize that Our Lord has also stirred a favourable response among the people.
The religious establishment decided that the way to discredit John was to label him an extreme ascetic, a madman who didn’t eat and drink like normal people. He was out there on the lunatic fringe, a dangerous, solitary individual whose views were, to say the least, suspect. Now enter Our Lord, who ate and drank with the common people and seemed to immerse himself in their lives and their personal concerns. To the religious leaders, this wouldn’t do either. And so they label Our Lord a glutton and a drunkard.
Our Lord reflects on their stubborn unwillingness to be satisfied with anything other than having things their own way. They are like petulant children who, when asked if they want to play inside or outside, respond with a ‘no’ to both options. With people like this you just can’t win.
The challenge of the gospel today is obvious, but no less awkward for being so. It suggests that some people can actually reject God’s invitation because of preconceived notions about how it should be delivered. Clearly, Our Lord’s critics thought that God’s plan would be revealed in connection with the temple or the synagogue; that it would, in other words, emerge from their own cosy religious establishment.
If we have our minds set about how God’s word will enter our lives, then we may be surprised to learn that we have missed it, perhaps by labelling it and dismissively pushing it to the fringes. Perhaps the comfortable middle ground is not so comfortable after all.