Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for professors, theologians, and those interested in exegetical analysis of biblical texts. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

Can you shed some light over the intended meaning of the parable of the Children in the Marketplace?

Is there more context or any words in the parable that have special meaning? Also, are there any good references or commentaries about this parable?

I have been searching in different sources but I found the interpretation sometimes lacking in depth.

share|improve this question
Excellent question! And welcome to BiblicalHermeneutics.SE! – Richard Nov 9 '11 at 14:48
¡Bienvenidos a BH.SE! Thanks for the question. I have some ideas, but they may be as shallow as what you already know. Let me poke around a bit to see if I can find anything else. – Jon Ericson Nov 9 '11 at 18:57
up vote 5 down vote accepted

This teaching session began when John the Baptist sent two disciples to question Jesus. Luke 7:15-19 (ESV)

And the dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. Fear seized them all, and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has arisen among us!” and “God has visited his people!” And this report about him spread through the whole of Judea and all the surrounding country. The disciples of John reported all these things to him. And John, calling two of his disciples to him, sent them to the Lord, saying, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”

Jesus answers the men by saying He was fulfilling Isaiah 29:18 and 35:5-6. Luke 7:24-27 (ESV):

When John's messengers had gone, Jesus began to speak to the crowds concerning John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who are dressed in splendid clothing and live in luxury are in kings' courts. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written,

'Behold, I send my messenger before your face,
    who will prepare your way before you.'

So Jesus affirms that John is a prophet who fulfilled Malachi 3:1. It's interesting to think that John may have been in Herod's prison at the time (see Mark 6). If so, John would have wondered about his cousin who wasn't in the wilderness, eating locusts and wearing rough leather, but living it up in the towns of Galilee, going to weddings and spending time with sinners. He naturally would have been worried that he had not proclaimed a radical renewal of Judaism, but introduced the people to a heretic. And probably the crowd had the same question.

Luke 7:31-35 (ESV):

“To what then shall I compare the people of this generation, and what are they like? They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling to one another,

  'We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
    we sang a dirge, and you did not weep.'

For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by all her children.”

The parenthetical remark in verses 29 and 30 makes clear that the religious leaders had rejected John's baptism and were also generally opposed to Jesus too. So Jesus compares them to children in the marketplace who are not satisfied. Neither the ascetic John nor the hedonist Jesus pleased them. They could not see past the surface of either man to the wisdom underneath.

But who are the children in the marketplace? Sadly, they are still with us, I believe. I'm reminded of riding the Metro in Mexico City and seeing street urchins playing electric guitar with tiny, portable amps, or banging on makeshift, cardboard-box drums, or playing pop songs on beat-up flutes. They didn't care what they played as long as someone would give money to their toddler sibling who was wandering around the car with a hat or a bucket begging for spare change. I believe Jesus had these sorts of desperate, pathetic, poor-as-dirt, abused children in mind.

So the parable is a double condemnation:

  1. The people are as fickle as children who will do anything to get a bit of money.

  2. The society allows children to be in such desperate conditions that they must beg just to stay alive.

John Piper, in a sermon about Romans 1:18-22 said:

God warns with his wrath and he woos with his kindness. He speaks both languages: severity and tenderness. Do you recall how Jesus interpreted the coming of John the Baptist as a severe, leather-girded, locus-eating, desert-living, adultery-condemning prophet, on the one hand, and his own coming as a party-going, wine-making, child-healing, sin-forgiving savior, on the other hand? He said, "We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn." Instead, you said, "John has a demon and Jesus is a glutton" (Matthew 11:17). The gospel came with both languages, but they would not hear.

share|improve this answer
Jon's answer is good, and I would not take away anything from it, but there is an eschatological dimension in context of the whole passage that needs to be taken into consideration: Matt 10:11 Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. - John (the dirge - Old Covenant) is being replaced by Jesus (the dance - Kingdom of Heaven) I have written more on this here: – andrewfn Jan 30 '14 at 2:52

Jesus is quoting one of Aesops fables, The Fisherman and his Flute (or Pipe, or bagpipe, or many other variants of the title). Here is one (of many) translated version:

The Fisherman Piping (Townsend, 1887)

A fisherman skilled in music took his flute and his nets to the seashore. Standing on a projecting rock, he played several tunes in the hope that the fish, attracted by his melody, would of their own accord dance into his net, which he had placed below. At last, having long waited in vain, he laid aside his flute, and casting his net into the sea, made an excellent haul of fish. When he saw them leaping about in the net upon the rock he said: "O you most perverse creatures, when I piped you would not dance, but now that I have ceased you do so merrily."

Is is possible that Jesus is saying: "This generation is just as useless as the Fisherman trying to catch fish by playing a pipe." The people don't follow you. And when they follow John? you say he has a demon. And when they follow Jesus? you say he is a drunkard.

"wisdom is proved right by her actions". What you say is not wise is what the people are following.

The truth.

by the way...Jesus quotes Aesop's "The reed and the Oak" earlier in Matthew 11..."what did you go out into the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind?" Fits perfectly with John as the oak. Not bending to the political winds of Herod Antipas. Eventually, the oak is fallen while the 'politially motivated' reed survives.

share|improve this answer
Welcome to BH.SE! Please take our site tour. and check out what makes us different from other sites that study the Bible. Could you elaborate more on how you came to the conclusion Jesus is quoting Aesop's fables? Ideally cite some scholars who think so (we are interested in what experts think). Please don't just tell us what you know, tell us how you know it. – Dan Oct 3 '14 at 13:54

This could be called the "Parable of the Brats".

The first thing we must understand is that the "generation" -- Christ names the Pharisees and scribes in the Luke version -- are those into whose mouths he puts these childish complaints. Generation literally refers to what is sometimes called the "spirit of the age", which at that time was in the hands of the Jewish theocrats. Peter uses the same words (tes geneas) in his Pentecost sermon in Acts 2 (calling the generation "corrupt".) But one could reasonably apply it to any period in history, seen from the perspective of a pious Christian, really, so we might be able to generalize the term.

Anyway, the two tunes that are played are the complaints the Pharisees make about John and Jesus, and about those who follow them.

The Pharisees are basically jealous. Their complaints about Jesus and John are motivated by envy at the number of people who follow them. And they are doubly angry because they expect not only the population, but John and Jesus, to dance to whatever tune they play.

The tune they play is the law, and since we are talking about Pharisees, not necessarily the law of Moses, but the oral law propounded by the Pharisees themselves, which will become the Mishnah; not truly even the law of Moses, but rules the Pharisees (and their predecessors) thought up to interpret the law.

John, by living his well-known ascetic lifestyle, refuses to join them in eating good food, wearing soft clothes, etc. He is the one who refuses to dance when they play the flute. He dares to prophesy God's wrath for people whom the Pharisees consider have found righteousness before God by their acts.

Jesus, on the other hand, has been roundly criticized for dealing with and even sharing meals with publicans. He has just healed the slave of a Gentile. His disciples harvest and prepare food on the Sabbath. Yet when the Pharisees "play a dirge" -- fulminate about the lawlessness of such actions and seek to make Him tearful with repentance -- Christ and his disciples refuse to comply. Instead, they tell the Pharisees that they are wrong. They feast when the Pharisees think they should go hungry.

The Pharisees' relationship with God is so filled with error that it is like a child's game, an imitation of true righteousness. And like children, they are sulking because so many people in general, and John and Jesus in particular, refuse to play by their rules.

share|improve this answer
Thank you for this contribution, and welcome to BH-SE. This answer will be strengthened and more highly regarded on this site if you cite some textual/contextual/linguistic/historical sources to support the assertions of this answer. – user2027 Feb 24 '14 at 15:51
Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange! Be sure to take our site tour to learn more about us. We're a little different from other sites in that we expect you to show your work for all assertions, Don't just tell us what you know, tell us how you know it (e.g. cite sources, give specific textual support for general assertions, etc.). – Dan Feb 26 '14 at 19:33

It's about the emotionalism and existentialism verses sobriety from wisdom and discipline. Most people like those in Ezra 3:11-13 are like Ivan Pavlov's dog - trained to react to stimulus. But the wise have been trained (by resisting cognitive dissonance to abide and obey God's Word)to decern thru such distractions to see Truth - kinda like Elijah in 1 Kings 19:11-13.

share|improve this answer
Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange! Be sure to take our site tour to learn more about us. We're a little different from other sites. I edited this to remove your signature as those should be placed in your profile rather than in individual posts. This is an interesting psychological perspective on the text, but please develop this further and show your reasoning for citing the Hebrew Bible passages and explain your ideas more fully. – Dan Feb 26 '14 at 19:27
Welcome! Thank you for taking the time to share your insights. I see Dan has directed you to our site tour. I have found the following core to this site in regard to answers. 1) Keep the text the focus and keep the question in mind. 2) Show your work step by step logically connecting the dots. 3) Support all assertions with credible sources by providing quotations/citations/links. 4)Stop short of application. While it is important to apply Scripture to our lives, this site focuses on what the text means, not what difference it makes. These should get you off to a fairly good start. – user2027 Mar 17 '14 at 14:07

The children's game is one Jesus likely played when he was 10 years old. The game was to mimic adult emotions without a deeper understanding -- just mimicry. The game would take forms of mimicry and proceed toward trying to confuse or worry the other team of children so that eventually the whole group would dissolve in laughter and confusion. Jesus used the game as an illustration of how the same thoughtless mimicry also causes confusion and lack of purpose in other aspects of life. Pointedly, he compared the people who express antipathy to John for one thing and Jesus for doing another thing as an example not distant from children playing a purposeless game in the town square to the amusement of onlookers.

share|improve this answer
Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics SE, thanks for contributing! Be sure to take our site tour to learn more about us. We're a little different from other SEs. Our community looks for answers to reflect a good degree of research and references. Typically, we like answers that cite scholarly references. Don't just tell us what you know, tell us how you know it. – James Shewey Jul 7 at 19:22
Are you merely referring to the mimicry concept of the stages observed as part of the psychology of human development, or do you have a source citation for a specific game? Please edit your answer to clarify. – James Shewey Jul 7 at 19:27

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.