Essays and Other Non-fiction


James Harbeck Home Page

institute Sesquiotic



The Piping Fisherman

Sermon, Church of the Holy Trinity, Toronto, July 19, 2017

Zechariah 9:9–12, Psalm 145:8–14; Romans 7:15–25a; Matthew 11:16–19, 25–30


A couple of things struck me right off about today’s readings.

The first was the cues from Händel’s Messiah, starting with “Rejoice—rejoice—rejoi-o-o-o-oice greatly!” and ending with “His yo-o-oke is ea-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-easy. His burthen… is light…” An oratorio written for Easter but now de rigueur at Christmas.

The second is those weird nasty playground kids. [singsong mocking] “We played the pi-ipe! You didn’t da-ance! We sang a di-irge! You didn’t mou-ourn!”

What the heck?

I mean, I guess playgrounds were a little different in that time and place?

So I wanted to find out a bit more about these kids and their playground games. Sometimes there’s some good historical scholarship that sheds light on these things. I didn’t get a whole lot, but it seems the idea is that the mean kids were wanting to play pretend adults, and they were miffed when the other kids didn’t want to play along with the scenarios they set. Anyway, as is so often the case, I found the best insights on Stack Exchange. A user named Scott Broberg linked it to one of Aesop’s fables, the fable of the Piping Fisherman. That goes like this:

A fisherman who was more interested in playing the pipes than in fishing took his flute and nets down to the shore. He set his net out, stood on a rock above it, and played the pipe, hoping the fish would dance right into it.

That didn’t work.

So he did the fisherman thing and threw the net into the sea, caught a whole bunch of fish and hauled them up. And as they flopped around in his net, he looked at them and said to them, “The heck with you. I played the pipe and you didn’t dance. Now I’ve stopped and you’re dancing away.”

So there that is. The other kids didn’t dance… because they didn’t want to. They didn’t mourn… because they didn’t feel like playing that dumb game. But did the mean kids think about that? Like, ever? No! “We set the rules. What’s wrong with you?” Never a question that what they decided should be the case might not be the right thing.

Of course, in life as we experience it, when you have one person saying “What’s wrong with you? Why won’t you do this?” and another person saying “Why would I want to do that? Go away!” it’s often the case that they’re both being pigheaded and unreasonable. And neither can imagine that they might be wrong.

But sometimes one of them is actually pretty much right and the other is actually pretty much wrong. There’s a lot of that too.

But once you know that the other side isn’t just going to do what you want because you want it, you should try to figure out how to get them to do it anyway. That ties to some of Jesus’s other parables, but for me it’s more of a parable of process design. The best processes are the ones that are designed in such a way that it’s harder to screw it up than to do it right. If you haven’t accounted for the fact that some people will not give a damn about what you want, you will have much frustrating work to do. Those fish won’t dance into your net. If you want them dancing in a net, you have to net them first. Then they’ll dance. If you’re willing to adjust your definition of dance to include that.

Which brings us to Paul. Poor authoritarian all-or-nothing Paul. He has great ideas about what he should do and be. The spirit is so willing! The voice is willing to proclaim the spirit! But the flesh is so weak! Well, that’s that sinful flesh. It’s just… you know… wicked, wanton, wayward, all those other w w w words. It’s the resistance of the physical, the habit-body, an existentialist problem.

Dude, it’s your body. Your brain’s part of it. There are a lot of dumb things our bodies do that cause trouble, and we do well to figure out how to make it easier not to do those things than to do them. There are also a lot of dumb things our brains lead us to decide (or justify) that have nothing to do with what’s actually the best thing to have happen, or what will inevitably happen if we don’t find a way to keep them from happening. But don’t blame Eve’s original sin if you go do something stupid. It’s all you.

Those mean kids on the playground are like Paul shouting at his body. He decided it should be joyous at one time, sad at another. His body was like the fish—“Sorry, can’t hear you!” He needs to cast a net. Maybe that’s not what Jesus meant when he talked about fishers of men, but maybe it is.

But if you are sure you’re right, then if others won’t do what you decided they should do, whatever they do won’t be good enough for you. The people Jesus is talking about—“this generation”—want their authority acknowledged and their commands followed, and anyone who doesn’t let them be the boss will never be good enough. They’ll make up some reason why not. John is an ascetic and they say he’s out of his mind. Jesus isn’t an ascetic and they say he’s a wastrel.

But if you’re not caught in their net, you don’t need to dance to their tune.

If you do dance, or sing, you may do it in your own time. The Messiah was written for Easter. We sing it at Christmas now. Run with it.

You don’t know what’s going to happen anyway. You can try, and maybe you’ll succeed, but if you don’t, then maybe try to learn from it. Learn to do something else to get what you want, or learn to want something else. God knows.

That’s what Jesus says. God knows. God knows, and you don’t, so you might as well play along. But God’s a nice playmate. You’ll like God’s games. You won’t figure them out right away, or really entirely ever, but… Rejoi——oice greatly. God’s burden… is light… Just stop trying to be the boss all the time.


All contents © 2000–2017 James Harbeck