Jesus’ Parables and Children’s Play

Children in all times and places engage in play; children in the ancient Roman world were no different. They frequently played with objects such as tops, hoops, and dolls; they played games with nuts and knucklebones, which improved dexterity and mathematical calculations similar to some computer games today; they engaged in rough and tumble play, including games with balls; and children engaged in a variety of social pretend play situations: gladiators, charioteers, acting as a senator, judge, or general, and among Christian children there are even accounts of them playing bishop and exorcism!

See Also: T&T Clark Handbook of Children in the Bible and the Biblical World (T&T Clark, 2019).

By Sharon Betsworth
Director of the Wimberly School of Religion
Oklahoma City University
May 2019

The Synoptic Gospels contain a variety of stories about children.[1] Some of these are common to all three Gospels, such as the raising of Jairus’ daughter, the boy with the unclean spirit, and a scene in which children are brought to Jesus for a blessing over the objections of his disciples. Others are found only in one Gospel, such as the episode in Mt. 2 when Herod seeks the infant Jesus and subsequently kills all the children under the age of two in Bethlehem. Stories unique to Luke’s Gospel include the announcement and birth of both John the Baptist and Jesus. One passage shared by Matthew and Luke, but absent from Mark, is Jesus’ parable of children in the marketplace found in Mt. 11:16-19 and Lk. 7:31-35. In the parable, Jesus compares the people of his time to children, who are arguing with each other about what game to play. Although the parable is intended to tell the readers something about the people of Jesus’ generation and their rejection of John and Jesus, the brief parable also give us a glimpse of the everyday life of children in the Roman world.


Situating the parables in the Gospel Context

Midway through the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, while recounting Jesus’ Galilean ministry, both evangelists turn their attention back to John the Baptist, who was introduced at the beginning of each Gospel. By this point, John is in prison, and he sends his disciple to Jesus. He asks Jesus about his activities, and who Jesus thinks he is. As Mt. 11:2-19 and Lk. 7:18-35 unfold, the reader learns more about the identity of and people’s responses to both Jesus and John the Baptist. Each passage is divided into three sections: 1) statements about Jesus’ identity, 2) statements about John’s identity, and 3) comments about how Jesus and John the Baptist have been received by their contemporaries. To illustrate the responses, Jesus tells a parable in which he characteristically compares two apparently unlike things: “To what will I compare this generation?” In the parable, “this generation” is being compared to two groups of children calling out to one another. The first part of each line represents the actions of this generation and the latter part represents their complaint about John and Jesus respectively: This generation played a flute, but John did not dance. Instead, the first prophet came preaching repentance, and he and his disciples fasted, which implies solemn behavior. This generation wailed, but Jesus did not mourn or cry. Instead he rejected fasting and mourning and compared himself to a bridegroom, implying the festivities and feasting of a wedding (Mt. 9:14-15; Lk. 5:33-34). Alan Culpepper summarizes the parable in this way: “The announcement of the kingdom by John and its dawning in the person of Jesus… did not fulfill the expectation that others had for the fulfillment of God’s promises. As a result, like children, they sat on the sidelines and refused to join in the game.”[2]

            The passage concludes with a proverb, which is meant to be the crux of the teaching. The wording in Matthew and Luke’s versions are identical until the end of the proverb: “Wisdom is vindicated. . . .” (Mt. 11:19; Lk. 7:35): “by all her deeds” according to Matthew. The combination of the words “deeds” or “works” and “wisdom” evokes the Psalms and wisdom literature where the pairing of words also appears (e.g. Ps. 104:24; Wis. 3:11, 9:9, 14:5). Thus Matthew connects Jesus and his deeds to divine wisdom. Luke concludes the proverb differently: “wisdom is vindicated by all her children.” The Greek word for children here is teknon. This is notable because earlier in 7:32, the Greek word for “children” is paidiois. Luke could have made a nice inclusio by using the same word in both places, either a form of paidion or teknon. However, the two groups of “children” are likely not the same. In the Synoptics, paidion refers to young, dependent children, while teknon usually carries the meaning of “descendants, or offspring,” and does not necessarily refer to a young person. Thus, while paidiois refers to young children in 7:32, in 7:35 teknon does not, rather it refers to the adults John and Jesus. They are the offspring or descendants of divine Wisdom. As such, their role is depicted differently from the young children, paidion, about whom Jesus speaks in the parable. Yet they are also a part of God’s justice seeking work manifest in Wisdom, as are all of God’s children according to Luke. In both Gospels, this passage along with its concluding parable and proverb functions to highlight and contrast the identities and actions of Jesus and John, while demonstrating that many who have also observed their behaviors view the two negatively. However, for the Gospel writers, John and Jesus, as well as their actions, are manifestations of God’s divine Wisdom working in the world.


Children Playing in the Marketplace

The Gospel writers convey important information about John and Jesus in these verses, and Jesus’ parable responds to the people’s reaction to the two prophets. Yet the image of children playing in the marketplace also reflects the everyday life of people in the first century CE, and Jesus’ parables frequently drew upon such common images. Children in all times and places engage in play; children in the ancient Roman world were no different. They frequently played with objects such as tops, hoops, and dolls; they played games with nuts and knucklebones, which improved dexterity and mathematical calculations similar to some computer games today; they engaged in rough and tumble play, including games with balls; and children engaged in a variety of social pretend play situations: gladiators, charioteers, acting as a senator, judge, or general, and among Christian children there are even accounts of them playing bishop and exorcism!

            The game that children in the parable are depicted as playing is a form of social pretend play, which consists of two or more children making up a scenario and role-playing their parts.

Some scholars have suggested that this parable reflects a courtroom scene in the ancient world, since the marketplace was the location that legal proceedings took place in the Roman world; the language of “sitting in the marketplace and calling to one another” is suggestive of such proceedings. Thus, the children in the parable might be depicted as playing “courtroom.” Indeed, Historia Augusta recounts how Emperor Septimius Severus would play “courtroom” as a child:

While still a child, even before he had been drilled in the Latin and Greek literatures (with which he was very well acquainted), he would engage in no game with the other children except playing judge, and on such occasions, he would have the rods and axes borne before him, and, surrounded by the throng of children, he would take his seat and thus give judgements (Hist. Aug.: Sev. 1.4).


            Another form of social pretend play that children in the ancient world likely engaged in was playing wedding and/or funeral, since children in the Roman Empire had special roles in both occasions. In weddings, they were a part of the procession and participated in children’s choirs. In funerals, girls helped to prepare the body for burial and they learned the laments, while boys participated in the sacrifices appropriate for burials. The pipes and dancing in the first line of the parable evoke the scene of a wedding or other festive occasion, while the lament and wailing in the second line are descriptive of a funeral in the ancient world. The image in the parable then could describe either an active group of children who suggest playing wedding and then playing funeral, but a second passive group of children rejects both ideas. Alternatively, two groups of children could be arguing with each other: one group wants to play wedding and the other refused. Then the refusing group suggests playing funeral and the first group rejects that idea. Both options would draw upon experiences in children’s lives in the ancient world and would likely be games children would play. According to the Gospels, children surrounded Jesus during his Galilean ministry. The children in the marketplace parable reflects this reality, as the commonplace activities of children playing become the center of the parable’s image.


Children Playing in the Marketplace among Children in the Gospels

The parable of children playing in the marketplace is connected to the other narratives about children in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. In the Gospel of Matthew, the parable both recalls the ruler’s daughter whom Jesus raises from the dead (9:18-26) and foreshadows the dancing daughter of Herodias (14:1-12). Matthew redacts Mark’s much longer and more descriptive story of the raising of Jairus’ daughter and the woman from the crowd. One variation is the description of the mourners who gather at the ruler’s home. In Mark’s Gospel, when Jesus arrives at the house of Jairus, there is a commotion, and he see that the mourners are already present. People are crying and wailing. In Matthew, there is still a commotion, but the people are not crying and wailing, rather the presence of flute players signifies the mourning. Jesus commands the crowd to depart because he says, “the girl is not dead but sleeping” (9:24). Then Jesus brings the girl back to life. The child raising miracle is one of Jesus’ deeds of wisdom about which the parable speaks.

            The only other time flute playing is mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew is in the parable of the children in the marketplaces. There the flute playing is not a sign of mourning, but celebration. “This generation” is encouraging John the Baptist to dance and thereby to forsake his call for repentance. They also try to turn the tables on Jesus as well: whereas Jesus tells the mourning crowd at the ruler’s house to depart and to no longer engage in their lament, “this generation” is encouraging Jesus to sing a lament and to mourn. The raising of the ruler’s daughter illustrates why Jesus does not mourn when this generation calls for a lament: he has power over death.

            Unfortunately for John the Baptist, the children in the marketplace parable is not the only Gospel scene in which he and the act of dancing are thrown side-by-side. The evils of “this generation” are illustrated in the next child narrative and the consequences are mortal for John. Matthew 14:1-12 is a flashback describing the events leading Herod to kill John, which culminate with Herod’s birthday party. There the daughter of Herodias dances, and on a whim,  Herod promises the girl whatever she wants. Prompted by her mother, she asks for the head of John the Baptist. And thus, the one who would not dance when this generation played the flute is killed because his adversaries skillfully took advantage of a child’s dance.

            To summarize, in the Gospel of Matthew, the parable of the children in the marketplaces serves to summarize Jesus’ deeds of wisdom, which include the healing of a child. It also foreshadows the next child narrative in the Gospel, which further illustrates the evils of “this generation,” highlighted by the death of John the Baptist. Thus, Matthew juxtaposes the justice seeking deeds of Jesus, as the embodiment of God’s wisdom, with the evil deeds and hence the non-wisdom of this generation. From there, the Gospel moves toward Jesus’ final conflict with “this generation” in the passion narratives.

            Luke’s version of the children in the marketplace parable is also closely connected to the Gospel’s narratives about children, primarily through the motif of “not mourning.” Luke is specifically concerned that those who have experienced, or are about to experience, the life-giving power of Jesus “do not weep.” In the Sermon on the Plain (Lk. 6:17-49), Jesus declares that among those who are blessed are those who weep, for they will laugh (6:21). The reversals continue when Jesus proclaims that those who laugh, will mourn and weep (6:25). The phrase, “do not weep,” reprises three more times, each time in a passage related to children. First, Jesus tells the widow of Nain, who is walking in her son’s funeral procession to his burial, “do not weep” (7:13); then he touches the bier and commands the young man to rise. Then, in Luke’s narrative of the ruler of the synagogue and his dying daughter, Jesus admonishes the girl’s parents, “do not weep” (8:52) just before he raises her from the dead. Thus twice, Jesus directs parents of deceased children not to weep. Between these two commands, Luke reprises the “do not weep” motif, when Jesus compares his opponents to children who are calling on him to lament, but he will not weep (7:32). These first two child healings illustrate Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Plain, while the marketplace parable reinforces this teaching that Jesus is indeed the one who brings laughter out of mourning.

            The third child healing in Luke continues to support the parable and its related wisdom proverb. In the story of the boy with the spirit (9:37-43), Jesus lashes out at this “faithless and perverse generation” (v. 41) when he learns that his disciples were unable to heal the boy. The whole crowd including the disciples gets swept into Jesus’ lament, echoing the introduction to the parable “to what shall I compare the people of this generation.” Not only do these people reject the activities of John and Jesus, their lack of belief inhibits a faithful response to God. Indeed, Jesus gave the disciples the power to heal (9:2), but when they encounter the boy and his father they cannot. Jesus as the Wisdom of God, however, is able to heal the child.

             In one last child-centered episode, which follows immediately after the healing of the boy, Jesus takes a child and places the child by his side. He declares “the least among all of you is the greatest” (9:48), challenging his disciples – who have been included among the “faithless and preserve generation” – to contemplate where they fit in this equation. The saying also illuminates the enigmatic statement found in 7:28, “among those born of women no one is greater than John; yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” Even as great of a prophet as John the Baptist was, whom Luke holds in very high esteem, the smallest child is even greater in the reign of God. Thus, Luke tightly weaves together each child centered narrative and references to children in his Gospel. The parable further illuminates the teachings in the Sermon on the Plain just as the child healing do.



The parable of the children in the marketplace is situated in the world of adults as Jesus’ rebukes “this generation,” those who do not understand either his actions or those of John the Baptist. It advances both Gospels’ depiction of Jesus as the embodiment of God’s justice-seeking wisdom, bringing forth God’s reign in the world. Like all of Jesus’ parables, it draws upon real life and everyday images such as the marketplace and courtroom drama. Yet the parable also draws upon the imaginative world of children who are playing wedding or funeral or courtroom. Exploring this parable as an image of children’s play is important for two reasons. First, readers of the Gospels frequently do not notice the children in the text. Then as now, children are often relegated to the margins, and their needs are left unattended by the society at large. Finding images of children in biblical texts is an important way to bring them out of the shadows of the Bible. Second, this image of children playing and acting out the scenes of their everyday life is important because many of the children with whom Jesus interacts need healing, are dying, or are already dead. The parable instead depicts children who are active and playing. As such, the parable then balances the image of children in the Gospels creating a more realistic depiction of children in the world of Jesus.           


            [1] This article is a version of a longer essay, “Children Playing in the Marketplaces,” in T&T Clark Handbook of Children in the Bible and Biblical World, ed. Sharon Betsworth and Julie Faith Parker (London: Bloomsbury/T&T Clark, 2019), 245–263.

            [2] Alan R. Culpepper, “Luke,” in New Interpreters’ Bible, ed. Leander Keck (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995), 9:167.

Add new comment

This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.