The first congregation that called me as a pastor had a preschool. Being the first fulltime assistant minister that that church had ever had, I was soon asked to start telling Bible stories to the children. Some kind of visual aid—like a hand puppet—could be useful. So I began visiting various stores to see about finding one. One name of one such place was the Pied Piper Toy Store. Inside were all kinds of toys.
- Large stuffed animals.
- Petite, porcelain dolls.
- Brightly colored marionettes.
It was easy to imagine a small child entering that shop and immediately becoming captivated by many of the toys—maybe a little like the children in the story of the Pied Piper were captivated by the sweet, enticing music of his magical instrument. And just as Peter, Andrew, James, and John immediately were captured by the voice of Jesus—a man they had neither seen nor heard of before
I’m sure most if not all of you know the story of the Pied Piper. If you’re not aware of it, it’s a German folktale dating back to the fourteenth century. A small town, by the name of Hamelin, had a big problem: It was infested with rats. The British poet, Robert Browning, who put the folktale to verse, wrote this about them:
They fought the dogs, and killed the cats,
and bit the babies in the cradles,
and ate the cheeses out of the vats,
and licked the soup from the cooks’ own ladles.
Split open the kegs of salted sprats,
made nests inside men’s Sunday hats,
and even spoiled the women’s chats,
by drowning their speaking
with shrieking and squeaking
in fifty different sharps and flats.
Well, finally the townspeople could take no more. They packed the city hall, threatening to kick out the mayor and council, that is, unless they came up with a solution. Frantic, the city’s leaders had no idea what to do. Just then they heard a knock on the door, and turning around, saw a quaint-looking man enter into the hall. Tall and thin, he wore a tattered, old coat. Robert Browning, describes what happened next.
He advanced to the council-table:
And, “Please, your honours,” said he, “I’m able,
by means of a secret charm, to draw
all creatures living beneath the sun,
that creep, or swim, or fly, or run,
after me so as you never saw!
And I chiefly use my charm
on creatures that do people harm,
the mole, and toad, and newt, and viper;
and people call me the Pied Piper.
Although not knowing quite what to make of him, the mayor and others felt some sense of relief. They promised to give him 1,000 guilders if he could rid the town of its rat infestation. The piper accepted their offer and commenced his work.
Into the street the piper stept,
smiling first a little smile,
as if he knew what magic slept
in his quiet pipe the while….
And ere three shrill notes the pipe uttered,
you heard as if an army muttered;
and the muttering grew to a grumbling;
and out of the houses the rats came tumbling.
Great rats, small rats, lean rats, brawny rats,
brown rats, black rats, gray rats, tawny rats.
Grave old plodders, gay young friskers,
fathers, mothers, uncles, cousins.
Cocking tails and pricking whiskers,
families by tens and dozens,
fathers, sisters, husbands, wives—
followed by the piper for their lives.
From street to street he piped advancing,
and step by step they followed dancing,
until they came to the River Weezer
wherein all plunged and perished
—save one, who stout as Julius Caesar,
swam across and lived to carry—
to rat-land home his commentary….
His job completed, the Pied Piper returned to the city hall to collect his money. The mayor, however, reneged on his word. He refused to give him the thousand guilders, substituting for them an offer of just fifty. The piper was furious! He vowed to take revenge, but the mayor stood firm. So the piper stepped back out onto the street.
And ere he blew three notes…
there was a rustling, that seemed like a bustling
of merry crowds jostling, at pitching and hustling.
Small feet were pattering, wooden shoes clattering.
And like [hens] in a farmyard when barley is scattering,
out came the children running.
All the little boys and girls,
with rosy cheeks and flaxen curls,
and sparkling eyes and teeth like pearls,
tripping and skipping, ran merrily after
the wonderful music with shouting and laughter….
And to Koppelberg Hill his steps addressed,
and after him the children pressed….
When lo! As they reached the mountain’s side
a wondrous portal opened wide,
as if a cavern was suddenly hollowed;
and the piper advanced and the children followed.
And when all were in to the very last,
the door in the mountain-side shut fast.
Did I say all? No! One was lame,
and could not dance the whole of the way…
The mayor quickly posted a reward that would be given to anyone who could find the children and bring them back. But they were never seen or heard from again.
A fascinating story, isn’t it? As a child, I remember watching a movie version of it. It scared me almost as much as those flying monkeys did in the Wizard of Oz film!
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In a way, Jesus is like the Pied Piper. Seemingly out of nowhere, he walks into the bustling town of Capernaum—on the Sea of Galilee. He sees two brothers—both of them fishermen—says something to them and “immediately they [leave] their nets and [follow] him.” Then he sees two other brothers—also fishermen—and calls them as well. They, too, “immediately [leave their] boat and [even] their father and [also follow] him.”
He caught their attention. He captivated them. They felt spellbound. They left their work, their homes, even their families. And he did this not with a pipe or any other musical instrument, but instead with his voice—with his very being. Peter, Andrew, James, and John weren’t the only ones. Besides the others making up the original twelve disciples,
- Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.
- Paul on the road to Damascus.
- And many others we read about.
Even today, Jesus still captivates, still lures people to himself. The late Joseph Sittler, a longtime
professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School, told this story when speaking at my seminary graduation.
[One] summer the New Testament scholar] Krister Stendahl and I were asked…to come [to] a four-day [church] conference. It was a moving moment on the third day when…
a [member] in the congregation asked [him] how he…[got] “hooked”on the Christian faith. Now [all of us other professors] leaned back and expected from [him] a fairly long…description of the historical…, liturgical,… [and] family path by which many of us came, and it was a great moment when Stendahl said: “My family were not church people at all and the only way I could rebel against [them] was to go to church! [Can you imagine that?] And when I got to church, within six months I fell in love with Jesus.”
This theologian—himself now a member of the Church Triumphant—was captivated, charmed, enchanted, by Jesus. He knew no matter how much he studied him, learned from him, listened to his voice, he still wouldn’t know everything there is to know about him.
Just like you and me, we also can’t quite figure out Jesus. No matter how many names and titles we give to him, he will not be limited by them. We can never really confine him to some preconceived notion we have about him. He’s not unlike the Pied Piper—different, elusive, yet like a magnet that draws us to himself.
In his final words to my graduating class, Sittler said: “If I have only one single thing to say to you,…it would be not to take too lightly what the church used to call ‘the mystery of Christ and what I have called the allure of the figure of Jesus…”
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Do you and I ever feel puzzled by, drawn by, attracted to this person? This Jesus? Do we want to find out more about him? Enter into a closer relationship with him? Some do not—or not enough to make a difference. The people of his hometown didn’t. The Rich Young Man didn’t—or not enough. Even any number of Christians today probably don’t particularly want to know him anymore than they—than maybe we—already do.
Those, however, who do hear and follow the voice of Jesus must be like children.
Not unlike the children who danced to and followed the music of the Pied Piper.
Do you hear Jesus, our spiritual Pied Piper, calling you? Is he catching you? As he did Peter,
Andrew, James, and John? Might you, in turn, be helping him to catch others?