Exod. 16:2-15, Ps 105:1-6, 37-45, Phil. Ch 1. Matthew 20:1-16
Grumbling and complaining. It’s a very human thing to do when things do not seem to be working the way we think they ought. Children complain when they are hungry, or on a long car journey calling out, ‘are we there yet?’ Adults are not immune to complaining or grumbling either, it’s too hot, it’s too cold, or more to the point right now, my hair needs cutting, or my dog needs trimming or I need to get out, or I need a holiday? Most of these complaints are about real needs and wants but hidden behind them is the thought that someone else will solve the problem for us.
When my children were young, they loved the Mr Men books. They are small stories for young children that focus on a particular trait or emotion. There is one called ‘Mr Grumble’. In the book he moans, and groans and snorts all day long. He is met by a wizard who turns him into a pig each time he says complains and each time he is turned into a pig, he gets bigger. At the point in which he promises not to complain ever again, he cannot help himself, complains again and for a third time is turned into an even larger pig. Finally, when he decides he will not complain, he goes to bed, does not complain but nothing stops him from snoring.
Thankfully, a children’s story is but a children’s story however the point is well made. Complaining only resulted in Mr Grumble being changed into something he really did not want to be and helps children to realise how complaining can affect their lives.
In both our Old Testament and New Testament readings today, there are images of complaining and grumbling. There are also many other examples throughout the Gospels where the disciples grumble and complain, arguing amongst themselves about who will be the greatest in the Kingdom of heaven, or who will sit at Jesus right hand. The Pharisees and Saduccees also complain about Jesus as someone who would eat and drink with ‘sinners and tax collectors’, or eat food on the Sabbath, or about Jesus choosing to heal and forgiver sins on the Sabbath. Complaints are about fault finding.
Amidst this time of lockdown, complaints coming out of the community through the news have been many. From the most innocent to the more extreme complaints. Why can’t I take my child to the park by car? This curfew is madness. To the more extreme of protesting online and in public, declaring so-called rights and grievances against individuals and groups. And regardless of our political persuasions, outright attacks on leadership have perhaps been at an all-time high, complaining about so called injustices of the restrictions.
It was no different for Moses who faced the complaints of the people of Israel who had brought them out of Egypt, freeing them from the bondage of Pharaoh and his leadership. It is for us an image of God’s liberating power toward the people of God. And yet in Exodus, it is not the people of Egypt complaining, it is the people of God. It wasn’t just one or two people, it was the ‘whole congregation of the Israelites’ saying, ‘If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt…. For you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.’
As I read through our Old Testament passage, I was amazed at the number of times the word ‘complaint’ or ‘complaining’ is used. For those of you who like numbers, there are a total of 7 uses from verse 2 to 15 in Exodus 16, almost one occurrence for every 2 verses! It is an effective literary device to use repetition in this way. It draws our attention to one of the key points being made in the passage. The Israelites, the people of God, complain not only to Moses and to Aaron but also to God. And it is God who listens to the people, and hear their complaint and brings them a solution. The writer of Exodus tells us that God provided ‘quail in the evening’ and ‘bread in the morning’. They ate and were satisfied.
In our Gospel reading, in the Parable of the landowner, workers are hired throughout the day and were given the same pay at the end of the day. The workers who began at the beginning of the day grumbled against the landowner because they had not received more than those labourers who came late in the day. This Parable in Matthew points out to us that God calls each person into the kingdom of God, some were called very early in the day, the disciples, Paul, Barnabas, Timothy, and all the saints of old, while many of us who are called now. There will be many others who God will call long after we are gone too. The gift of God is the same to each one of us. God’s grace and love is no more special toward others than toward you or me. Just as God provided ‘bread from heaven’ to the children of God, where everyone received the same portion. The children of Israel were told not to hoard the bread. Everyone was to receive the same portion. So it is with God and his love toward each one of us.
Complaining seems to be something people do. The internet is full of helpful advice how to ‘deal with complaints’. In fact, many organisations have a department that deals directly with complaints, and in Australia, serious complaints can be dealt with through the various Ombudsman when required. What then do we learn from our readings today? God hears the cry of the heart of the people of God and provides a solution. The ‘bread of heaven’ that was provided to the Israelites. God heard their complaint. For us and the disciples, this ‘bread of heaven is found in the person of Jesus Christ who came to be ‘bread for us’. God does not leave us without a response or a solution. Just as the people of Israel complained, God heard their voices and provided a solution. What is our response to God at times of challenge, when complaining about our circumstance brings us against a brick wall? God knows our hearts and minds, our failings and our desires for a better life. God calls us to reach out in prayer, to share with God your feelings, your hopes, and your dreams. Raise your complaint to God, then allow God to speak into your heart and mine. In Psalm 64, attributed to David begins, Hear my voice, O god, in my complaint. God knows our hearts, our fears, our desires and our needs. Let us pray … Amen.