Grumbling

21 September 2014
Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 20A (RCL)
Exodus 16:2-15
Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45
Philippians 1:21-30
Matthew 20:1-16

There’s a lot of grumbling in our readings this Sunday. The Israelites grumble about being in the desert, and the workers in the vineyard grumble about others receiving the same wage. There is a lot of grumbling in congregational life as well. I wonder what we can learn about our grumbling.

In interpreting the OT reading, we usually follow the pattern of the redactors of the stories. The grumbling of the people shows their lack of faith in God. Even God, in giving them the manna, does it to test them. I have to admit, however, that I think there is some justice in their grumbling. Sure, they had made it across the Red Sea and seen their enemies dead on the shore, but now what? Where are we going? And what do we eat? I think those would be fair questions. In the life of a congregation, we may have survived a big shock, and be delighted to find ourselves on the other side of it, but immediately the question arises, “Now what?”

There is a helpful way to do that kind of grumbling. We can express our fears and worries honestly to one another, and then we know what to pray for. And notice that God does in fact respond to their grumbling: manna in the morning and quails in the evening. The Israelites yearn for the flesh pots of Egypt (and later the onions and cucumbers). Taking stock of what was good about the way things used to be is not a bad idea. After we’ve lived through the crisis, it would be good to ask what worked and what didn’t in the way things used to be. We may grumble when we discover we have to give up cherished ways of being together that led us into the crisis in the first place. It would important to be honest before God and one another about that grief. We couldn’t move on otherwise.

But the grumbling in Matthew’s parable is of a different sort. The workers are grumbling that others got a better deal. We are also inclined to compare ourselves to one another in any social situation. That will lead to division, usually the kind of thing that sparks a crisis in the life of a community. The parable forces us to ask whom the good belongs to. The owner responds to the complaint, “Am I not free to do what I want with what is mine?” Bernard Lietaer invites us to rethink money. We tend to think money belongs to us. Lietaer describes money as any agreement within a group of people about what is valuable. Money, then, belongs to group making the agreement. When the owner goes out at five o’clock and finds workers standing idle, he knows full well that without the usual daily wage, they won’t feed their families that day. He refuses to think along the lines given to him by the minter of the coin of the realm, and reaches a different agreement.

A worker who had been thinking along the same lines would have made a mental note of this man’s generosity, and tried to come to work for him the next day as well, knowing that he would make sure he had a living wage. The owner is looking to the larger economy of the village, knowing that no one will buy anything from his vineyard if the folks are below subsistence.

Instead of grumbling about one another within the boundaries of our communities, we perhaps instead ought to be asking the questions about what sort of boundaries we need to cross together, and then grumble to God about what we would need to go forward from where we are.

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