A couple of weeks ago, Banu and I went to a restaurant that was really busy. They must have been understaffed, because the fellow serving as host was running around, trying to see if there were any open tables. He was asking people if they didn’t mind waiting ten or fifteen minutes. (We were debating whether or not to stay.) Meanwhile, more folks were walking in the door. It was getting a bit crowded.
He did all of this with good humor. It was service with a smile, as opposed to service with a snarl. I must confess, after a little while of that, my service would probably be the latter.
Chapters 15 to 17 in Exodus contain the so-called “grumbling” or “murmuring” stories. At the end of chapter 15, the people complain to Moses because they can only find bitter water. In chapter 16, the problem is hunger. In the next chapter, the trouble will again be thirst.
I think we can understand how Moses and Aaron feel. They didn’t sign up for this job; it was thrust upon them! More than anyone else, it’s Moses who’s catching the flak. By the time we get to chapter 17, it seems clear that he’s nearing his breaking point.
Moses says to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” (17:2). It is interesting how he nicely identifies himself with the divine, but then, why shouldn’t he? Moses then turns on the one who drafted him into this business, crying out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me” (v. 4).
There is also a rather extreme—and somewhat irrational—longing for the good old days.
In 16:3, we hear, “The Israelites said to [Moses and Aaron], ‘If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the pots of meat and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.’” They had an all-you-can-eat buffet, even if it wasn’t vegetarian friendly!
I like the way Eugene Peterson put it in The Message: “Why didn’t God let us die in comfort in Egypt where we had lamb stew and all the bread we could eat?” It sounds like the taste of slavery was “mmm mmm good!”
And please correct me if I’m wrong, but it also sounds like they’re accusing Moses of actually planning their hardship! But maybe we can see that shouldn’t be a completely unexpected response. When people are beaten down and living in misery, they (or we) can lash out, even at those working for good.
I’ve sometimes seen interviews of Russians who express a longing for the days of the Soviet Union. Back then, at least their jobs were guaranteed. In times of economic insecurity, political freedom may seem like a luxury. When there’s rampant crime and corruption, it’s easy to forget the fear that comes with a police state.
It can be easy to forget that the “good old days” weren’t really so good when we were living them. We tend to romanticize the past. And we should note the “good old days” are on a sliding scale. Depending on the color of one’s skin, one’s gender, the accent of one’s speech, the good old days might not be remembered so fondly.
Please understand, I don’t want to give the impression that, in and of itself, there’s a problem with yearning for the past. It’s normal. I’m now old enough to experience something of that myself. I think I began noticing it when I heard athletes who were my age being described as at the end of their careers!
Yearning for the past—indeed, a past that never was—becomes a problem when it takes us from where we need to be. It’s a problem when it becomes destructive.
This “grumbling” or “murmuring” story is about something more fundamental than idealizing bygone days; it’s about more than rewriting history. It’s not about the Egyptians treating their slaves to fictitious banquets! It’s about the way it expresses itself. It speaks to the corrosive effect of grumbling on the community, on the church. That’s the danger this story reveals.
St. Benedict who lived in the 5th and early 6th centuries, wrote, “If disciples obey grudgingly and grumble, not only aloud but also in their hearts, then, even though the order is carried out, their actions will not be accepted with favor by God, who sees that they are grumbling in their hearts.” This was written for Benedictine monastics, but it clearly can apply to anyone of faith.
Sister Joan Chittister makes this relevant for all of us. In her book, The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages, she writes, “It is community that enables us both to live the Christian life and to learn from it. Human growth is gradual, Benedict knows—the grumblers and defiant are to be warned about their behavior twice privately—but grow we must.” (59) The bit about two private warnings is a reference to Matthew 18, where Jesus speaks about brothers and sisters who sin against us.
She continues, “Otherwise those who do not honor the community, those in fact who sin against the development of community in the worst possible way, by consistent complaining, constant resistance, or outright rebellion, must be corrected for it.” It’s not fighting or theft that she highlights as the “worst possible” sin against fostering community—it’s constant complaining!
It should be pointed out we’re not talking about people who are in really dire straits. This isn’t about people who suffer from serious mental illness; it’s not about people who are tortured. No, this is something willful. The “worst possible” sin Chittister refers to is a decision. It’s a decision that throws a monkey wrench into the works.
It’s noted, “We come to the meetings…or go through the motions of being part of the community or part of the family…but there is no truth in us and we weigh the group down with our complainings. We become a living lamentation. We become a lump of spiritual cement around the neck of the group.”
It’s important to understand. Grumbling and gossiping are sinful, pure and simple. Going behind people’s backs and bad mouthing them is sin.
There’s something else about the past. We can carry grudges from the past. A grudge is a heavy weight to lug around. It has a corrosive effect on our soul. Fortunately, Jesus asks us to cast our burdens on him; his yoke is easy, his burden is light. Jesus breaks the chains of the past.
I want to include a reference from our Presbyterian Book of Order. It speaks of “The Ministry of Members.” (G-1.0304) It’s helpful to consider this as we ponder grumbling and murmuring.
“Membership in the Church of Jesus Christ is a joy and a privilege. It is also a commitment to participate in Christ’s mission. A faithful member bears witness to God’s love and grace and promises to be involved responsibly in the ministry of Christ’s Church. Such involvement includes:
“proclaiming the good news in word and deed, taking part in the common life and worship of a congregation, lifting one another up in prayer, … studying Scripture and the issues of Christian faith and life, supporting the ministry of the church through the giving of money, time, and talents, demonstrating a new quality of life within and through the church… and reviewing and evaluating regularly the integrity of one’s membership, and considering ways in which one’s participation in the worship and service of the church may be increased and made more meaningful.”
That’s quite a list, and I didn’t mention all of it! And to be sure, there are some qualities we display better than others.
Returning to our story, there is something to notice. Even though the Israelites are griping at Moses, there’s no mention of reprimand from God, at least not immediately. Okay, so when you were slaves in Egypt you could eat meat and bread to your hearts’ content? Really? Well, here comes a flock of quail. And in the morning, you’ll have more than enough bread!
The manna is the bread from heaven. Verse 15 says, “When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, ‘What is it?’ For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, ‘It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.” The Hebrew word for manna means, “What is it?”
Joan Chittister, who I mentioned earlier, tells a story I’ll paraphrase regarding a student asking the teacher about enlightenment, about wisdom. (178) (I should warn you this may sound like a comedy routine!)
The student asks where wisdom, where enlightenment, can be found. “Here,” the teacher replies. “When will it happen?” “It is happening right now.”
“Then why don’t I experience it?” “Because you do not look.”
“What should I look for?” “Nothing. Just look.”
“At what?” “Anything your eyes alight upon.”
“Must I look in a special kind of way?” “No. The ordinary way will do.”
“But don’t I always look the ordinary way?” “No. You don’t.”
“Well, why not?” “Because to look you must be here. You’re mostly somewhere else.”
(We might think of Jesus saying, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.”)
Friends, that’s us! We spend a great deal, if not the majority, of our lives mostly somewhere else. When we’re grumbling and murmuring, we aren’t present to what God is doing—right here, right now. The bread of heaven is made available; we need only accept it.
Jesus said, “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.”