“Complaining,” Exodus 16:2-15, Matthew 20:1-16

I’m wearing one of those rubber bracelets that are popular these days to show support for all kinds of good causes.  This one is from a group called “A Complaint Free World.org” started by Rev. Will Bowen to promote a healthier, more positive attitude toward life.  The unique deal for this bracelet is that it’s interactive.  You are supposed to switch it from one wrist to the other each time you catch yourself complaining, the goal being to go 21 days without whining or bellyaching.  I wore out 3 bracelets before I made it to the three-week goal.

Coincidentally (or is it a God incident?) two of the scripture lessons for September 18 in the Revised Common Lectionary deal with complaining.  Exodus (16:2-15) begins with “The whole congregation of Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness.”  This is a classic “no good deed will go unpunished” or “what have you done for me lately” story.  Moses and Aaron have risked their lives to liberate the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, and the thanks they get from their ungrateful people is constant griping.  The whining former slaves go so far as to say, “We would have been better off just dying in Egypt than to have you bring us out here in the wilderness to starve to death.”  Like they were expecting the Sinai Sheraton?

The Gospel lesson (Matthew 20:1-6) is the parable that must have inspired first century collective bargaining.  Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is like a vineyard owner who hires some laborers early in the morning, another group at 9 am, another at noon, more at 3 pm, and a final cadre at 5 pm.  So far, so good.  One of the few things we all agree on these days is creating jobs, right?  But when the whistle blows at 6 pm and the workers line up for their pay, starting with those who only worked an hour, everyone gets paid the same wage, whether they worked an hour or 12 hours!  Not surprisingly, the folks who worked all day long in the hot sun are mildly irritated and complain that they should be paid more since they worked more.  They shout a child’s favorite complaint, “That’s not fair!”  But the landowner says, “I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?  Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you.  Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?  Or are you envious because I am generous?”  And then Jesus concludes the parable with that curious line, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” 

I love the way my mentor Van Bogard “Bogie” Dunn interpreted that last line when I was a seminary student.  Rather than seeing this as a reversal of order from one up to one down, Bogie said that if the first are last and the last are first, that means everyone is the same—there is no first or last.  The kingdom of God is not about getting ahead, it’s about realizing that we are all equal in the eyes of God.  And if we are all equal and trust God to provide what we need and not what we want, 90% of our reasons for complaining melt away faster than an ice cream cone in the noon day sun.

One thing that intrigues me about these two passages of scripture is the seemingly illogical way God and the God-figure/landowner respond to the complainers.  The complaint of the laborers who slaved all day seems legit to our capitalistic sensibilities, does it not?  And look at how God responds to the former slaves in the Exodus passage.  Three times in 14 verses the Exodus account tells us that “God has heard your complaining.” (vs. 7, 8, and 12). That part makes sense.  We know God listens to our prayers, apparently even when we are whining.  But God’s response to the Israelites is totally unexpected.  Rather than telling them to shut up and be glad they are free from their captivity in Egypt or asking if they want some cheese with their whine, God seems to reward their grumpiness and provides manna from heaven, bread in the morning and meat in the evening.  And they don’t have to do anything to earn it.  They work even less than the 5 o’clock grape pickers in the parable.  All they have to do is go out and gather what God provides for them every day; and the only caveat is that they can’t get greedy and take more than they really need or it will spoil.  (Which of course they do, and it does.)

So the workers who seem to have a justifiable gripe come up empty handed, and the Israelite ingrates get fed.  The Exodus account reminds me of another parable Jesus told (Luke 18:1-8) about a judge who is constantly harassed by a woman with a grievance.  She finally wears the judge down and gets what she wants, not because she pleads her case so well; but because the judge is tired of listening to her complain.

Is the message here that if we complain enough God will solve our problems just to shut us up?  That’s the squeaky-wheel theology of prayer, and it has some merit.  We have had one of those Murphy’s law summers at our house when it seems that everything that can has quit working: hot water heater, car alternator, ice maker in the frig, telephone, cable TV.  Multiple times we have been promised repairs or installation services, and days or even weeks go by without satisfactory response.  I’ve learned that making phone calls with increasing levels of irritation and impatience does seem to get results in the service sector.  But is that the way it is with God? 

One possible answer is found in Luke 18:1 where Luke very clearly spells out the purpose of the parable of the persistent widow.  “Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.”  At least when we are complaining to God we are in communication and showing some level of trust that God cares and will respond.

On the flip side of complaining, consider the famous serenity prayer that says, “Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.”  I don’t think St. Paul was in AA, but his statement in Philippians 4:11 that he has “learned to be content in whatever state” he is in has a similar ring to it.  And so does Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, telling us not to worry about tomorrow or what we will eat or drink or wear.   He says God knows we need these things and will provide, just as God provided for the Israelites in the wilderness.

Maybe it’s a lack of faith, but I have problems with that advice.  It sounds too much like the Gospel according to Pollyanna to me and can be too easily turned into an excuse to rest on our laurels (or other parts of our anatomy).  I suppose the fear of apathy or laziness inspired the popular saying that “God helps those who help themselves,” one of those familiar phrases that Fred Craddock calls ‘almost Bible” because so many people think it’s biblical or should be.  Here’s what Wikipedia says about that saying:  “The phrase originated in ancient Greece, occurring as the moral to one of Aesop’s Fables, and later in the great tragedy authors of ancient Greek drama. It has been commonly attributed to Benjamin Franklin; however the modern English wording appears earlier in Algernon Sidney’s work.  It is mistaken by many to be a Bible quote; however the phrase does not occur in the Bible. Some Christians have criticized it as actually against the Bible’s basic message of God’s grace.”

That last phrase zeros in on a key dynamic for the balancing act required in faithful living  We are called to walk a fine line between trusting God to provide but also taking initiative to meet our own needs and those of others – to be our brother’s and sister’s keepers, to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. 

Too often we use the “God helps those who help themselves” philosophy or hum a few bars of  “God will take care of you” to avoid our own responsibility for going the extra mile to meet the needs of others.  Praying for those in need is good.  It raises our awareness and can motivate us to compassionate just action.  But if our prayer stops with just delegating the problems of others to God’s to do list, sorry that won’t fly.  (And yes, I just switched my bracelet for complaining about those who behave this way.  And yes, I need to check for logs in my own eye before pointing out the speck in yours.)

Remember the full text of the Serenity Prayer asks for “the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,” but also for “the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”   The Israelites in the wilderness couldn’t change the harsh living conditions in the desert, but when God provided food for them, they were required to change what they could — to go out for themselves and gather what God had given them. 

The bottom line is that constructive criticism is an essential Christina discipline.  Injustices will not be righted or human needs met until some whistle blowing prophet first identifies the problem.  When criticism degenerates into complaining is when we fail to respond to a problem by taking positive action to improve our own situation or that of others.

My suggestion is this:

The next time we hear someone, including ourselves, moaning and groaning about an unfair or painful situation, consider our options:

  1.  We can just tune out the complainer and ignore him or her.
  2. We can listen for what’s behind the complaint. Is it
  • (a) One of those things up with which we have to put, i.e. something that can’t be changed and therefore must be accepted?
  • (b) If it can be changed, what resources can we and the other person(s) muster or create together to help the situation?
  • (c)  A quick prayer for discerning the difference between a and b is always helpful.

In that light, Exodus 16 makes a lot more sense.  When God heard the complaints of the Israelites, God didn’t reward them for being cantankerous and unreasonable.  God really listened and heard the fear and pain in their pleas and responded in love and grace to meet their needs.

May we go and do likewise.

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