“Here in the wilderness, the whole Israelite community grumbled against Moses and Aaron.The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died at the LORD’s hand in the land of Egypt, as we sat by our kettles of meat and ate our fill of bread! But you had to lead us into this wilderness to make this whole assembly die of famine! (Ex 16.2-3) Just One month after their departure from Egypt, having experienced God‘s power in their deliverance from slavery, the Israelites begin grumbling. In fact, this passage is widely known as the “beginning of the grumbling”. Reading or listening to the passage proclaimed we might automatically respond with “Why are they already complaining – don’t they remember how God saved them? Let’s suspend our judgments for a moment.Is grumbling (“murmuring” in some translations) really just whining and complaining? The definition of “grumbling” comes from GROAN – a crying out with a full throat. This emotion is registered in the GaROAN – or throat in Hebrew. It is found in scripture in places where human disappointment and anger fuel a response that can’t be contained in our bodies. Is this what’s happening with the Israelites – let’s look at their situation. They have been traveling the desert for a month in temperatures averaging 120 degrees during the day, with a 60 degree drop at night, amidst blowing sand and howling winds – with little or no reprieve. They have been traveling slowly, in a large community caravan structure with the limited rations of bread, water and other foods they were able to pack for their speedy departure from Egypt. I can’t say I wouldn’t be grumbling under these conditions and I know it wouldn’t take a group of thousands. I remember heading out on a mission trip years ago with a group of just two dozen adults and teens in 5 vehicles traveling south to Mexico, with plenty of food and water. And in this relative comfort, there was still grumbling (or murmuring – what I call grumbling under our breath) when things didn’t go our way. Relatively small setbacks like getting lost enroute, cars breaking down, and getting sick on the road had us wondering if we were truly being called to mission. We questioned and struggled. Was it worth the disagreements, power struggles, strained relationships, angry words and tears shed or should we have stayed home? Under the cloak of grumbling we tried to hide our fear, our doubt, our inadequacies of solving all problems ourselves. We had forgotten, as did the Israelites, that it was God’s vision that would carry and provide for our needs. Eventually the Israelites were able to voice the core question for themselves and for us as well: “Is the LORD in our midst or not?” (Ex 17.7) And perhaps in this moment, where authentic humility breaks through, we recognize God is God and we are not, and the potential for conversion is at hand.
In the Hebrew Scriptures in the Book of Deuteronomy the Israelites “set to murmuring” in their tents when they doubt God’s power over their enemies. (Deut 1.27ff) Jesus dealt with workers grumbling over wages in his parable “The Workers in the Vineyard” where those who worked a full day “grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘these last ones worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us, who bore the day’s burden and the heat.” (Matt 20:1-16) In this story grumbling results when the landowners generosity is twisted by resentment and envy. Jesus also dealt with grumbling pharisees and scribes about who he ate with and who he spent his time with (Lk 15:1-2). In each of these, there is a common thread – the lack of true humility – allowing God to be God.
Why should we avoid all grumbling?
Saint Benedict writes that grumbling threatens mutual service and is a danger to community. In our work of building the Kingdom of God it certainly seems there should be no room for grumbling. In chapter four of the Holy Rule, Saint Benedict writes: “Do not grumble or speak ill of others. Place your hope in God alone.” (RB, 4:39-41). In chapter 5 Benedict writes about refraining from grumbling “not only aloud but in our heart.” God wants the internal conversion of our hearts to spill out into our broken world. Perhaps the best way to avoid grumbling is to avoid its beginning each day. To hand those things that lead to grumbling – our human disappointments, anger and pride over to God as as we notice them and to pray for the wisdom to notice them quickly.
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