The Art of Grumbling

September 24, 2017 — Rev. Paula Norbert


One of the things that stands out in both the first and second readings today is that we hear the people complaining.  First we read in Exodus, when the people are really hungry as they are traveling with Moses, “The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness.”  Then, we hear this familiar passage from Matthew’s Gospel about the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard.  The workers begin at different times throughout the day, but as they are paid what the landowner had promised at the start, we read, “when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner.”  I guess it should come as no surprise to any of us that complaining and grumbling have been part of the human condition since the beginning of time, and perhaps, even among us, we might admit to days when we have done too much grumbling.  Let us pray,   “O God, from your providing hand even the dissatisfied and grumbling receive what they need for their lives. Teach us your way of justice and lead us to practice your generosity, so that we may live a life worthy of the gospel made known through your Son Jesus. Amen.”

A man wanted to become a monk so he went to the monastery and talked to the head monk.

The head monk said, “You must take a vow of silence and can only say two words every three years.”

The man agreed and after the first 3 years, the head monk came to him and said, “What are your two words?”

“Food cold!” the man replied.

Three more years went by and the head monk came to him and said “What are your two words?”

“Hard Bed!” the man exclaimed.

Three more years went by and the head monk came to him and said, “What are your two words?”

“I quit!” said the man.

“Well,” the head monk replied, “I am not surprised. You have done nothing but complain ever since you got here!”

I would have to admit that sometimes complaining does help us get what we want, or in the case of the poor Israelites, to get what they need.  They really are hungry out in the wilderness and they ask a valid question, were they rescued from slavery only to go out in the wilderness to die of hunger?  But Goes does hear their complaining and God rains manna down from heaven to allow them to eat and have their fill.  The Lord tells Moses to tell the people that at twilight they shall eat meat and in the morning, they will eat bread.  God says, tell them that I have heard their complaining and I am sending them food so that they may know that I am the Lord their God.  God does listen to the cries of the people and responds.

When Moses first is told by God that he has been chosen to lead the people out of slavery, Moses asks for God’s name, and God says, “I am who I am,” or there is another version that seems to particularly fit the story today: “I will be who I will be.” Someone else has interpreted this same line as “I will be what is needed at the time.” The wilderness in today’s passage provides a perfect setting for God to be exactly that: just what the people need at that moment in time.

Matthew’s Gospel shares this wonderful parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard.  How many of us can relate to this?  They say children from a very young age understand the concept of justice and have a strong reaction when they don’t feel that they are treated fairly.  So with the workers in this story.  We might imagine ourselves among those workers.  If we were among the first hired, I’m sure we too might have a strong reaction that those who came near the end of the day are given the same pay as us. Really?  Would you grumble?  I think I probably would, or I certainly would grumble once I got home that night.  Unfair, we might say.  We worked all day.  But imagine if you came late in the day, how happy you would be to bring home a full day of wages?  How lucky, how fortunate, how generous.

Perhaps some of you remember a story from back in 2011.  The owner of a Tech Company in Seattle made a decision to increase the lowest wages of his employees to $70,000 each, made possible by his choice to reduce his own salary.  The decision came about after a conversation with a disgruntled employee who shared that he was having trouble making ends meet in an expensive city like Seattle and that he didn’t feel that he was being compensated fairly.  The owner, Dan Price, did some soul searching and then announced to all of his employees his decision to change the pay scale at the company.  It got a lot of publicity at the outset and some applauded him and others criticized him or worried that the pay increase meant that he would charge more to those doing business with him.  I remember being quite impressed by the story at the time and it was interesting for me to go back and read some of what has unfolded since that time.

He was both applauded and criticized in the press, and much like the laborers in the vineyard, some of the higher paid employees felt angry that those who had fewer years of experience with the company had just received a giant pay raise.  How was that fair, they thought?  And a couple decided to leave as did a few of their clients.  But guess what?  Not surprisingly, the company received a huge increase in applicants for jobs there and new clients found their way to him.  And amidst the criticism, he made it clear that their pay raises were coming out of his salary, not the salaries of others or at the expense of their clients.  Since that time, they have continued to do very well.  Productivity rose and profits rose and even now, the company is continuing to do very well.  And his decision has led to great debates about the wide disparities that exist in compensation between CEO’s in this country and the many who have seen only modest gains in wages over many years.

Here’s the truth about the Matthew Gospel and you all have probably already guessed, it’s not really meant to be a story about a vineyard and workers who should get more pay.  It’s about God’s decision to be immensely generous beyond our capacity to make sense of, and it’s about our weakness when we get lost in envying others and miss the blessings of our lives. Envy can creep into all of our lives and make us feel bad about who we are and what we have; it’s kind of like a poison that can infect us in subtle ways if we don’t pay attention.  This story always hits a nerve with listeners, because whether in the time of Jesus, or today, we know that there will always be those who have more or less than we have.  And sometimes, and certainly when we see extreme poverty in the world, we know that it is just not fair and that some important things are not as God wants them to be when people are literally starving to death or children in our own state go to bed hungry at night.  We know that is not part of the plan that God wants for our world.

At the same time, we need to catch ourselves when we get caught up in our own grumbling and our positive energy gets diverted by looking at what others have and missing out on the many gifts that grace our lives each day.  It’s a real challenge, no doubt, but that’s what Jesus was trying to get at.  At the end of the reading in Matthew, Jesus ask the truly important question, “Are you envious because I am generous?” says the landowner.  Says God.