Monday, September 22, 2014

Who Has Grumbling Rights? A Reflection on Sunday's Lectionary Texts

When I reviewed the Exodus 15 text last week, the one about a newly liberated people complaining about their hardships, I found myself feeling more empathy than usual.

It's easy to criticize these folks who grumbled about things like recurring water and food shortages, but didn't they have a right to be upset? After all, they're having to journey on foot through desert heat while carrying their meager possessions with them, and without the luxury of overnight motel accommodations.

Most of us, accustomed to air-conditioned transportation and comfortable lodging at a Hampton Inn, wouldn't have lasted a single day under those conditions.

Which makes this a serious lesson about whether or when we have grumbling rights and when we have only gratitude rights. It always depends on our perspective, and on how we do our mental bookkeeping. That is, do we mostly make note of, and record, our deficits, our losses, our deprivations? Or do we enter and celebrate our many undeserved assets, blessings and benefits?

I was reminded of the humorous song "Grumblers" by Thoro Harris I learned when I was a child:

In country, town or city some people can be found
Who spend their lives in grumbling at everything around;
O yes, they always grumble, no matter what we say,
For these are chronic grumblers and they grumble night and day.

O they grumble on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday,
Grumble on Thursday too,
Grumble on Friday, Saturday, Sunday,
Grumble the whole week thru.

They grumble in the city, they grumble on the farm,
They grumble at their neighbors, they think it is no harm;
They grumble at their husbands, they grumble at their wives,
They grumble at their children; but the grumbler never thrives.

They grumble when it’s raining, they grumble when it’s dry,
And if the crops are failing they grumble and they sigh,
They grumble at low prices and grumble when they’re high,
They grumble all the year ‘round and they grumble till they die.

We all have our share of both stresses and blessings, but like our financial accounts, if our deposits exceed our withdrawals we can live in the black, can experience a sense of abundance, even of plenty. On the other hand, if we, like the above grumblers, see our perceived losses as being greater than our assets, we live in a state of scarcity and want, and will tend to be complainers.

This Sunday's gospel reading from Matthew is a story about some laborers who grumbled about an employer giving each worker a full day's pay even though some had put in many more hours than others. Jesus' point is that each person deserves a living wage, and that the rest of us who have plenty should be grateful for this kind of just provision instead of being envious or resentful.

The Psalm 105 passage reframes the Exodus story, focuses on God's gracious deliverance for a people who had experienced only bondage and suffering and were offered liberation and new hope.

In the Philippians passage, the missionary Paul, writing from prison, gives up his grumbling rights and counts his blessings instead.

Sounds like a lot depends on how we do our bookkeeping.
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