Updated: Feb 9, 2019
As I spoke with folks following Sunday's service, it became very clear that while the culture and even the church remains divided on many things, we sadly find a unity in our grumbling. It would seem that grumbling may be a universal response of all people whether they are believers or non-believers. Therefore, what we see happening with the Israelites 3500 years ago in the Exodus remains our reality today. We are still engaged in the practice of grumbling.
In the Gospel of Luke, the term for grumbling is used three times. Each time it describes the same attitude and the same response: Jesus is associating with a sinner and the religious people do not like it one bit. The first time it happens Jesus has just called the tax collector Matthew to be one of his disciples. Matthew then has a feast in his home to celebrate with Jesus and of course he invites his friends who are other tax collectors and sinners. When the religious leaders learn of it, they “grumble” to the disciples of Jesus about why he would associate with such people (5:30).
The second time it happens Jesus has just issued a call to all people who would want to be one of his disciples. He has told them the cost of following after him which includes placing Jesus above all other family relationships as well as bearing one’s own cross (14:25-27). It is a demanding invitation that throws down a spiritual gauntlet of commitment. Just a few verses later we see that it is tax collectors and sinners who are drawing near to Jesus in response. Again the religious leaders “grumble” accusing Jesus of receiving sinners (15:2).
The final time religious people “grumble” about Jesus comes when the master invites himself over to the home of a rich chief tax collector named Zacchaeus. This man represents the worst of those traitors who have turned against their own people by seizing taxes from them to go to Rome and to line their own pockets. When the tax collector joyfully accepts Jesus’ request to come and eat with him, the religious people “grumble” about Jesus being the guest of a sinner (19:7).
In every case, the situation shares this similarity: Jesus is connecting with sinners through a meal. In doing so, he is receiving them, extending fellowship to them and even offering them a welcome to the Kingdom. Why would this cause the religious people to grumble?
Well, what is grumbling? It is blaming others under our breath; it’s an attitude of discontent against others expressed in whispered tones or outbursts behind people's backs; it’s frustration and anxiety manifested in kicking up a fuss towards others (even if it is not really about them as was the case when Israel grumbled against Moses, but they were really grumbling against God). Grumbling is muttering about people and situations instead of honestly trying to resolve issues. Grumbling is judgmental and often cowardly as we hide our condemnation of others in low tones, social media or gossip.
So, what is it they were fussing about and blaming Jesus for?
Is it that Jesus is treating people as acceptable to God whom the religious leaders believe are not acceptable to God?
Is it that he spits in the face of their traditions by welcoming sinners and calling into question their sacred customs through his teachings and actions?
Is it jealously that his following continues to grow while theirs remains stagnant or even shrinks?
Is it their jealously that he performs miracles they can only dream of doing, and they must find a way to tear him down because of it?
Is it their holier than thou attitudes that have no tolerance for anyway but their way since they see themselves as the gatekeepers of holiness?
Is it the hardness of their hearts that cannot see the work of God in the lives of others unless it is done their way?
Is it somehow a combination of these ideas?
On Sunday I asserted that at the heart of the grumbling of the Israelites was their reliance upon what they see and feel rather than on what God says or who God is. Whenever we as the people of God rely solely upon our feelings, our expectations or our limited interpretations of a situation (especially when that situation has or could have negative ramifications for us) we will inevitably grumble. Why? Because we see all the ways this could turn out poorly, all the ways we could be hurt or are being hurt, all the expectations we assumed that are not coming to pass and all the ways we cannot control what is taking place. When this happens, and we are relying solely upon ourselves, it of course brings about anxiety and fear, which then leads to frustration, anger, bitterness and hopelessness. These things are then expressed by grumbling. It is a natural and expected outcome to relying upon ourselves in these situations.
This is why God turned the Israelites back to himself in giving them the manna. They were grumbling because they had no control over their situation and their expectations they had brought into the experience were not being met. God used the manna not only to feed them, but to change their focus. He wanted them to concentrate on what He could do rather than on what they could not do.
This is also why Jesus answered each of the situations in Luke by turning people back to what God was doing in the lives of these people. For example, in Luke 5 he responds to them in this way: “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (5:32). It’s as if he said: “I hear your complaint and your judgment, but stop focusing on your narrow view of what is happening and what your expectations might be. Instead, open your eyes to the great possibilities of what God can and wants to do!”
In a similar way, the answer to our grumbling is not trying harder or coming up with better solutions or denying the severity of a situation. The truth is we will be in situations where we have no control. We will experience times where our expectations are not met. We will have moments where people act in ways that will upset us. And through all of this, we will want to grumble sometimes. The answer is not denying the reality of our experience, but remembering our God. The manna was to test Israel even more than it was to feed them. God intended the manna to help them recall both who He is and what He had already done for them so they would grasp what he might do for them now (Exodus 16:6). When they encountered a situation that would normally cause them to grumble, God wanted them to remember who He was and what He had done so that they would move from grumbling about their situation to glorifying their God. He wanted them to glorify and trust Him rather than grumble against Him and trust in themselves.
As long as we refuse to remember the greatness of God, the love of God and the works of God in our lives, we will continue to rely on ourselves in situations where we have no control. This will inevitably lead to continued grumbling. On the other hand, the more we can glorify God in the small things of life, embrace the character of God and remember the works of God in our lives, the more we will trust Him in all circumstances. There is no better remedy for our grumbling than to glorify the God who loves us and has all things under His control.