David A. Davis
September 20, 2020
When it comes to “grumbling” in the gospels, as in “they grumbled against the landowner”, when it comes to “grumbling”, it is surprising how little “grumbling” there is in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. I am referring specifically to the word “grumble” and its variations in the Greek New Testament. Now, as I learned to say in sermons from this pulpit about 19 years, 11 months and three weeks ago, “If I did my biblical homework correctly”. The first time I preached on an Old Testament passage at Nassau Church I had an out of body experience while preaching and counted five Old Testament professors sitting out there in these pews. It is pretty much the same this morning with the New Testament scholars joining us in worship. That includes one who I am pretty sure read along with me in the Gospel of Matthew from the Greek New Testament while sitting there on the couch. So…. if I did my homework correctly, there is just not as much “grumbling in the gospels” as one would think.
I couldn’t find any grumbling in Mark at all. Maybe with Mark being so short, the gospel writer just couldn’t be bothered with “grumbling”. In John, the Jewish leaders “grumbled” in response to Jesus’s announcement that he was the bread of life. According to John, those leaders “began to complain about him because he said “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” The word translated complain comes from the same word for grumble. Luke has the most “grumbling”. Early in Luke after Jesus called Levi right out of the tax booth to follow him, Levi gave a great banquet in honor of Jesus in his house. The Pharisees and scribes “were complaining to his disciples.” (Luke 5). Later, when the scribes and Pharisees saw all the tax collectors and sinners coming near to Jesus just to listen, they “were grumbling and saying ‘this fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” (Luke 15) And you will remember in Luke 19 when Jesus yelled up to Zacchaeus and told him he had to stay at his house today that “all who saw it began to grumble.” That leaves Matthew. And the only “grumbling” in Matthew is here in the parable the tradition labels “the parable of the laborers in the vineyard.” When the all-day, day laborers realized they were being paid the same as the one hour day-laborer, “they grumbled against the landowner”,
Grumble. Grumble. Grumble. When you stop and think about it, it is surprising how little grumbling there is in the four gospels. And the word “grumble” itself in English seems a little understated. More fitting for those two cranky old men on “the Muppets” who sit up in the balcony and just grumble all the time. But pretty much all the English bible translations just stick with “grumble”.
The grumbling of the Hebrew scriptures seems to be very different than the grumbling here in the gospels. The murmuring, the complaint, and the lament of the Hebrew scriptures has a much deeper, profound, existential connotation. The people of Israel complaining in the wilderness convinced Moses brought them out there to die. The lament of Job at the suffering inflicted upon him amid God’s debate with Satan. Elijah’s lashing out at God under a broom tree and up on Mt Horeb because Queen Jezebel was out to kill him and he felt like he was the only one left trying to serve God. The theological thread of complaint and lament that weaves all through the Old Testament is foundational to understanding the relationship between God and God’s people. Lament and grumbling have no comparison. Grumbling almost has a petty feel to it when paired with lament. God hearing the people’s cry in bondage in Egypt has no comparison to Jesus having to listen to the grumbling that came in response as people in power, people of means, people steeped in faith and religion watched what Jesus did, saw who came to listen and eat with Jesus, heard what Jesus was teaching. What he did, who came to listen, and what he said and taught. The people grumbled.
When you stop and think about it, it’s not just surprising, it is shocking that there is so relatively little grumbling in the gospel narrative. Think about Jesus’ teaching. Think about what who he welcomed, the ones he touched, the people he so clearly cared for. Think about what the gospel of Jesus Christ actually says about forgiveness, and loving your enemies, and serving the poor, and loving your neighbor. Think about what Jesus actually taught when it comes to our money and to our stuff and to our attempt at piety and religiosity and our inability to do anything to earn, to gain, or to win our salvation. There had to be a lot, a whole lot more grumbling. It’s surprising. It’s shocking. It’s unexpected. How little grumbling there is in the gospels when you and I live in a world, in a time where the grumbling is so much. The grumbling is so loud. The grumbling is pretty much everywhere.
A dear friend of mine here in Princeton sold his company last year to a private equity group. This friend is not a part of our congregation but is deeply faithful and loves to talk about preaching when we have lunch. The complex deal involved multiple lawyers with negotiations right to the last minute that almost broke off several times. The owner about to sell the company he built and led for decades was sitting with his senior leadership team. He told them that once the transaction took place, once all the funds related to the sale were received, he wanted to give a monetary gift to every employee. It was something like $1,500 or $2,000 for everyone from the CFO, to the head of HR, to the truckdriver, the warehouse staff, the custodians. He knew it had to go through payroll and be taxed so he wanted to gross up the gift so employees would pocket the intended amount of the gift. The executive team had trouble wrapping their head around his request. One kept using the word bonus. “It’s not a bonus. It’s gift” my friend responded. Another suggested it should be an amount proportional to salary or hourly wage. “No, it’s the same for everyone. It’s a gift.” “Some employees have been here a lot longer. We just hired someone last week. “I know. The point is that is the same for everyone. No matter what”. The frustration of the senior staff kept rising and they wouldn’t let it drop. Finally, my friend said with some volume and authority announcing the end of the conversation, “Look, if you want me to read the Gospel of Matthew to you right now, I will. It is a gift for everyone. The same for everyone.” We have not had lunch since last December, so I emailed my friend this week to ask permission to tell you this story. He wrote back saying that he was fine with me sharing it. Then he gave me an update. One employee who has been with the company several years with a relatively high salary has threatened to sue over the gift because it wasn’t fair. He’s still grumbling.
The grumbling, it’s so loud in the world. Yet, the gospels have so relatively little grumbling. Maybe that’s because the gospel writers didn’t want what Jesus did, who Jesus was with, and what Jesus said to somehow be overshadowed by any magnitude of grumbling. Because when the grumbling becomes so loud, when the grumblers become so loud, it can drown out the message of the gospel. If the grumbling filled the gospel page it could so easily take the readers eye away from Jesus. And when it comes to the teaching of Jesus and who he welcomed, and the ones he touched, and the people he so clearly cared for while telling others to care for them too, when it comes to what the gospel of Jesus Christ actually says about forgiveness, and loving your enemies, and serving the poor, and loving your neighbor, and welcoming the stranger, when it comes to what Jesus actually taught when it comes to violence and power and economics, when it comes to the political implications of his gospel, yes, there is grumbling, lots of loud grumbling.
Tradition labels the beginning of the Matthew chapter 20 as the “parable of the laborers in the vineyard”. But it is really a parable about the unsettling, startling generosity of God. And little defines the human condition more than a desire among the powerful, the religious, and the wealthy to horde the generosity of God. God can be generous to me just not to you. Because that wouldn’t be fair, would it? And a very real threat to faith when the grumbling is loud, when the grumblers are so loud, maybe when your own grumbling has become louder than you think? The very real threat to your own encounter with the generosity of God is that you can no longer hear what Jesus teaches. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, they intend for the reader, the follower of Jesus, the disciple, the Christian, the church, they intend for you and for me to see Jesus. They were determined not to let the grumbling drown out the gospel. No, there isn’t much grumbling in the gospel narrative itself. But then, here in the gospel, when it came to what Jesus did, who Jesus was with, what Jesus said, the world didn’t just grumble. They killed him.
And in order to silence the grumbling, to make sure the grumblers didn’t get to define the gospel of Jesus Christ, in order to put a exclamation point forever on the unsettling, startling, unexpected generosity of God, God raised Jesus from the dead.
When the grumblers get so loud, don’t let it drown out the gospel of Jesus Christ in your life.
Because Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed!