Anyone done any complaining lately? Maybe about the smoke, getting tired of all the restrictions of the pandemic, governments playing with the possibilities of quick elections, someone not wearing a mask, getting too close. waiting in line, people tenting in parks, people tenting at city hall, people with no place to tent and no place to sleep or live. Anyone complained about anything like that lately? (Raise a hand?)
Scan the letters to the editor in the paper. Spend a little time on social media. Talk to almost anyone. You hear a little or a lot of complaining. It’s around. Maybe always is. And we catch ourselves. People I spoke to this week, some facing great challenges, while talking about their concerns and maybe complaining a little, also acknowledged the greater struggles of others: those who’ve lost homes and family in the fires that brought us the smoke; those in hospital, still recovering or grieving for loved ones killed by the pandemic; many in our world without stable or just governments; people with no access to masks or the option to social distance or healthcare, those who are homeless, hungry, trapped, scared, unsafe, in tents in our neighbourhoods, as refugees, across the world.
We complain. And maybe we all need to sometimes. And gain a different perspective at the same time.
God’s people complained. In the first reading today the word complaining appears six times. Moses and Aron were tired of it. The people were tired of being hungry. Everyone is complaining. God hears it all. And God’s response is to acknowledge hearing it. God hears our and other’s complaints. That’s good news. And people experience the grace of God’s providing, flocks of quail each evening, and a mysterious bread – “manna” on the ground in the morning. And the people recognize it as God’s hearing their complaining and feeding them. Complaining and confessing. It’s a pattern for God’s wilderness people. It still is. Paul’s perspective is, “And this is God’s doing. For God has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for Christ as well.”
The Gospel story that Jesus tells this morning has its share of complaining, in the story, and potentially our complaints when we hear it! It’s a strange and disturbing story, one that might make us smile and complain at the same time, and by the Spirit, potentially gain a new perspective.
At the National Church Council meeting last weekend on Zoom, a member of the Council, Rev. James Hendrickson, led the Bible study. As a resource he used a book he has appreciated by Miguel De La Torre, Reading the Bible from the Margins. The Bible reading for our reflection and discussion was the third commandment from Deuteronomy, “Observe the Sabbath Day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work, you…” (or anyone else in your household or flocks… remember you were a slave… and God brought you out…). James quoted Miguel De La Torre inviting us to hear these words from the perspective of someone who has no work, and what does the invitation to keep sabbath say and mean? It struck me that the commandment while inviting us to take a day of rest that God intends for all people and creatures and all creation, also assumes and recognizes the need for all people to have adequate work. It is an invitation to rest and a call to the justice of work for all.
This perspective came to mind when I read today’s Gospel about unemployed workers, daily wages and equal pay. We heard how the story goes, a landowner finds workers beginning at the start and then throughout the day up to the last hour, gives them all work, and at the end of the day, gives them all the same daily/living wage, beginning with the last to be hired. Those who worked through the heat of the day complain! And the landowner questions their complaining, pointing out they were paid as promised, and claiming the right to be generous and to do “what I choose with what is mine.” How did the tenant farmer or unemployed worker hear this story of Jesus in their time? How does a person who has lost their job in the pandemic, someone who qualifies for assistance and others who don’t, those just scraping by and those who aren’t, how do you, how do they hear this story today? Is it a different perspective from the margins for all of us to see?
Many of us hear the story being about the God-like generous landowner inviting everyone at any hour to work and then at the end of the day giving the same pay to all no matter their labour. This image of a gracious, generous if naive landowner/God is good and true enough. But the story also concerns the plight of workers. And does it criticize the economic and political circumstances of Jesus’ time and ours, raising God’s concern that every worker be given the opportunity to work and to receive a daily living wage?
A commentator that I have been reading again in this year of Matthew, Richard Swanson in his book, Provoking the Gospel of Matthew points out the recurring theme in Jesus’ stories of landowners and others with power claiming the right “to do whatever they want.” It doesn’t work to simply identify these persons of power with God. Especially last Sunday, since the one to whom a great debt is owed and forgiven, returns the ungrateful slave to prison to be tortured until the debt is paid! Swanson, in a book written in 2007! making a chilling connection to people of power today believing they can do whatever they want without concern for the consequences for workers and others, suggests (in 2007!) we give the voice of Donald Trump to the landowner! Little did Swanson know the power that Trump would have to do what he wants without consequences, as president of the United States today.
This different perspective on the story raises the plight of workers vulnerable to people in power who are free to do whatever they want no matter the consequences for others. Those first hearing Jesus’ story may have laughed knowing no landowner they knew would ever be so generous! Jesus’ story criticizes the lack of justice in access to secure and fair work and offers a vision of God’s world in which all people make a daily living wage. Maybe the current discussions of a basic income, a more generous system of unemployment benefits, and efforts to support local sustainable jobs that provide living wages are closer to this story of Jesus than we might first see.
It’s a different perspective from the margins, for us to see. Some say, there’s no use in complaining, it won’t make any difference anyway. I wonder if today’s witness to complaining and the promise, God’s hears our complaints, hold the hope of gracious transformation that God desires and intends for the healing of all people, and all creation?
Soshin McMurchy, the Buddhist Chaplain at UVic, in a great article in the Victoria Times paper yesterday, shared beautiful images of “people learning to be medicine for one another” beginning first with a story of indigenous youth joined arm in arm on a suicide prevention walk and including the story of Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners and saying in the face of other’s complaints, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy not sacrifice.’” Soshin goes on to quote Mary Jo Leddy’s book, Radical Gratitude as offering a way of transformative criticism, or complaining. Leddy writes: “In order to criticize the realities of our nation or culture, we must be rooted in a beloved community… This could be a plot of land, but it can also be a set of streets, a neighbourhood, a place of worship, a community of commitment… here we find the courage to be critical of our culture, because we know how much we love it.” Soshin describes places where she has seen that beloved community, that make possible transformative criticism/complaining, where, in her words, “We are all in need of healing. And we can all be medicine for each other.”
It’s a different perspective from the margins, for the sake of workers and those without work everywhere, for all who are suffering in any way, for the suffering of the earth and its climate and all God’s creation, in the privilege not only of believing in Christ but suffering for him as well, and by the generous and gracious transforming power of God to make us all medicine for each other, in need of healing that we all are, joining in complaining and working together by God’s Spirit toward the world of God’s desire where all receive mercy, and none are sacrificed. This is God’s doing. Let is be so. In all our relations. Amen