September 24, 2023 Sermon: When Griping Becomes Gratitude
Rev. Janine Zabriskie
First & Franklin Presbyterian Church
September 24, 2023
Whenever I listen to these passages from Scripture, especially when they are situated together as they are in today’s lectionary, I can’t help but sit back for a moment and wonder… how did so many whiners make it into the Bible? Both the Israelites in Exodus and the day laborers in Matthew have an axe to grind with middle management. Not only do they think there is a problem, they think they have been wronged, and they are indignant about it. We know the type. Generally speaking, most of us avoid the type. They’re complaining about the food, they’re complaining about their boss. I’m almost afraid that they will approach the burning bush and ask to speak to the manager.
There’s not a lot of room for interpretation of attitudes here. The Exodus passage reads that the Israelites “complained.” Matthew says the workers in the parable “grumbled.” Multiple other translations use these same words. These people are venting. They’re letting loose onto Moses and Aaron, who led them out of bondage in Egypt. Onto the landowner who had sought them out, hired them to work, and paid the agreed upon wage. Or at least, those are the targets where the frustration and displeasure are directed. Because that’s relatable too, right? How many times have any one of us lashed out at someone who was present, but maybe not really the source of our anger or frustration? As we sometimes fail to do in real life, let’s take a minute here, step back, and take a breath. Let’s try to understand for a moment, rather than judge.
To deepen my understanding, I began with an inordinate amount of research around manna, the substance which God provided to the Israelites every morning, which appeared like dew or frost on the grass. I was trying to understand what it is, what it symbolizes, and how anybody makes a cake or bread out of dew or frost. Is it even real, or another Biblical metaphor, and what would it have meant to the Israelite people? Not wanting good research to go to waste, here’s what I found: first, Biblical scholars don’t agree even on what the word “manna” means or where it came from. Some believe it could be Hebrew, and others say the word itself is an enigmatic Aramaic question, translating to “what is it?” I found several different weight comparisons for the measure of an omer – an omer is equal to one tenth of an ephah, which is the amount of grain to be given in a temple offering. An omer is also approximately the volume of 43 eggs, or about 3.5 to 4 imperial pounds of grain. In liquids it’s somewhere between two-thirds and nine-tenths of a gallon. Everybody got that? Mystery solved, right?
I looked for more clues in the midrashim, the studies and exposition of various passages of the Talmud, I learned that manna was used to settle differences, almost as if it were part of the legal system of the wilderness. It could be used to determine the rightful house to which a person belonged. If a slave awoke to find the master of the house in possession of his omer of manna, then the slave was in his proper house. If it was found that the slave’s former master was in possession of his omer, however, then the slave knew that he had been stolen from his rightful home. Indiscreet women likewise could have their secrets made known by the gathered manna. Each family collected just enough for the number belonging to their household, so if a woman had borne children only by her husband, it would all balance out. If she had not, then the manna would expose her infidelity.
The manna was apparently also capable of assessing personal character, as the midrashim go on to say that for the most faithful of the tribe, the manna fell on their very doorstep. The average people went outside of the camp to collect it, while the wicked had to circle around, outside of the outside in order to gather anything at all. It seems to me, that’s one heck of a work incentive. No work meant no food if you were not part of the favored elite. That may not feel very fair, but we still can’t definitively say if manna was something real and tangible in Old Testament times.
In my younger years I definitely thought manna could be real, but these days, I land more firmly on Team Metaphor. It’s one of those things like Jonah surviving inside the whale, or the loaves and fishes having leftovers… you want to see how it’s possible, but reason says there’s a lot to buy into, here. Aside from somehow knowing the day of the week and when not to spoil the extra which was gathered for the Sabbath, it’s like the manna was somehow self-aware of just how much of itself needed to be produced and how much was required for each household. It’s said many times throughout the midrashim that no matter how hard or how little one worked to gather it up each day, there was never any excess, nor any shortage. No leftovers here.
Real or metaphor, actual nourishment or mythical superfood, manna was still of great importance amongst the Israelites as they moved about the desert for forty years. And let’s remember that they did, in fact, move around. They did not become farmers, they didn’t “settle in” to the desert wilderness. This was soil which couldn’t be tilled. So the theory that God was providing for the Israelites on a daily basis actually holds up. Not only would nothing grow there even if they had tried, but they were living a nomadic lifestyle, constantly moving. Recognizing the harshness of their situation, God created a way for the Chosen People to be fed, for the tribe to be maintained, without the need for extra workers and service animals and space to store food or cart it around with them. God heard their cries and complaints, and gave them a wondrous, miraculous gift.
But what if, as happens so many times in the Old Testament, what if it’s not really a gift, but a test for the Israelites? These are the descendants of Jacob, but also of Joseph, who came to great stature in the country they had just escaped, by planning and storing and saving so Egypt had enough to eat during the famine. These are the same people who had just left Egypt in what is now one of the most famous “drop everything and run” getaways we know of. Constantly moving about in a harsh and unfamiliar environment, with no ability to plan or prepare for whatever might happen next. Completely dependent on the grace of God to be able to eat. “Give us this day our daily bread.” We say those words all the time when we pray, we will say them in just a little while. But imagine, if those words were not saying, “please, Lord, nourish our souls,” but rather, “please Lord, don’t let us go hungry.” “Please, Lord, don’t let my children starve.” “Please Lord, keep us alive to be your people.” Perhaps when we say those words this morning, we can pray on behalf of those here, in Baltimore today, who live in food deserts. Who have to choose between paying for food or medication. Those who don’t want to see their children starve. And maybe for just a moment, we’ll recognize that sometimes a complaint is more about fear than it is about anger.
We can make a similar case for the day laborers in Matthew’s parable. They too lived a very hand-to-mouth type of existence, not knowing from day to day if they would find work, or if they would be paid fairly – if they got paid at all. It’s not hard to envision that those who got hired early in the morning presented themselves as the strongest, the fastest, the hardest working. It sounds like there is some boastfulness in that, a bit of sales marketing – pick me, I’m your best deal, I alone am worth three of those scrawny, slow ones! Forgetting that those scrawny slow ones also need to work, need to earn, need to care for their families. So again, underneath the complaint that others were paid for working less, is fear. Fear of not having regular wages. Fear about the ability to care for those we love. And mixed in, perhaps even some fear about measuring up, about being the best, about being of value.
Friends, I believe that the fears of the day laborers are easy to see, both in the parable, and here today in our current world. Unfortunately, we’ve become a bit too enthralled with the marketing aspect, and so the fears of today have evolved into not just “do I have a house,” but do I have the right house, in the right neighborhood. Not “do I have safe, reliable transportation,” but do I have the latest make and model, with all the bells and whistles. Not “do I have enough food to feed my family,” but am I keeping up with the latest foodie cuisines and trendy restaurants. We have turned those fears into something much more self-serving, and forgotten to be grateful for what we have. We become so focused on the next best thing, we completely ignore those who do without.
The good news is, there is some redemption to be had. As happens throughout the Gospel of Matthew, the parable of the day laborers begins with, “the Kingdom of Heaven is like…” It is worth noting that here, the compared item is not the vineyard where there is work to be done. It is not the work itself, for which the laborers will be paid. It is not even the denarii which they will carry home in their pockets at the end of the day. Friends, the Kingdom of Heaven, in this parable, is the landowner. It is the one who sees our need. It is the one who sees our value, whether we are the fastest and the strongest or not. It is the one who treats us fairly, and keeps the promises which are made to us. It is the one who sustains us, even in those situations where we may not be able to sustain ourselves. And if we can strive, just a little bit each day, to do likewise – to recognize when a complaint is not expressing anger, but rather fear. To see the anxiety in our neighbor and move to assuage it. To approach our lives as coming from a place of gratitude rather than a place of lack. Friends, if we could do that, maybe we might just move towards having Heaven on Earth.
ABOUT REV. JANINE ZABRISKIE: A fourth-generation theologian, Rev. Janine Zabriskie was born in New Jersey, grew up in the Hudson Valley region of New York, and as an adult has lived in Chicago four times, Austin TX twice, New Hampshire, Columbus OH, and Dallas. She came to Baltimore in 2019 when she accepted a job as a Staff Chaplain at the University of Maryland Medical Center. She holds an M.Ed from the University of Texas, as well as an M.Div from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Her favorite things include hockey, cooking, reading, and British television.