Becoming a Grumble
In his delightful apocalypse, The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis describes “the thin voice of a Ghost talking at enormous speed.” The troubled spirit complains to any and all who will listen that she was mistreated and ignored at every step in her life. This ghost was in danger of eternally rejecting the Gift of Life Abundant in the heavenly countries.
Lewis, as the narrator, is bothered by the scene he observes. What troubles ye, son?” the narrator’s Guide asks. “I am troubled, Sir,” said I, “because that unhappy creature doesn’t seem to me to be the sort of soul that ought to be even in danger of damnation. She isn’t wicked: she’s only a silly, garrulous old woman who has got into a habit of grumbling, and one feels that a little kindness, and rest, and change would put her all right.”
The Guide explains that this was the proper description of the woman in life. “But the whole question,” the Guide continues, “is whether she is now a grumbler.”
The narrator is surprised at this question. “I should have thought there was no doubt about that!”
The Guide clarifies his observation. “Aye, but ye misunderstand me. The question is whether she is a grumbler, or only a grumble. If there is a real woman-even the least trace of one-still there inside the grumbling, it can be brought to life again. If there’s one wee spark under all those ashes, we’ll blow it till the whole pile is red and clear. But if there’s nothing but ashes, we’ll not go on blowing them in our own eyes forever. They must be swept up.”
The narrator is both troubled and confused. “But how can there be a grumble without a grumbler?” he asks.
The Guide takes one more pass at the problem. “The whole difficulty of understanding Hell is that the thing to be understood is so nearly Nothing. But ye’ll have had experiences . . . it begins with a grumbling mood, and yourself still distinct from it: perhaps criticizing it. And yourself, in a dark hour, may will that mood, embrace it. Ye can repent and come out of it again. But there may come a day when you can do that no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticize the mood, nor even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself going on forever like a machine.”
“The Jews, therefore, were grumbling about him because he said, ‘I am the Bread which has come down out of heaven…” (John 6:41, my translation). Manna is also, as Hylen (2013) notes, an occasion for grumbling. It’s clear that the crowd in John 6 plays the role of the people of Israel in the wilderness. The disciples also grumble and don’t yet have faith (cf. John 6:61).
The Exodus complaining begins in Exodus 15:24 when the water was sweet enough to suit the people. It continues in full force in chapter 16 – “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger” (Exodus 16:2, NRSV). In response, the LORD provides manna and quail to satisfy their hunger, and their complaining.
In Exodus 16:9, the problem is identified. Moses tells the people that their complaining is not against him and his brother Aaron, but it is really against the LORD. In chapter 17, the issue is water again. The complaining is reprised in Numbers 14 as they draw near to the land of promise, flowing with milk and honey. The complaining leads to outright rebellion in Numbers 16. And in Numbers 17, Moses puts a stop to the complaining – at the Lord’s instruction – by turning his staff into an almond tree loaded with nuts.
The sign was reproduced with the staffs of every clan leader. Aaron’s staff was kept as a warning that the complaining had to end, or the people would die. The response of the Israelites was desperate fear that they had gone to far and were lost. “The multitude, and even some disciples, reenact Israel’ s lack of faith in the God of Moses evidenced by their ‘grumbling,’” J. Dennis writes. “But this time, the multitude grumbles not against Moses, but against the Messiah of Israel” (page 117).
The grumbling takes on a theological cast with the complaining of “the Jews,” representatives of the Jerusalem orthodoxy of the time. The complaining is not about the amount of bread but rather the supposed identity of the Baker. Unlike the Synoptics, in John the complainers observe that Jesus is the son of Joseph. Of course, we know (wink, wink) that Jesus is the Son of God. The son of Joseph would come from earth. Only the Son of God can come from heaven.
Jesus takes on directly this line of grumbling. “Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Do not keep on grumbling with one another. No one is able to come to me unless the Father who sent would draw that one, and I will resurrect that one on the last day” (John 6:43-44, my translation).
In response to the theological critique, Jesus engages in further scriptural interpretation. “It is written in the prophets, ‘And all shall be the taught ones of God’” (John 6:45, my translation). Dennis notes that this is likely an allusion to Isaiah 54:13 in the Septuagint translation. “For our purposes,” he suggests, “it is important to point out that the context of Isa 54 concerns the restoration of Israel and the renewal of the covenant between Israel and YHWH. Isa 54,” he notes, “holds out the promise of Israel’s restoration from exile and destruction…” (page 117).
“Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me,” Jesus concludes on the basis of the scripture quote (John 6:45b, NRSV). Dennis argues that in applying this quotation, Jesus says that the day of restoration described in Isaiah 54 has arrived. God is teaching Israel through the words and actions of Jesus, the Messiah. The one who hears his teaching and learns from God through him is coming to him. Coming to Jesus is, Dennis suggests, the second exodus. Not coming to Jesus means missing the second exodus (page 118).
Grumbling in this context is not mere complaining or even whining. This is not a text meant to enforce eternal optimism and to make criticism illegal. Instead, the grumbling noted here is quite specific. It is the resistance which makes trust in the Messiah, Jesus, as the Son of God, impossible. So, the argument comes back to “belief.”
“The issue here is neither wickedness nor depravity but the failure of humans to respond to God’s ultimate gift,” Anderson (2000) argues, “often because they cling to something less than ultimate…In this sense, the sin of unbelief is parallel to Israel’s grumbling in the wilderness,” he continues. “Rather than trusting in God, they rebelled and rejected the human/divine partnership that trust implies” (page 26).
Believing in Jesus, as we have seen previously in John’s gospel, means trusting in the One who sent him into the world. “Jesus has seen the Father because he comes from the Father and he is God made flesh.” Karoline Lewis writes. “The reason for the incarnation is for us now to see God, to experience God in the fullness of relationship that was assumed in God’s relationship with God’s people but could be known only at a certain level. In part,” she concludes, “Jesus is saying, ‘in me you do see God in a way you have never seen God before’” (page 92).
I have gotten myself into the biggest trouble when I have been sure I know how things are supposed to turn out. The trouble comes, not just from the arrogance of that position, but from the consequences of acting on it.
For example, I served in an interim where I made a change in the worship setting. I did that on the basis of something that had worked well in a previous parish. I saw something I thought was familiar, assumed I knew what was going on, and acted without listening to or seeing what was really going on around me. After some difficult conversations and some needed humility therapy, I was able to accept what was real rather than to insist on what I wanted.
It’s a small and too mundane example. But a fair bit of trusting in Jesus may well be the willingness to see and accept what’s wanting to happen rather than insisting on what I want to happen. Much of the weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth in ELCA congregations these days comes from insisting on what we want to happen and resisting what’s wanting to happen.
What’s wanting to happen is justice, inclusion, repentance, repair, renewal, reconciliation. What we want to happen is going back to what we know and doing it over and over again. Trusting that Jesus is teaching us what God wants to happen is the path to life. Resisting what God’ wants to happen is the path to death. Many of our congregations, unfortunately, have already made their path choices.
It’s no wonder that all we have left in some places is a group of grumbles.
References and Resources
Anderson, Paul N., “Anti-Semitism and Religious Violence as Flawed Interpretations of the Gospel of John” (2017). Faculty Publications – College of Christian Studies. 289. https://digitalcommons.georgefox.edu/ccs/289.
Anderson, Paul N., “Navigating the Living Waters of the Gospel of John: On Wading With Children and Swimming With Elephants” (2000). Faculty Publications – George Fox School of Theology. 283. https://digitalcommons.georgefox.edu/ccs/283.
Dennis, J. “Exodus Imagery in John 6.” In STUDIEN ZUM NEUEN TESTAMENT UND SEINER UMWELT (SNTU), Serie A, Band 30. https://kidoks.bsz-bw.de/frontdoor/deliver/index/docId/300/file/2005_105_121.pdf.
Hylen, Susan E. “Seeing Jesus John’s Way: Manna from Heaven.” Word and World, Volume 33, Number 4 (Fall 2013), pages 341-348. http://wordandworld.luthersem.edu/content/pdfs/33-4_Bread/33-4_Hylen.pdf.
Kloppenborg, J.S., 2011, ‘Disaffiliation in associations and the ἀποσυναγωγός of John’, HTS Teologiese Studies/ Theological Studies 67(1), Art. #962, 16 pages. DOI: 10.4102/hts.v67i1.962.
Lewis, C. S. The Great Divorce. https://www.thespiritlife.net/warfare-publications/3203-the-great-divorce-by-cs-lewis-chapters-7-9.html.
Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries) Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.
Wallace, Daniel B. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan, 1996.