Here in the last full week of Lent prior to Holy Week we do well to ponder the grumblings of the ancient Hebrew people in the desert, for their grumblings are often ours as well. We are reading these passages in the Office of Readings just now, so it is the mind of the Church that we should meditate on them. The ancient Hebrews grumbled in many ways, and it will take us several days to consider them. We should note that fear and a lack of trust are at the heart of most of their grumbling.
Lesson 1: They Grumbled in the Very Midst of a Miracle – Yes, they grumbled even while leaving Egypt. As they fearfully beheld the Egyptian army in pursuit of them they complained to Moses:
Is it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? Why have you dealt with us in this way, bringing us out of Egypt? Is this not the word that we spoke to you in Egypt, saying, “Leave us alone that we may serve the Egyptians”? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness (Exodus 14:11-12).
Recall that God had worked signs and wonders for them in Egypt through the plagues He inflicted on their captors. Remember also the miracle of Passover. Finally, recall the astonishing truth that Pharaoh not only let them go but the Egyptians paid them to leave, giving them a great deal gold and silver prior to their departure (see Ex 3:21).
So here they are in the midst of a miraculous deliverance and yet they grumble. Things have not changed, my friends. We, too, are blessed over and over again but will grumble at the slightest thing.
Their fear and ours is not without sin, a sin rooted in a lack of trusting faith. God has shown over and over a will to save them and a capacity to deliver them. In their fear, though, they grumble and vent their anger at Moses. Despite countless blessings, we, too, often grumble at the slightest inconvenience or setback. Fear is at the root of most of this unjust anger, and at the root of most of this fear is a failure to trust God.
Surely God has not brought them this far just to leave them, but they are not convinced. So easily do we fear despite how good God has been to us. We who are Christians are clearly told that even our suffering is a gift, albeit in a strange package: All things work together for good, for those who love God and are called according to his purpose (Rom 8:28).
In their grumbling they declare that they would rather live as slaves than die as free children of God. This is a slap in face of God, who has offered them the astonishing gift of deliverance. It would seem that they seek relief, not true healing. Healing takes guts and requires courageous change.
We also often seek cheap grace—relief rather than courageous healing and the responsibilities that come with being free children of God. In the face of persecution or loss, we too easily prefer to be a slave to worldly notions and demands rather than freely and manfully resisting, trusting that God will deliver us even at the cost of our livelihood or our very life.
The martyrs and confessors of the faith rose to testify against such grumbling, fear, and despair. They courageously, even joyfully, died for Christ knowing that a greater blessing would be theirs. They endured unspeakable tortures and yet we can barely endure being laughed at, disapproved of, or scorned.
Finally, to all of us whose trust in God flags even after centuries under His care, to all of us who cry out to God even after a lifetime of blessings, He asks this piercing question: “Why do you cry out to me?” (Ex 14:15) Through Moses, God says to us, “The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still” (Exodus 14:14).
After calming a storm at sea, Jesus posed a similar question: Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith? (Mark 4:40)
When God asks a question, we ought to answer it, carefully and prayerfully. St. Paul warned: Do not grumble, as some of them did (1 Cor 10:10). No, prayerfully ponder this question: “Why are you so afraid?” God has something to teach us.
I do believe Lord, help my unbelief (Mk 9:24).
Tomorrow we will ponder more of the grumblings in the wilderness.