March 23, 2014
Third Sunday of Lent
Complaining comes naturally to most of us. Even if our circumstances improve, they could always be better, so we can find something to complain about. The ancient Israelites felt the same way. After God delivered them from Egypt with powerful, miraculous interventions, and after they had crossed the Red Sea and received the manna from heaven, they still find something to complain about: thirst.
Grumbling vs. Gratitude
You would think that a group of people just delivered from hundreds of years of slavery and hardship would have a lot to be grateful for. After God shows up in power and frees his people from the oppressive yoke of Pharaoh, you would think that their songs of joy and thankfulness would last longer than a moment. But gratitude is harder to cultivate than grumbling. As soon as the people feel a need—this time, for water—they confront their leader with complaints. It reminds me of a time I was going on a high school trip. The travel agent arranging the trip told us not to complain during our travels because “it makes the trip miserable for everyone—the one complaining and the ones listening to the complaining.”
The Israelites should have been constantly reflecting on their divine deliverance in an attitude of humble, grateful joy, but they give in to what is easier—to allow the inconvenient present to overshadow the glorious past. This kind of grumbling places all the emphasis on the here-and-now and loses sight of the bigger picture, the more important story, the great things that God is doing for his people. So complaining is an intellectual mistake, if you will. It emphasizes one thing, the present, at the expense of another, the past. It overplays the significance of “how I feel right now” versus the larger picture of life. Gratitude, the opposite of grumbling, embraces a truer version of the story. That is, gratitude focuses on the important theme, the hope-filled trajectory of the story, which encompasses past, present and future, rather than myopically zeroing-in on the present. Gratitude requires an outward focus on the larger truth, while grumbling embodies an inward-turning, selfish approach centered on the now.
Moses and the Rock
Moses takes the heat, as God’s representative to the people. How easy it is to excoriate those who lead us rather than focus on our own actions! When the people threaten him, Moses has the right response: he turns to the Lord. When we are intimidated by others, it is easy to simply give up or give in, but often the best response is to follow Moses’ example and turn to the Lord for guidance. In Moses’ case, the Lord steps in with a new level of miraculous intervention. He will not only send plagues on the Egyptians, hold back the waters of the Red Sea, and send mysterious bread from heaven, now he will give his people water to drink. They sought something God wanted to give them, but they asked for it the wrong way. Rather than humbly asking him for water, they attack his appointed prophet.
The Lord commands Moses to strike a particular rock with his famous staff. Notice that he asks Moses to do this in front of the people and with all the elders. It is a public event, a public response to the people’s complaining. The Lord is showing them his authority once more, that his power trumps their fears. He is pledging to care for his people, not to kill them as they had accused him. Notably, the ancient Jewish rabbis taught that the rock followed the people as they wandered through the wilderness. St. Paul alludes to this in 1 Cor 10:4, where he says “they drank from the supernatural Rock which followed them, and the Rock was Christ” (RSV). So the life-giving rock of Horeb, which provided much needed water for the thirsty people, foreshadows the saving power of Jesus, who delivers “by water and the Spirit” (John 3:5). St. Paul uses the example of the complaining people to teach us not to “put the Lord to the test…nor grumble” (1 Cor 10:9-10 RSV). Rather than complaining about what we don’t have, we can rejoice in the salvation we do have and drink deeply of the spiritual water which the Lord offers us.
Massah and Meribah
This moment of “quarrelling” and “testing” is so important in Israel’s history that the place receives a special name, and the event is brought up by Scripture several times as an example of what not to do (e.g., Psalm 95:8). The place is given this name: “Massah and Meribah,” or “trial and contention.” These two words come from the same roots as the verbs used to describe the people’s “testing” and “quarrelling” against the Lord. Sometimes the Lord “tests” his servants like Abraham (Gen 22:1) or the whole people (Judg 2:22) in order to show and strengthen their faith. But we are not supposed to test him back. In fact, Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6:16 on this point when he is being tempted by the devil: “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah” (RSV). This command, which Jesus knew by heart, refers to this archetypal event when Israel tested the Lord.
Why is testing the Lord forbidden? Because testing implies doubt, a doubt about the Lord’s goodness, his generosity, his sincerity. We are the ones who are so often unreliable and in need of testing to help us see our weaknesses, but the Lord stands alone as the ultimately reliable one. While we might not find ourselves struggling with thirst in a desert, our complaints are just as dangerous to our relationship with the Lord as those of the ancient Israelites. If complaining and grumbling make us and those around us miserable, then perhaps we can try another way. Instead of grumbling, our hearts could brim with gratitude for all the blessings he has given us in his Son.
Editor’s Note: Unpacking the Old Testament is a series by CatholicBibleStudent.com‘s Dr. Mark Giszczak. Dr. Giszczak is here to help us all come to a richer understanding of what can otherwise be a very daunting collection of books, the Old Testament. Look for his column every Friday from Catholic Exchange.