[Exodus 17:1-7 / 1 Cor. 9:24-10:5 / Matthew 20:1-16]
When we start to head for the Lenten fast, we must remember that a fast is of no good at all if we are intent only on fasting from food, missing some meals; rather, we must above all fast from sin. And here is one sin that needs turning from in our lives: the sin of grumbling. Grumbling which is but the putrid odor of our distrust in God.
So the Israelites in today’s first reading. The people whom God had taken for himself from Egypt by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm - they were not happy. They wanted water and there was no H2O in sight at the place where God had instructed them set up camp. And so the grumbling starts, the quarreling with Moses and the testing of the Lord. The sad thing? God had the situation covered, as He always does. He wasn’t leading His people into a trap. He had taken thought for provision - miraculous provision, water from the rock. Streams pouring out in the desert. Their grumbling ended up looking pretty silly when that water began bursting from the rock.
But, of course, it wasn’t an isolated instance. Over and over again, in their journey to the promised land the people of Israel blew it - fell into grumbling because they kept doubting the goodness of the Lord and His provision. And they’re not alone in that, are they? We join them in it. We fear that God won’t take care of us or those we love, we fear that He’s playing some sort of game with us. And so we gripe and moan, we fear and question. And still He provides again and again and again. The fast is coming. With denying yourself some food, why not deny your mouth the words of complaint and your heart the agony of distrust that Satan would plant there? Not just for a few days, but let’s seek to fast from these for the rest of our pilgrimage.
In the epistle Paul speaks of our pilgrimage as a race - and how we need to run that race in such a way as to win the prize, disciplining our bodies, keeping them under control. Fasting again? Yes, but your tongue is also a part of your body and it cries out for disciple and control. How did James put it? With it you bless the God and Father who made you and with it you curse man made in the image of God? How did he describe it? A little member causing great trouble, set on fire from hell!
And in the epistle Paul warns against a faithless use of the Sacraments. A use of them as a sort of “get out of hell free” card when there is no repentance, no change, no disciplining of the body and no keeping the tongue under control. He warns: Look, the Israelites tried that route and you saw where it landed them. They were baptized in a sort of way - passing through the sea. They were communed in a sort of way - manna and the water from the rock. But “with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.”
So don’t fool yourself and say: it doesn’t matter if I don’t control myself, I can grumble as much as I please, thank you very much, I’ve got the sacraments to guarantee me forgiveness! People loved by God, it doesn’t work that way. Never has. Your Lord loves you and He wants to both forgive you AND set you free from sin’s power. To try to have forgiveness with no repentance for sin, is to fool yourself. Or, rather, to be fooled by Satan.
As we prepare for Lent, think about these things. Let’s repent for the sins of not controlling the tongue, and above all for the sin of not trusting in God’s good intentions toward us - He may lead us through a dry and barren land, but He will provide all the way along for us to reach the end of our pilgrimage and enter into His promised land. We may falter and we may fail, but HIS promises never do. We can count on them to the end!
But we're not done with the grumbling yet. In today’s Gospel there's more! The workers think that the owner of the vineyard is totally unfair. Everyone ends up with the same pay, even though some worked only the smallest piece of the day. “Not fair!” they cry. “You have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” The owner is not impressed with the grumbling: “What just a second here. Didn’t you agree with me for a denarius? I didn’t cheat you. I gave you what I promised. And I gave them what I didn’t promise. Why is your nose getting bent out of joint over that? Can’t I do what I want with my own? Or do you begrudge my generosity.”
The goodness of the master didn’t compute for the grumbling workers with their focus on fairness. They looked at His kindness as being wretchedly unfair, which of course it gloriously is! You been there? You ever thought that the Lord owed you because of your hard labor for Him? And have you ever grumbled in your heart when His mercy and kindness reach out to give the same gift to a person who repents at the very last hour after living a completely wretched life?
God dishes His gifts out without measure. He doesn’t play the “keeping track” game. He has more forgiveness than you have sin; more life than you have death; more mercy than you have misery. And He dumps it out lavishly. And the cross is the measure of His generosity. Your Lord went to the cross to answer for all our grumblings, for all our lack of self-control, for all our refusal to discipline that body of yours including your tongue, for all your neglect of your own soul, for all your standing idle. He bore those sins in His body upon the tree to death. He poured out His blood to blot out those sins and to free you from their power forever. He calls all to the discipline of work in the vineyard - working for His kingdom and trusting in the goodness of the Master to take care of our every need as we go about the work He’s given us to do. We don’t need to worry about the accounting at the end of the day - it will not be fair. It will be generous, generous beyond our deserving or imagining. The God who sends His Son to win salvation for all upon the cross - even for those who despise Him and grumble against Him - the God who raised His Son in triumph to destroy death, how will He not with Him freely give us all things?
So Lent comes, people loved by God. Let’s decide right now to fast and not only with our stomachs. Let us resolve to fast from using our tongues to grumble against each other and against our God. Let us resolve not to allow Satan to plant doubts about God’s goodness within us. Tasting the love lavished on us by the Crucified and Risen Lord, let our lips instead be filled with the praises of Him who labored tirelessly in His Father’s vineyard to provide for us the water of everlasting life. Let our mouths, fellow baptized, receive in His body and blood pardon and the strength to forsake the old way of grumbling and griping. So we will find in communion with Christ a generous and loving Father whose unfairness, whose GRACE, is our joy and delight, and to whom be all glory, with His all holy Spirit, now and ever. Amen.