You may wonder what the attached picture is about. It’s a little hard to see, but it’s a picture of a clay tablet with an ancient writing called cuneiform (which means ‘wedge-shaped’), that was used in ancient Babylon. This particular tablet was written about 1,750 BCE during the Bronze Age – that’s roughly 3,750 years ago – and can be found in the British Museum. The tablet is not very large: it measures 4.6 inches by 2 inches and is 1 inch thick.
Now I assume nobody here knows cuneiform, but take a guess: what do you think this is tablet about?
No, it’s not a religious text, it is not a decree by the king, it’s not something that we would deem important or significant; it’s a letter – can you imagine the weight letter carriers had to deal with back then? – to be more precise, a letter of complaint. A man named Nanni writes to the merchant Ea-nasir and complains about paying a lot of money for some copper of poor quality. Basically, Nanni complains that Ea-nasir cheated. It’s the oldest surviving written complaint in history that we know about.
It seems like corruption – and complaints – are as old as civilization.
I have to say that I got a kick out of this story when I stumbled over it last week. People apparently have always liked to complain. Admittedly Nanni in ancient Babylon had a good reason for his complaint; but doesn’t it seem that people complain just for the sake of complaining?
To be human is to complain. We all do it. The weather’s too hot, the weather’s too cold, taxes are too high, prices are too high, our streets are lousy, (I don’t even get started about our politicians) and can you believe the traffic in the Bay Area these days? And so on, and so on.
People complain all the time, about all possible and impossible things, and the internet and social media have only made it easier to share our gripes, be they of substance or not.
But why do we as a human race like to complain so much? Maybe because complaining often offers a good distraction either from real issues, or from our own weaknesses. Through complaining, we can shift the blame or responsibility for something to someone else. The government, the other party, big business, the legal system, immigrants…there is always someone to be found who can be held responsible for the things we don’t like or agree with.
Now sometimes, of course, like in the case of Nanni in ancient Babylon, there is some substance for complaints. Sometimes the fault for something really is out of our control and power, sometimes we or others are wronged. Then, of course, we should raise our voices and protest.
But how often do we complain to rid ourselves of responsibility?
I don’t know if you noticed it, but today’s Scripture readings have one thing in common: complaint.
The people of Israel in the wilderness soon have enough of their new freedom and start complaining to Moses: o, how we miss the food of Egypt! Here it’s all manna all day! Not that they could change anything by complaining, but I’m sure it made them feel better just to complain and to get it off their chests. It probably also made them feel better that they had found a culprit in Moses, who, after all, insisted on leading them out of Egypt, away from the fleshpots and into the wilderness.
And what does Moses do? He forwards the complaint to the highest authority, adding his own frustration, “Why have you treated me so badly, o Lord? Why do you lay the burden of this whole people on me? Did I make them or give birth to them? How can I fulfill all their wants?” So Moses is basically saying, God, you deal with it, after all, you got us into this mess.
In this case, complaint works: God helps and appoints elders to help Moses with his daunting task. But that also leads to complaint: when there are two men who are not part of the elect, but are given God’s Spirit nonetheless and start prophesying, Joshua, one of the chosen and apparent heir to Moses, says, ‘Moses, make them stop!’ To which Moses replies, ‘Why do you have to be so jealous? Be glad that God gives them the spirit as well and that they are equipped to help. The more, the stronger and better.’
It seems the congregation James is addressing likes complain and indulge in their sufferings. James, at the end of his letter, feels the need to give his congregation a prep talk: are you suffering? Pray! Are you sick? Ask the elders to pray over you and anoint you. Don’t complain or melt in self-pity, but look for a reasonable solution. Or, to take it a step further: BE the solution!
Even today’s gospel deals with complaints. Jesus and his disciples are still on the road to Jerusalem, you would think the disciples would be pre-occupied with Jesus’ impending suffering and death, but what do they do? “Jesus, there is someone who heals in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he’s not one of us!” And we don’t read it in today’s gospel, but the unspoken request here is, Jesus, you make him stop. What, if anyone could just do marvelous deeds in your name? Things would be out of control – out of OUR control.
It’s all about the disciples’ ego. They are appalled by the fact that there is an outsider who does good things in Jesus’ name. They think that this man is taking something from the disciples that rightfully is theirs: credit for deeds that are done in faith. At the same time, they are blind to the fact that something wonderful is happening that merits rejoicing. They obviously are jealous. Instead of lifting up the deeds of this outsider, they condemn him and try to stop him.
Well, this is not the first time Jesus and the disciples are not on the same page. Jesus recognizes that his followers still don’t get what he is all about. Maybe he’s frustrated. Now he could just turn around and complain to the heavenly Father about the ignorance of his disciples. But instead, he patiently tries once more to teach them about what is really important. And what is important? The kingdom of God, which means community in God. And this is a community in which we build each other up, instead of viewing each other with suspicion, envy and contempt and strive for worldly things like fame and recognition. Jesus teaches them about a community, which is driven by love for God, for the neighbor, and for ourselves.
And Jesus tries to open the disciples’ eyes: who is not against us is for us, he says. In other words, rejoice that there are those who act according to God’s will, even though they may not belong to your circles. Be open for God’s action in this world, wherever and through whomever it happens. Acknowledge that God sometimes sends us rather strange helpmates to do God’s work in this world. The more, the stronger!
Of course the powers of this world like it when we are divided. And so they tell us lies: for example, that we should take care of ourselves first and that concern and care for our neighbor is socialism. That extreme individualism is the highest ideal. That we need to be able to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. That our freedom is endangered if we concern ourselves with the welfare of the weak and the least.
Extreme individualism leads to isolation; and when we are isolated, of course we are more prone to be envious, resentful, and to complain when things seem to threaten what is dear to us. This may even lead to the dehumanization of others. And the more we are divided, the easier it is for those in power to manipulate us and to control us.
This, so Jesus, is definitely not what God’s kingdom is about. This is not God’s vision for humanity. God calls all, no matter, what background, into the communion of the saints, to battle against the powers of this world and the power of sin. The more, the stronger. And we, of course, are part of this community. Without our confession of guilt, our taking responsibility, our engagement, our actions, our participation in community, there is less of a chance that things will change for the better.
Jesus reminds us that we are the salt of the earth and called to employ our zest, our passion, our love and our hope, in word and deed, for the glory of God and the good of our neighbor.
For God so loved the world that he send his only Son. And this son says, ‘Like my Father sent me, so I send you. Don’t complain. Don’t allow the powers of this world to divide you. Build each other up and have peace with one another. For you need all the help, and all the community you can get to tackle all evil and injustice in this world.
In closing, an epilogue about Nanni, the author of the world’s oldest letter of complaint. He did not only complain. At the end of his letter, he writes: Next time when I have dealings with you, I will come myself and weigh every piece of copper you are trying to sell to me. And if I am not satisfied with the quality, I shall refuse payment, as is my right.
Complaint alone won’t change anything. Action – faithful action – will.