This week’s Gospel reading from John (John 6:41-51) contains an unusual verb in the first sentence, one that may catch our attention since it is not a common one in the gospels. We are told that the Jews “began to murmur” about Jesus because Jesus said that he was the bread that came down from heaven. As it turns out, murmuring is the same word that is used in the book of Exodus to describe the complaining the Israelites do against God for leading them on a walk through the desert without the provisions of food and water. Their murmuring is the result of their faith being tested. The hungrier and thirstier they get, the less they feel they can trust God. (As it turns out, they can trust this God, who eventually provides quail and manna, that is, bread from heaven, for them to eat.)
In this week’s Gospel, we have a group of Jews complaining about Jesus. They wonder how he can say that he is the bread that came down from heaven, when they know that it is only God, the Yawheh of their ancestors who fed the Israelites in the desert, who can bring bread down from heaven. They wonder how he can say he is the bread from heaven when they know for a fact that he is the son of Joseph, a local man many of them know. Jesus is a challenge to their faith, as he is asking them to believe that God is doing something new in the world. (This Gospel reflects the tension in the early church between Jewish Christian, who believed Jesus was the Son of God and in continuity with the their Jewish tradition, and the Jews who followed other rabbis.)
The summer before my senior year of high school, one of my good friends, Shelley, asked my younger sister to be co-editor of the school newspaper with her. My sister came home from their first editorial meeting and said, “Shelley said something you are not going to like.” In the split second before my sister told me, my mind raced. Had I done anything to make Shelley angry with me? I couldn’t think of anything. “Just tell me already,” I said, bracing myself.
“She said you are too boy crazy,” my sister told me and then walked into the kitchen to get a soda. My jaw literally dropped open, and I felt immediately defensive. To the empty room I sputtered all my rebuttals of Shelley’s characterization of me. “I have been on exactly one real date in high school. The only time I go to a dance is if I ask a boy to go with me. The last time I had a boyfriend was in eighth grade…” The list went on and on, and I got angrier and angrier the more I thought about it. How dare she say this about me?
Throughout our senior year, Shelley and I had classes together, sat at the same lunch table, even continued to hang around in the same group of friends. We were civil to each other, perhaps even friendly, but we were never close again. We did not spend hours on the phone as we used to do, analyzing every little part of our day at school. We did not confide in each other. That moment when I found out that Shelley had murmured against me was the beginning of the end of our friendship.
For many years, I blamed Shelley solely for the dissolution of our friendship. But there is a clue in this Gospel that indicates how both of us shared responsibility for this loss. After hearing that the people have been murmuring against him, Jesus says, “Do not complain among yourselves.” Instead of murmuring in their little group, Jesus seems to want their complaints out in the open, so that he can address them. I think that is where Shelley and I went wrong. She murmured against me to my sister, but never out in the open to me. I murmured back against her to my sister, our mutual friends, and for countless pages in my journal, but I never took the chance to talk to her directly about what she had said. Had we been able to talk about it, to hold our difference of opinion in tension within our relationship, we might have been able to salvage our friendship. I might also have realized years earlier that the reason I was so defensive about Shelley’s comment was that there was an important note of truth in it. While it is true that I had very few dates in high school and never once got asked to a dance, I was “boy crazy” in a different way. I spent an amazing amount of time and energy thinking about boys and based a lot of my self-worth on what boys and men thought of me. While it would have been better if Shelley could have told me herself, I think she was trying to be a true friend, to help me realize that my value of a person was not tied up in whether I could attach myself to a boy.
This week’s Gospel has also helped me to understand a new aspect of my friendship break-up with Shelley. Both the Israelites in Exodus and the Jews in John’s Gospel murmur when their faith is being tested. Having spent countless hours listening to me agonize about boys, I think Shelley’s faith in our friendship was being tested. I think she murmured against me because she had trouble trusting how important my friendship with her was to me, since I was always so focused on boys and not on having fun with her. In return, I murmured back against her because I could not trust that what she had said about me was actually meant to help me and not to harm me.
It is not the murmuring that is bad. But murmuring is often a sign that a relationship is being tested. What is crucial is that we find a way to do our murmuring within our relationships, so that it stays out in the open where we can address it. Relationships built on a strong foundation can withstand some murmuring; relationships built on a strong foundation can hold differences in tension.
And this is so even with God. Our relationship with God can withstand our murmuring, as long as we address it to God. Think of Jesus, who quotes Psalm 22:1 on the cross, crying out to God, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Even he murmurs against God! So we are in good company if we take our murmurings to God, if we yell at God when we are angry, if we complain against God when we feel let down. When our faith is tested, when we murmur, that is when we need God the most.
Have there been people who have murmured against you? Were you able to stay in relationship with those people?
Have there been times when you have wanted to murmur against God? What was happening in your life? What did you do?
Photo courtesy of Claudio Brisighello via Creative Commons License