As I’ve noted before (because Aristotle first noted it), one of the defining characteristics of comedy is its display of “low" language. (This doesn’t necessarily mean comic characters moo.)
Although they could. That’s because comic language is typically not lofty, proper or “normal.” Comic characters may speak in slang and/or an overly goofy-sounding accent. (Think Gomer Pyle!) They tend to have poor grammar and misuse words. (Archie Bunker!) They speak in obscenities. (Lenny Bruce! George Carlin!!) They riddle and joke. They just sound silly. (Peewee!!!)
This is one of the reasons I claim the Bible to be primarily a comedy: its prevalence of “low” language!
For example: Jesus and his disciples come from the sticks and their accent betrays them (see Matt. 26:73). The New Testament is written “koine” Greek, the crude "poor-man’s" version of this classic, most-sophisticated of languages. While in scripture we may not see “swear words” per se, the word “cross” (a New Testament staple, of course) was definitely considered an obscenity in Roman culture, and that’s one of the reasons Paul reminded Christians they were “fools” (see 1 Corinthians 1:18). Jesus taught in parables, a form of riddling (see Mark 4:13). And for Jesus to say blessed are the tax collectors or for God to call a bunch of shepherds and slaves the Chosen People was downright ridiculous. Silly even.
This Sunday’s lectionary texts highlight another kind of low language prominently featured in scripture.
In our Old Testament reading from Exodus 16, the people grumble endlessly that they’re not going to have enough to eat while traveling across the wilderness. (A worry that is NEVER realized even though the grumbling continues....)
In our Gospel reading from Matthew 20, the first ones hired in the “Parable of the Laborers of the Vineyard” grumble when those hired last get paid first, and the full day’s wages just like everybody else.
In both instances, the grumblers get God’s dressing down. In no uncertain terms the message is “QUIT YOUR GRUMBLING!”
In fact, there’s a nifty little children’s song warning against the perils of grumbling.
Here are some actual grown-ups singing a snippet.
It’s no surprise that the song is a little bit goofy. That’s because grumbling, while not at all funny at the moment people find it necessary to grouse, is a rather silly thing to do. “Grumble” even sounds funny, especially in the (koine, of course) Greek! It’s pronounced “eggoguzon”, which is an amusing word to say; one commentator noted it is playfully onomatopoetic. Lots of that "g" sound. Grumble grumble…grumble grumble grumble….grrrrr…..
In some translations of scripture, we see the word “murmur” or “complaint” used in the place of “grumble.” The three words are slyly related. Grumbling is, after all, a sort of murmured complaint, an angry accusation muttered under one's breath. Why? Because you either don’t want to, or know you’re not supposed to, be heard. Rather than speak your truth and face the consequences (or find satisfactory resolution), you cowardly keep the problem to yourself. And then let it be passively-aggressively "sort-of heard," which makes everyone involved even angrier. It’s incredibly dysfunctional, ineffective communication. Very “low.”
A lot of stand-up comedy is higher-volume grumbling. We laugh because no one should be complaining that loud, and about whatever is the subject of the joke.
Perhaps the greatest grumbler in modern times was WC Fields. Here are some classic grouses: “Start everyday with a smile and get it over with.” "I spent a year in Philadelphia. I think is was on a Sunday." “I like children – fried.” No one should be saying such things…in public!
Another great grumbler is Jerry Seinfeld, who has made a career of making endless and very funny complaints about the smallest things: “I don’t want to hear the specials. If they’re so special, put ‘em on the menu.” “Why do they call it a ‘building’? It looks like they’ve finished. Why isn’t it a 'build'? "
We can ponder if perhaps any of the grumbling in the Bible had comedic shaping…. (“We went from ‘Egypt’ to ‘We Gypped!’” “It’s so desolate out here there’s not even a Burning Bush to pee behind!” “Grumbling? That’s my stomach, Sherlock!” “This is the LAST time I’m singing ‘Fairest Lord Jesus’!!” “I love the LORD – fried.”) Chances are, though, there wasn’t much humor; the people's "murmurs" were as dreary as manna for the umpteenth time or the labor we are sometimes asked to do in the master’s field in the first or umpteenth hour. But it’s fun to mull over…and come up with new comic kvetch possibilities for our grumpy forebears. (Try it. It's really fun!)
We can also remain aware that grumbling is, from the comic lens, a silly thing to do (as well as sinful and downright ineffective), and we can listen for our own grumblings and laugh at them. Even (and especially) if we don't intend to be funny as we fuss. Anytime we quietly mutter we’re fools. Instead, we can...should...either shake our fist and speak up, or let laughter blast our gripes and realize how surprisingly grateful, cared for and happy we really are.