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Holy Kvetching
Deacon Mike Meyer / Sunday, September 3, 2023 / Categories: Blog, Homilies

Holy Kvetching

Homily for the Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

        One of the many benefits of having a Jewish wife is the opportunity to pick up some Yiddish along the way. Yiddish, you’ll recall, is a colorful German/Hebrew dialect that’s spoken by many Jews throughout the world. Chutzpah, nosh, schlep, and schmooze are a few Yiddish words that have found their way into the English lexicon, especially here on the East Coast. I love Yiddish; it has a way of expressing certain concepts better than any language I know. For example, one of my favorite Yiddish words is kvetch—to complain. “Complain” sounds cold and soulless. Kvetch is gutsy, cathartic, and very human. I couldn’t help but think of this great word as I prepared my homily because there’s a lot of kvetching going on in today’s readings. Let’s take a look at what’s going on.

          Our first reading introduces us to Jeremiah, who has been called the Biblical champion of kvetching. Jeremiah’s a prophet who never wanted to be one, but he reluctantly agreed because God told him that his enemies would never prevail against him. What God didn’t tell him was that his preaching would make him a laughingstock that nobody would take seriously and that he’d be beaten and thrown in prison for it. So, in today’s passage, during another stint in jail, Jeremiah kvetches: “You duped me, O Lord, and I let myself be duped.” Next, we have Peter. Just last week, we heard Peter’s great proclamation of faith that won him the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven. But in today’s Gospel, when Jesus explains that his messiahship involves suffering and death, Peter pulls Jesus aside and kvetches: “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you,”

          Jeremiah and Peter are just two examples of a long history of Biblical kvetching. Moses kvetched to God that he wasn’t eloquent enough to speak on God’s behalf. Abraham kvetched to God for not giving him an heir. Job kvetched to God about all the misfortunes he suffered. And even Jesus kvetched from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Sixty-five of the 150 psalms are psalms of lamentation—kvetching, and there’s an entire book of the Bible dedicated to kvetching called Lamentations.

          Why’s there so much kvetching in the Bible? Well, the Bible reveals God’s active presence in every aspect of human existence, and we humans kvetch a lot. On the biological level, the human brain is geared for survival, so it focuses on the negative things that could threaten our lives five times more than the positive things that are nice but not necessary for survival.[1] On a sociological level, kvetching gives us a sense of validation; it can foster a sense of connectedness with similarly situated people. And let’s face it, sometimes kvetching makes us feel better. As Shrek would say, “Better out than in.”

          Kvetching isn’t always good, though. When we kvetch, we tend to focus on ourselves at the expense of others, so kvetching can ultimately drive people apart. Who wants to be around someone who complains all the time, right? Worse yet, excessive kvetching rewires the brain in a way that makes us complain even more so that, over time, it becomes easier to be negative than positive. When that happens, complaining becomes our default behavior.[2] We don’t just kvetch every now and then; we become kvetchers, and that’s not good.

          So how can we get the benefits of kvetching without becoming kvetchers? We follow Jesus’ example, of course. Jesus’ kvetch from the cross—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”—is a quote from Psalm 22, one of the lamentation (or kvetching) psalms I mentioned earlier. Every Jew who heard him would have recognized it and would have known by heart what comes next. You see, lamentation psalms follow a set pattern of four movements: an address to God; a complaint; a request; and an expression of trust and praise. By quoting the first line, Jesus invokes all of Psalm 22, which ends with a faith-filled, heartfelt expression of confidence that God will save all who suffer. Jeremiah’s kvetch took the same form. Although we don’t hear it in today’s excerpt, Jeremiah’s kvetch ends with an expression of trust that the Lord is with him “like a mighty champion” (Jer. 20:11).

Jesus’ and Jeremiah’s kvetches, then, were prayers; they were holy. Jesus and Jeremiah weren’t stuck in their complaints like Peter was. They handed them over to God. They placed their anguish and frustrations before God, pleaded for God’s help, and trusted that God would deliver. And God always does. Turning our kvetches into prayers spares us from the kvetcher’s life of misery and isolation because it helps us set aside the things of this world, including our selfish interests, and conform our hearts and minds to God’s. It helps us think as God thinks, not as humans think. It helps us take up our cross and follow Jesus.

C.S. Lewis said it well: Hell begins with a grumble.[3] Sure, we can complain. We can even complain to God, but we can’t let our complaints get out of control; we can’t let them define who we are. So if we want to get the benefits of kvetching without becoming kvetchers, we have to convert our kvetching into prayer. Go ahead, complain to God; let God know your every gripe, grouse, pain, and sorrow. God can take it. But don’t stop there. Add a little prayer to every kvetch—try the words Christ gave to Saint Faustina that we find on the Divine Mercy Image at the back of the Church: “Jesus, I trust in you.” Adding those five simple words will transform our complaints into the Holy Kvetching we find in the Bible. If we don’t, we’ll become kvetchers before we know it, and letting ourselves become miserable, isolated kvetchers would be, as they say in Yiddish, meshugge.

Readings: Jeremiah 20:7-9; Psalm 63; Romans 12:1-2; Matthew 16:21-27

 

[1] William Berry, “The Psychology of Complaining,” Psychology Today (April 21, 2021), https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-second-noble-truth/202104/the-psychology-complaining.

[2] Marge Fenelon “Is it Bad to Complain?” National Catholic Register (October 19, 2019), https://www.ncregister.com/blog/is-it-bad-to-complain.

[3] C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2001), 77.

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