Being thankful: Not a guilt trip but a gift

 on November 20, 2023

My birthday is just after Christmas. When I was a kid, that meant I resisted writing thank you letters for Christmas presents till after my birthday, just in case some people gave me presents for both occasions— which certain enlightened relations did—and writing one thank you letter was chore enough. Of course, once my birthday was over, there was no excuse, and within a couple of days my mother would be on my case. Reasonably enough, part of her case was that those who only gave me presents at Christmas would be wondering why they hadn’t heard from me, ungrateful brat that I was. In other words, there was pressure to be thankful. Gratitude was a social duty. Thankfulness was a moral obligation. And, perhaps as a result, saying thank you was a real drag.

The readings for both American and Canadian Thanksgiving weekends have been very thoughtfully chosen by the compilers of the lectionary to remind you to be thankful and generous, just in case you’d forgotten. Perhaps your heart sinks at this thought— mine certainly does—so let me encourage you.

There are two ways to read today’s readings.

A “rules” reading

In the story of the ten lepers, Jesus heals them all. Nine forget to say thank you, but one turns back—and he happens to be a Samaritan. Oh dear. Another good Samaritan, sent to make the rest of us feel bad. The moral of the story? The nine were ungrateful wretches. You almost wonder why Jesus didn’t give them their leprosy back. That would have taught them a lesson. Moral #1: Don’t be like them. Number ten, on the other hand, was brought up nicely and remembered to say thank you. Moral #2: God expects you to say thank you. It’s the right thing to do.

Now, the Bible can be read that way—God is good, and so you’d better shape up—and shaping up includes being grateful. How common is that? Over the summer, I heard a young preacher preach—and he was really good in many ways—but it struck me what a lot of “shoulds” there were. He and I talked about this afterwards, and he said, “Well, my people already know God loves them, so let’s not spend time on that. They need to be told what to do about it.”

Maybe it’s a function of my age, but I have less and less tolerance for that kind of approach. More and more I am reading the Bible in the light of the grace of God. Is that just personal preference? Well, it would be naïve to say it’s not my personal preference to see grace more than rules. But I hope I have the integrity to be on guard against that—what makes me comfortable is almost never the most important criterion in the Christian life.

Yet there are good reasons apart from my preference not to read the Bible “the rules way.” For one thing, the church has always interpreted the Bible in light of Jesus—and the burden of Jesus’s teaching and living is always Gospel—good news. A friend of mine recently led a series of Bible studies for non-churched folk on Mark’s Gospel—and with every chapter, he only asked one question—“What is good news in this story?” He said it was revolutionary! And what is that good news? That God is love and wants to bless the human race. In spite of everything, God is at work, and God is at work for our good, to redeem all things.

So, what if we changed our perspective, and read stories like that of the ten lepers in the light of the Gospel? Rulesbased sermons tend to have one reference to grace for every ten shoulds. I want to reverse that. There should be—we actually need—ten references to grace for every one “should.” Speaking for myself, that’s about as much as I can manage!

Here’s my idea. What if we read the Bible’s commands to be thankful not so much as a moral obligation so much as a way that God wants to bless us. Maybe gratitude is itself a gift rather than a duty. Let’s see what happens if we read the story through that lens.

A “grace” reading

What if we read the story of the ten lepers this way—saying thank you is a way of completing the loop of love. After all, why do we say thank you at all? Because when someone gives you a present, their gift is a way of saying, “I love you.” And one thing we know about love is that it wants, it needs, to be reciprocated. So when we say Thank you, we are really saying, “I love you” back.

In Christian theology, of course, this is actually the heart of reality. The love of the Trinity is love eternally reciprocated. And reciprocal love is then built into the fabric of the world by the Creator. Reciprocal love is the way the world is designed to function best. When it happens, it’s a little taste of the kingdom, a little taste of heaven.

Of course Jesus didn’t give the nine lepers their leprosy back. He was delighted that they were healed. God’s love gives, whether or not it’s returned. And in the case of the nine, the love was not reciprocated. The nine kept their backs to Jesus and walked away. Love went out, but love was not returned. The loop was incomplete.

Only in one case out of the ten was the love reciprocated— the Samaritan loved Jesus back. He turned back, came to Jesus, and looked him in the face and said, Thank you. And then they knew each other. And that’s the most important thing—that’s Gospel.

  • John Bowen

    John Bowen is Professor Emeritus of Evangelism at Wycliffe College in Toronto, where he was also the Director of the Institute of Evangelism. Before that, he worked a campus evangelist for Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship. For over thirty years, John has been a popular speaker, teacher, and preacher, on university campuses, in churches and in classrooms, and at conferences, across Canada and the USA. His most recent book is The Unfolding Gospel: How the Good News Makes Sense of Discipleship, Church, Mission, and Everything Else (Fortress 2021).

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