When we were younger, mom would make us sit down after Christmas and birthdays to write thank you notes for all the loot we collected. Now that I live away from my parents, it’s tougher to keep up the habit. Expressions of gratitude rely on the receiver’s perceived value of the gift. So, the greater the perceived value, the wider the smile, the more enthusiastic the applause, the more profuse the appreciation. We’ve all seen it happen on reality TV competitions and when election results are called.
Expressions of gratitude arise when we are made aware of blessings in our lives, which are neither deserved nor earned, and when we recognize that the giver of the gift has shown us great kindness. But gratitude is neither a natural nor an automatic human response. Instead, it is learned and must be taught intentionally by word and example. Scripture teaches us that God is kind and merciful, but we don’t ever deserve God’s gifts and favor through our efforts or the scrupulous observance of rules and laws. If in our perception God rewards good behavior, it might make sense that God must also punish bad behavior. And yet scripture today teaches us that God does not conform to a human sense of justice and fairness. God simply does not think like we do.
A Syrian general, Naaman, suffered leprosy. He had consulted with priests, prophets, and doctors in his native country in search of relief, without success. A young slave girl he had captured and brought back from Israel suggested he see a prophet she knew for a cure. Naaman despised Israel and disliked the suggestion. But he concluded he had nothing to lose. The prophet Elisha then sent him to wash in the murky Jordan river, which he found demeaning. Why not wash in any of the rivers of Syria instead? Why the Jordan? His servants pleaded with him. Eventually he did and was healed. It was then that Naaman came to know that healing comes freely as a gift from the God of Israel. He did not understand why Israel’s God would favor an outsider. And in his gratitude, since the prophet would not accept his gifts, he asked to take home two mule-loads of earth so he could pray each day on holy ground to the God of Israel.
Jesus encounters a group of society’s outcasts, ten lepers who called to him for healing. They recognized him as one who might bring them relief. They were already outcasts, so they had nothing to lose. The worst that could happen was that Jesus would say no. But when they discovered that they had been healed, only one returned to give thanks. Jesus observed this development curiously. “Ten were cleansed, were there not? Where are the other nine? Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God?” God freely bestows his gifts on us as he pleases, without expecting anything in return. Even when we are ungrateful, God does not hold back his kindness. Yet why would God be kind and gracious to outsiders, who did not know him as Israel did?
God reserves the right to extend blessing and healing to whomever God chooses, as we read in scripture today, outsiders, the undeserving, and the ungrateful, words we can sometimes use to describe ourselves. But when we recognize God’s favor on our behalf as St. Paul writes to Timothy, our gratitude finds expression in a willingness to be for others as God has been for us, sacrificial offerings after the example of our crucified Lord. We look at the example of the holy women and men in our lives, our parents and grandparents, missionaries and shepherds, teachers and friends, whose heroic witness of faith and compassion enriches us. God does not coerce us into thankfulness. But when we become aware of blessing, we cannot but share it with others. It is often they who have little or nothing who are more readily able to turn to God in gratitude. When we recognize that we are immensely blessed, when we come to see all we possess as belonging to God and shared freely with us as gift, we are able to draw others to God in thanksgiving.
You all know the parish pays my salary. But that doesn’t stop me from giving some of that money back to charitable groups and dropping some in the collection. The concept of “tithing” comes to us from scripture, specifically the book of Genesis where Abraham, after acquiring wealth and property through warfare (quite an acceptable method then) shows gratitude to God by handing over a tenth of everything to Melchizedek, King of Salem, and a priest of God most high. Picture God gives you ten dollars and in gratitude you give him back one. Some misinterpret this concept and only put one dollar in the collection basket.
A torn and ragged one dollar bill was on its way to retirement from general circulation at the U.S. Treasury. On the conveyor belt to the shredder, it became acquainted and struck up a conversation with a 50-dollar bill that was on its way to retirement as well. “Life has been good,” the 50 exclaimed. “I’ve been to Las Vegas, Atlantic City, the finest restaurants in New York, political fund raisers, and I just returned from a cruise to the Caribbean.”
“Gee,” said the one-dollar bill. “You’re fortunate to have been able to visit all those places.”
“So where have you been in your lifetime, my little friend?” said the 50.
“Well, I’ve been to the Methodist church, the Baptist church, the Presbyterian church, the Lutheran church, the Catholic church …” The list of churches went on and on. Finally, the 50 interrupted with a question. “Excuse me, but what’s a church?”
We have all been blessed tremendously. Yet sometimes we are among the nine out of ten who forget and fail to return to give thanks.
Rolo B Castillo © 2022