Two Biblical stories come to mind when I think of Thanksgiving. And they are both cautions that we can get it wrong.
The first is the story of when Jesus was travelling through a village and encountered ten men who had leprosy. They stood at a distance from him because they were considered “unclean” – their disease was highly contagious and without cure. They pleaded with Jesus to heal them calling out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!”
Jesus instructed them to go before a priest to show themselves clean. They obeyed (though it would be an act of faith as they had no evidence yet of their healing). On the way to the temple, they were healed.
Of those ten men who were healed, only one came back to thank Jesus. In that same loud voice he’d used to practice his lament of “unclean” and to plead with Jesus for his healing, he now used to praise God. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. Of the ten, he was also the one who was most unlikely to thank Jesus as he was considered a foreigner, a Samaritan. Jesus asked him where the other nine were. “Were not all ten cleansed?”
What might a newly healed person do rather than thank the one who healed him? I can imagine that if it were me, I might run directly back to my friends, and family, my old life, the things I’d missed. Or perhaps I’d get started on the things I wanted to do, but thought I never could. Maybe I’d mistakenly think that I’d brought about my own healing for I had sought out Jesus, I had gone to the priest, and therefore Jesus was simply party to it.
This illustrates the danger of missing the point. How often have we forgotten to be thankful to God because we’ve credited our own efforts or have been distracted by our own purposes.
Thanksgiving is our reminder to run full speed to Jesus, praise him with our loudest voice, and offer our deepest thanks to the one who saves us.
The second story is the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector told by Jesus. A Pharisee was a religious leader and among the Jewish elite, known for their piety. The tax collector was considered lowest of the low in society, often crooked, with a poor reputation. In this parable, both the Pharisee and the tax collector went to the same temple to pray. The Pharisee stood in a prominent place and thanked God that he was not like others, going so far as to use the tax collector to compare against his own self-righteousness, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.“
The tax collector, however, stood at a distance, “would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.‘”
Jesus told this story to illustrate that it is the repentant sinner, not the self-righteous leader, who was “justified” (meaning he was “acquitted” from his sins in the eyes of God).
Our Thanksgiving efforts can have us esteeming ourselves and not only miss the point of God’s involvement, but faithlessly ascribe ourselves righteousness that belongs to God. The penance of the guilty sinner is worth much more to God.
We do this when we become comparative in our circumstances or think “at least” I am not like [fill in the blank]. Don’t be deceived, comparison is not an act of gratitude, it is the act of exalting ourselves and often happens when our heart is the least grateful.
By these two stories, I am challenged to realign my heart to an authentic thanksgiving. The first is to remember the Lord who saves, heals and restores, acknowledge his saving power, and centre him in my story of transformation.
The second is to recognize that gratitude is the opposite of comparison. The greatest gift the Lord has given to me is himself. It is Jesus who justifies, forgives, restores. The gift of his redemptive love is available to all and is best accessed and transmitted through a posture of thanksgiving.
*Jesus Heals Ten Men With Leprosy is found in Luke 17:11-19; The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector is found in Luke 18:9-14.