I have a confession to make. I have always struggled over the way we talk about thanksgiving (the attitude, not the holiday). I am not completely sure why this is the case. It is not that I lack gratitude in my heart. I do not know how well I would compare to others, but there is at least some genuine thankfulness inside this imperfect heart. Neither is it that I secretly believe gratitude to be unimportant. If anything I believe the opposite, that developing a thankful heart is fundamental to Christian spirituality and development.
So, why do I struggle? Perhaps the problem is still connected to the issues mentioned above. On the one hand, I feel thanksgiving in my heart. On the other hand, I struggle to fully express it. On the one hand, I claim that thanksgiving is critical in the life of the Christian. On the other hand, I struggle to point to specific aspects of my life that demonstrate my own thankfulness. Perhaps the problem is my own sort of spiritual dissonance, the gap between what I believe in my heart and can measure in my life.
All of my life I have read about the ten lepers and felt more than a little peeved. I mean, I have never mistaken myself for a saint, but how ungrateful did these nine lepers have to be to not even take the time to go back and offer their gratitude to Jesus? While I have always assumed that there are things that I have never thanked God for, I believe I would have gone back and at least given Jesus a Thank You if he had healed me of leprosy! However, I am beginning to suspect that I have missed the point.
I have always assumed that the nine lepers were ungrateful in their hearts. I mean, why else would they not return? And in my mind that lack of gratitude is inexcusable. And while it is impossible to tell with certainty, I have always suspected that Jesus was just as annoyed as me when He said, “Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner” (Luke 17:18)? And if I dwell on the picture long enough I can almost see me and Jesus shaking our heads in unison at the nine lepers who did not return.
The problem is that I have now lived long enough to realize that while I have always tended to see myself as similar to the good guy in bible stories, more times than not I act like the bad guy in bible stories. And as soon as I begin to identify myself with the nine lepers instead of the one I begin to see things about this story that I have never seen before.
First, I seriously doubt that any of the lepers were ungrateful. In fact, I suspect that every single one of them was more excited and thankful on that day than any other day of their lives. I bet after they showed themselves to the priests they rejoiced with friends and family in a fashion that was undeniably grateful. So, what is the real issue here?
As I am confronted with the likelihood that the nine lepers possessed an inner sense of gratitude towards God I am faced with another possibility. Perhaps the issue was not that the lepers failed to have a heart of thanksgiving. Perhaps the issue was that the lepers failed to express their thanksgiving. I know that this possibility may seem obvious or subtle or both. But for me it caused a fundamental shift in the way I experience this story, and consequently the way that I understand the role of thanksgiving in our lives.
As I look for clues in the text to how I should understand the role of thanksgiving in my life I cannot help but notice the story that Jesus tells His disciples just before they encounter the ten lepers. Jesus tells the story of a servant doing the things that he is instructed to do. Then he concludes with the following question and instruction, “Will he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty’” (Luke 17:9-10).
Interesting. Jesus tells a parable about how a servant should not expect to be thanked by His master for performing duties that are expected of him. Then He immediately heals ten lepers, and when only one returns to say thanks He asks, “Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner” (Luke 17:18)? Jesus seems to be telling us that gratitude is not merely an attitude of the heart, an inner disposition. It is, in fact, an action, a verb. It is something that we do, not merely a state of being. Furthermore, it is not something that we are only encouraged to do. Rather, it is a fundamental part of our Christian duty.
I had never thought of thanksgiving as more of a duty than a disposition. But I believe that this story shows us that that is indeed the case. That is not to say that Jesus is advocating a performance-based spirituality. We know that He demands that we cleanse our heart, not just go through the motions of religious duty (see e.g. Luke 11:39). We are to have the proper inner disposition, not merely an external appearance of gratitude. However, I believe that in telling the parable of the servant just before healing the ten lepers Jesus is giving us the key for both. If we want the proper inner disposition we only need to think of ourselves as unworthy servants. In so doing we are happy to fulfill our duties, and do so without expectations of being praised for doing so. And one of the duties that we fulfill is our acts of thanksgiving. So, do not spend this holiday focusing on fostering a heart of thanksgiving. Instead, foster a heart of servanthood, for a true servant will perform the duty of thanksgiving faithfully.