Recently while reading the gospel of Luke, I was struck by two passages that I had heard many times separately without realizing that they belong together:
7 “Suppose one of you has a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Will he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’? 8 Won’t he rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’? 9 Will he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? 10 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.’”
11 Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance 13 and called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!”
14 When he saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed.
15 One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. 16 He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan.
17 Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? 18 Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19 Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”
What is striking about both of these passages is the lack of congratulations that God gives people for simply doing what is right. In the first passage (Luke 17:7-10) Jesus assumes his listeners understand that a master would not thank his servant for doing what, after all, is required of him. In the second passage (17:11-19), Jesus does not commend the healed Samaritan for returning. Instead he asks him why none of the others have returned to thank him. The thankful ex-leper is not considered to be especially pious or thoughtful. He is simply doing the obvious and clearly appropriate thing. Jesus seems to view the others as having failed morally by not displaying their gratitude, which is the bare minimum of piety for any Israelite.
One could get the impression that God receives our thanksgiving somewhat coldly, as if to say: “about time.” But I don’t think that this is what Luke wants us to conclude. When read side by side, these two texts raise an interesting question about the nature of thanksgiving: is it offered freely, or are we under obligation? Is it something we offer with joy, or with a sense of duty? The answer to all of these questions is, yes. God expects our gratitude but does not compel it. We are free to offer him thanks, or to withhold it. However, it is clear that if we understand the nature of our relationship with God and have any memory at all, to give thanks is the obvious thing to do. We are simply recipients of every good thing we have ever experienced. God is the giver of all good things. To thank God is to give Him His due.
But this does not have to be an act of joyless duty! The healed Samaritan returns to Jesus ‘praising God’. His act of giving thanks is clearly overflowing from his genuine gratitude of heart. And Jesus is not cold in receiving his thanks (despite offering no congratulations). Jesus receives the man’s thanks as a sign of his faith; a faith that has made him ‘well’ in more ways than one.
This Thanksgiving let’s strive to offer our gratitude to God both with a sense of the obligation we have to him AND with the genuine joy of the Samaritan who returned to Jesus. Why wouldn’t we give thanks to God?
Ben has given several lectures on the themes of thankfulness and gratitude, most recently, “What is Thankfulness Without God?” Listen to this lecture and others from Southborough L’Abri here.
Happy Thanksgiving from all of us at Southborough L’Abri!