Giving Thanks

Twenty-Eighth Sunday of the Year. 2 Kgs 5:14-17; Ps 98:1-4; 2 Tm 2:8-13; Lk 17:11-19

The habit of saying “thank you” is widely regarded as an essential hallmark of civilized behaviour. Saying “please” and “thank you” is often one of the first practical virtues we teach children once they have acquired the rudiments of language. Yet while important for civil society, giving thanks is even more important for a Christian, as today’s readings teach us. In the first reading, Naaman begs to offer a gift in return for his miraculous cure, but the only gift he is permitted to offer is a sacrifice of thanksgiving. The Gospel acclamation exhorts us to give thanks in all circumstances, and Jesus commends the Samaritan in the Gospel who returns to give thanks to God. In fact, Jesus even implies that giving thanks is necessary for salvation, since he only says, “Your faith has saved you” to the leper who returns to thank God for his healing. I would therefore like to devote today’s brief homily to examining why giving thanks is essential to our salvation.

In the Gospel, when comparing the one healed leper who returns to the nine who do not, it is curious that the nine who do not return in fact obey Jesus’ instructions perfectly. He says to them, “Go show yourselves to the priests,” and they go. Since they listened to him and acted on his words, what, precisely, is the problem? Unfortunately, we know that there is a problem, and a serious one, because Jesus says, “Where are the other nine?” There is a consistent theme in Scripture that whenever God says of anyone, “Where are you?” or “I do not know you” or “I do not know where you come from,” this is a sign of spiritual death. The Lord God says to Adam after the Fall, “Where are you?” (Gn 3:9), and the bridegroom says, “I do not know you” to those shut out of the wedding feast of heaven (Mt 25:12). So when Jesus says to the Samaritan, “Where are the other nine?” he implies that the nine have not been saved, or at least not yet, even though they have been physically healed. Nevertheless, these nine were obedient to Jesus’ command, so what did they do wrong?

A clue to answering this question can be found in a curious line near the beginning of St. Paul’s letter to the Romans. St. Paul describes the condition of the pagans as follows, “although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened” (Rom 1:21). So St. Paul says that the pagans know God in some sense, and we also know that religious duties were central to civic life in the pagan Roman Empire, many cities being built around temples. But St. Paul says that there is something essential that the pagans lack which is associated with the action of thanksgiving. He says that the pagans do not honor God or give thanks to God and, as a result, their minds are darkened.

The point is, I think, the following. It is perfectly possible to ‘know’ God in the sense of having some idea about what God is, as St. Paul says that the pagans do. It is also possible to acknowledge God as a source of benefits, in the way that the lepers do when they call out to Jesus, “Jesus, Master! Have pity on us!” It is even possible to carry out one’s religious duties conscientiously, as the nine lepers do by showing themselves to the priests. But this is different to thanking God, because when we say “thank you” we acknowledge a personal relationship between our Heavenly Father and ourselves. You will notice that we never thank impersonal things like machines or even animals. We only thank persons, and when we thank God, we humbly acknowledge our debt and gratitude to a personal God with whom we are in a personal relationship through grace. Thanking God is therefore an essential part of knowing God personally, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and even being known by God by sharing in His divine nature. This is perhaps why the name for the sacrifice of the Mass, the Eucharist, is a Greek word meaning ‘thanksgiving’.

How then does this apply to our own lives? I think that Jesus is warning us about a subtle trap in the spiritual life. For example, one of the signs of a problem to be addressed in Christian marriages is when husband and wife no longer give gifts to one another or thank one another, but begin to bargain with one another for benefits. The relationship then risks degenerating from a personal relationship into a kind of business transaction. There is a similar risk for our relationship with God. We can fulfill our religious duties in the expectation of receiving benefits from God, as the nine lepers did, but this is not the same as truly knowing and loving God, because then we would want to express our heartfelt gratitude to a personal God, not to a kind of divine machine.

What practical steps can we take to address this problem? A simple, practical suggestion is to try to be a little more spontaneous in our relationship with God. Simple actions like a prayer of thanks, a devotion, a sacrifice or a visit to a church during the week may help to stop us treating God merely as the other party in a business transaction, but rather as the God who loves us to the point of being born and dying as one of us. God does not want employees, or even servants in the end, but beloved sons and daughters. Let us come to know and love God here on earth and so enjoy friendship with God and the saints forever in heaven

Fr. Andrew Pinsent, St. Ambrose Church, 14th October 2007

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