Gratitude, schmatitude. I don’t know about you, but I’m a bit over the gratitude industry. Every time I go hunting for a gluten free recipe online, I seem to end up on some kale-and-quinoa-scented mommy blog which is panting with gratitude; and this usually triggers in me a powerful urge to shred a pair of yoga pants then run around shrieking obscenities.
Clearly, I am not a very nice person, and I also have a problem with gratitude. And the first observation is a no-brainer; but the second is pretty weird, given I’m a Christian and we’re supposed to be grateful. For the Psalms are full of thanksgiving; the apostle Paul tells us to praise God always and for everything—so what on earth is my problem?
Well, I reckon that the gratitude of the marketplace and the gratitude of the Biblical witness are not the same thing. For the gratitude of the marketplace, which is born out of the positive psychology movement, is very much about us. Books, essays, articles, blog posts, happiness apps: they all tell us to practice gratitude and forgiveness, activities which are fundamentally other-focussed; but then they invariably go on to say why this is good for us. Research suggests that gratitude and forgiveness will make us happier, more resilient, and less stressed. Our sleep will improve, we may lose weight, and we’ll probably even live longer.
I don’t dispute the research, and I don’t have a problem with good sleep, healthy weight, or feeling happy—or eating kale or quinoa, for that matter. But I do have a problem with practicing gratitude with an eye to the personal rewards. Such gratitude, made up of nothing more than vague feelings of thanksgiving directed nowhere in particular, is terribly vulnerable, and terribly thin. As humans, we are never truly satisfied by things that do not point beyond ourselves; we are never very trustworthy outside the checks and balances of relationship; and so this form of gratitude easily slides into self-congratulation and smugness. Despite the words of humble thankfulness, the subtext of much gratitude these days seems to be “Look at how happy and slender and wealthy and fulfilled I am; I’m so grateful; Yay me!”
Tonight’s gospel reading shows us gratitude in a different form. Jesus was travelling through the borderlands between Galilee and Samaria. And in these borderlands he encountered a group of borderline people: ten men with leprosy. Their disease meant they had been cast out of the religious and social system; they were left to fend for themselves. When they saw Jesus, they stood at the required distance—fifty paces—and called to him: Master! Have pity on us!
And he did. Jesus told them to go to the priests and be certified as ‘clean’: that is, to be certified that their skin was healed and that they could re-engage with normal society. They could go back to their families, and back to their workplaces, and back to the marketplace, and back to religious gatherings and festivals. So the men with leprosy went on their way, and as they travelled, their skin became clean. Nine continued on to the priests, and then presumably went back to life as usual. No doubt their cleansing led to their greater happiness and resilience, better sleep, and all that good stuff; but when they re-entered society, they again became part of the problem: a world which excludes people who threaten the norm.
It’s hard for us to get this, but today perhaps we might think of people who live in dire poverty, or are homeless, or seek asylum, or suffer from severe mental illness, or align themselves with the LGBTQI+ community: people who are not always granted full participation in our wealth or social systems; people who are often blamed for their own exclusion and made scapegoats for our society’s fear and failings. And nine men went back to this way of life.
But the tenth did something different. He never went to the priests. Instead, when he saw that he was clean, he ‘turned back’ to Jesus. In Greek, this word, ‘turn back’, echoes the word for conversion, or ‘turning around’. As this man turned to Jesus, he shouted glory to God at the top of his voice; then he fell onto his face at Jesus’ feet, and thanked him—and here we see perfect praise and gratitude.
For gratitude is not a vague feeling of thankfulness. Gratitude is particular, and local, and personal, and relational: it needs an object. Without an object, our gratitude is empty; we are just saying thank you to ourselves or to thin air. For gratitude to have substance, we need someone to be grateful to, and we must also acknowledge that we were never entitled in the first place. In other words, gratitude implies a giver, a gift, and our humility.
It begins in our brokenness. Gratitude has its roots in our sin: our leprous, scabby, bitchy, lululemon-shredding, obscenity-shrieking nastiness that hangs shit on complacent mommy-bloggers, blames victims for their suffering, and turns away from those in need. It is only when we recognise both our own sin, and the sin of the world we live in, that we can recognise our need for the redeeming and transforming power of God’s love: the ultimate gift from the ultimate Giver. Otherwise our words of gratitude will only reinforce our sense of entitlement, and bury us deeper in our complacency and greed.
Perfect gratitude is what we see in the Samaritan, that outcast among outcasts. When he turned his back on certification by the priests, he turned his back on a system which depends on the scapegoating and exclusion of some for the benefit of the many. He fell at the feet of the ultimate scapegoat who took the sins of the world on his own body and showed us a different way. Jesus had already cleansed him; but when he humbled himself, acknowledging his own desperate need and turning his focus onto God, the Samaritan was truly and deeply healed. It didn’t take certification by the priests. Instead, it was his recognition of his need and God’s grace which brought him into the life of freedom and hope: the life in which all is experienced as gracious gift, granted by the abundance and generosity of the Giver.
So practice gratitude, certainly, but don’t do it in the abstract. Don’t do it for your own sake, or for your own health and happiness. Those ways are dead ends. They can only ever draw from your limitations and emptiness, and they are ultimately hollow. Instead, recognise your sinfulness and the toxic society we live in, then turn your gaze onto the Other: the one who saves us, the one who shows us a different way. To him, pour out your gratitude. For it is in turning to Jesus that you really will be transformed: in him you will find abundant life, future hope, and deep and abiding healing.
And when you have thanked him, get up, and be on your way. Your faith will have saved you, and made you whole. It will be time to get on with your life, a life now shaped in his image and overflowing with goodness and mercy and love and freedom—and genuinely life-changing gratitude. Amen. Ω
A reflection on Luke 17:11-19, 9 October 2016. Header shows Ten Lepers, by James C. Christensen, found here.
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