One of the things I practiced as a parent, and hoped to instill as a habit, was to have my sons write thank-you notes for the various gifts they received. Admittedly, they were not always enthusiastic about this task. Most of the time I would need to offer a template of sorts for them to copy and there may have been a few bribes involved here and there along the way.
I thought about parental commitment as I was reflecting on the Gospel lesson for this Sunday, not to lift me up for the “Excellence in Parenting” award, but it made me realize how true it is that gratitude is a way of life. That gratitude, in part, gets established by patterns and practices and that these patterns and practices shape a way of being in the world.
In other words, there is more to being grateful than saying, “thank you.” All too often this story gets reduced as illustrative of what gratefulness should look like but inevitably turns into perfunctory performance. And, then, as too many sermons become, the story devolves into moral commands: have an attitude of gratitude; write more thank-you notes.
But there is an important pattern in this story, a demonstration of the practice of gratitude, that reiterates how gratitude is a way of being. The one leper who came back, a Samaritan, embodies gratitude. His pattern, his practices, lend themselves to a ritual, if you will – that then gets lodged into the habits of life and becomes a part of who you are, especially, who we are as people of faith. The pattern of gratitude looks something like this: awareness, turn back, praise, gratitude, go on your way. In other words, it’s gratitude from a theological perspective.
And this has to be the difference. How is that the church’s acts of gratitude are distinctive from the “Thank You” cards section in the Hallmark store? How can we as leaders in the church talk about gratitude with a biblical basis? This is our charge – and this one Samaritan leper helps us consider what theological and biblical gratitude can look like. Because this one Samaritan leper embodies gratitude with God in mind.
Gratitude starts with awareness and attentiveness. The Samaritan leper sees that he has been healed and acknowledges that healing. Once healed, it is often far too easy to move on; to offer that automatic “thanks,” isn’t it? But this story in Luke tells us that seeing is more than sight – it is seeing through God’s eyes, through the lens of Jesus’ first sermon in Nazareth. It is to see that you are whom God has seen, whom God has regarded. Just like Elizabeth. Just like Mary. Just like the widow of Nain.
With this sight, turning back is the called for response. When you have been seen, when you have been seen by God, you cannot go on, but have to return to God so as to imagine how you are now an integral part of God’s kingdom. You turn back to give praise to God because seeing what God has done results in responding with worship and praise.
As such, praise comes before gratitude. What difference does this make? It affirms the object of our gratitude. It confirms that to whom we express our gratitude is God; that we recognize who God is, that our God is an awesome God. It makes sense, doesn’t it? Before we can say, “God, thank you for…”, we praise God for God being God. What comes after “for” is so vast, so extraordinary, so amazing – where do we even begin? To be sure, there are specifics along the way, those very particular things for which we are thankful, but this story reminds us that we can get lost in the many “fors” and forget to praise God first; that praise is different than gratitude, of which the Psalm prompts, “Praise the Lord! I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart. Great are the works of the Lord. The Lord is gracious and merciful. He provides food for those who fear him; he is ever mindful of his covenant. The works of his hands are faithful and just. He sent redemption to his people.”
After the praise, the recognition that God’s name is holy and awesome, comes the gratitude. Only then does the thankfulness make sense. Only then is the gratitude adequately situated within the larger reality of God’s goodness and wonder, God’s graciousness and mercy.
And finally, after the gratitude? We are called to go on our way. We are called to go out and give witness to our God, our God whose work is full of honor and majesty. The expression of gratitude cannot be the final word because the world needs to hear about the one on whom we rely, the one whose righteousness endures forever.
The theological attitude of gratitude: awareness, turn back, praise, gratitude, go on your way.