Monday, November 21, 2016

The Anatomy of a Truly Thankful Heart

The Thanksgiving Holiday has become a national family event.  That is, it is all about family together.  It is essentially the highest (holiest) of family days we have in this country.  Note that it is the busiest travel season of the year.  By bus, by plane, by car or train, everyone heads back “home” to enjoy a great family feast with their loved ones; families of all faiths, or no faith at all, participate in this great celebration we call Thanksgiving.

And because it is about family, it is eagerly anticipated with great expectation as well as anxiously dreaded with much worry.  After all, it is about family.

This excited anticipation of the Thanksgiving Holiday is stimulated by its imagined ideal.  Yes, if we’re honest, most of us have an image of the ideal Thanksgiving family gathering that brings a smile to our face and warms our heart: a Thanksgiving meal where there is more than enough food perfectly cooked, where the guests are perfectly happy and wonderfully satisfied and the children are well behaved, while the dinner conversation is perfectly delightful.  Everyone is joyful, happy, and well pleased—the perfect Thanksgiving!

In short, the ideal Thanksgiving celebration is a veritable celebration of a family’s success and prosperity, a celebration of a thriving family with good friends.  It is a celebration of what we have accomplished and achieved (with the help of God of course): Talk around the table is about how our children are doing so well in school, and how our youth are being accepted into the best universities, and our young adults are embarking on great new careers, and how the adults are enjoying great business successes; and there is talk of engagements and wedding dates and the anticipated arrival of new little ones into the fold.  Now that is the best Thanksgiving celebration that any family could have.

Would that it were so!

Question: what is at the root of real gratitude?  What is the heart and soul of gratefulness?  What is the anatomy of a truly thankful heart?  A Biblical story might give us some insight at this point.

In the Gospel according to Luke (17:11-19), Dr. Luke gives us an account of 10 lepers who were healed by Jesus.  Jesus was heading south to Jerusalem from Galilee in the north.  Somewhere in the region between Galilee and Samaria he entered a village where ten (10) lepers called out to Jesus from a distance.  (Because they were lepers they dared not actually approach him or come near him.)  “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” they cried.  Jesus responds by telling them to go and show themselves to the priests.  As they went, they were healed, completely cleansed from their leprosy—all ten of them.  Yet (the story’s point), only one of the ten came back to give praise to God and thank Jesus for the miraculous healing that he received.

We are told that this one leper (now healed) prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him, praising God.  We are also told that he was a Samaritan, a non-Jew, in short, a foreigner to boot.  Jesus asked out loud: “Were not ten made clean?  But the other nine, where are they?  Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”

And so, here we have the anatomy of a truly thankful heart.

First, he was fundamentally needy.  That is to say, he needed something that he could not provide for himself.  He was in no position to take care of his own need.  Unlike the saying that says, “God helps those who help themselves,” he could not help himself in this need of his.  He was totally helpless.  When he thanked Jesus, he did so knowing full well that he was totally dependent in his needful helpless state.  Unable to help himself, he was thus completely dependent on Jesus’ willingness and power to heal him.

Secondly, in thanking Jesus for this wonderful healing, he also was keenly aware that he could never repay Jesus for what Jesus did for him.  In that sense, this man became indebted to Jesus, for his very life as it were.  How could he ever repay Jesus for what Jesus did for him?  He could not and he knew this.

Thirdly, when thanking Jesus for this healing, this man knew that Jesus was under no obligation to heal him.  It was, in fact, an unearned, undeserved, gratuitous gift.  Indeed, it was noted that he was not only a leper but a foreigner at that.  This leper (now cleansed) was in fact an outsider, an outcast, and believed to be guilty of great sin (hence his leprosy) and therefore condemnable, not to mention the fact that, as a foreigner, he was not even a member of the Chosen people of God.  This man therefore knew that his healing was a freely given gift from Jesus, unearned and undeserved—the very definition of grace.

Desperately needy, unable to help himself, incapable of paying back, and completely undeserving of the gift he received, fully realizing this truth, living in this reality, this man accepted this generous act of grace from Jesus with full gratitude—utter and complete gratefulness for receiving an undeserved gift that he could never earn, did not deserve, could not pay for, and was unable to do for himself.

THAT is the anatomy of a truly grateful heart.

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