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Gratitude in Luke's Gospel

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Gratitude in Luke's Gospel

To orient us to a Christian expression of gratitude this Thanksgiving, I want to draw your attention to the terminology for thankful(ness) and giving thanks in Luke’s Gospel. These terms appear five times (in four texts). There are three situations in which thanksgiving terminology appears in Luke’s Gospel: 1) when someone gives thanks to Jesus, 2) when Jesus teaches about giving thanks, and 3) when Jesus himself gives thanks.

1. Giving Thanks to Jesus

The first situation is one in which someone gives thanks to Jesus. Shockingly, there is only one instance in which someone is explicitly recorded as giving thanks to Jesus. Jesus did so much for others during his life that we might expect descriptions of people giving thanks to permeate the Gospel narratives. But that is simply not the case. What is more shocking is that in the one instance that someone is recorded as giving thanks to Jesus, he is contrasted with nine others Jesus healed. These did not glorify God or show gratitude.

The scene takes place in Luke 17. Jesus heals ten lepers, and only one returns. And the one who returns isn’t even one of God’s covenantal people. Jesus is shocked: “Were not ten cleansed?” he asked. “Where are the other nine? Didn’t any return to give glory to God except this foreigner?” (Luke 17:17-18). Then, to the surprise of everyone in earshot, Jesus commends this foreigner—a Samaritan—with the declaration, “Your faith has saved you.” Here, gratitude is linked to salvation through faith. In other words, saving faith is the kind of faith that expresses itself as gratitude. So, are you “saved”? Do you have saving faith? Don’t be like the nine lepers. Be like the one who returned, giving glory to God and offering thanks to Jesus. Express your saving faith in the form of gratitude to Jesus.

2. Jesus’ Teaching about Giving Thanks

The second situation in which thanksgiving terminology appears in Luke’s Gospel is in Jesus's teaching. There are only two such accounts.

First, Jesus tells a parable about a Pharisee and a tax collector in Luke 18:9-14. Jesus offers this parable “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and looked down on everyone else” (Luke 18:9). They had a certain kind of trust or faith, but already it is clear that they do not have the saving faith of the Samaritan ex-leper. Jesus describes the Pharisee—whom these self-righteous individuals would have related to most closely—in this way: “The Pharisee was standing and praying like this about himself: ‘God, I think you that I’m not like the other people–greedy, unrighteous, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of everything I get” (Luke 18:11-12). In contrast, the tax collector appeals to God for mercy through self-abasement, recognizing his sinfulness. Jesus adjudicates between the two, rending a startling verdict: the tax collector went home justified or righteousified rather than the Pharisee—the one who thought he was righteous. Once again, saving faith and gratitude are correlated.

At a minimum, this situation should remind us that even as we express gratitude to God, we could be in danger of offering thanks as a guise for our self-righteousness. Selfish expressions of thanks involve boasting in ourselves rather than boasting in God. Perhaps this warning will keep us from using opportunities to express gratitude with family and friends this Thanksgiving in self-serving ways. Maybe you have a family tradition of going around the table sharing things you are thankful for over the past year. We’ve all heard, and perhaps offered, the kind of thankfulnesses that are self-exalting and that passive-aggressively look down on everyone else. Let’s be on our guard against offering thanks in the manner of the Pharisee and, in so doing, go back to our homes with the verdict that he received.

Second, Jesus teaches explicitly about thankfulness by addressing God’s relationship to the ungrateful. Given everything we have read about so far, we have good reason to think God has no patience for the ungrateful. And that is true—the ungrateful should have no confidence before God (cf. Rom 1:21). Yet, at the same time, Jesus teaches in Luke 6:35 that God is “gracious to the ungrateful and evil.” We have already seen God’s graciousness demonstrated by Jesus’ healing of the ungrateful lepers, but now Jesus makes the teaching explicit. This teaching should encourage us that God is gracious even to those of us who are insufficiently grateful. Of course, his grace should move us toward expressions of gratitude rather than making us comfortable in our ingratitude.

However, the larger context of Luke 6 provides further instruction. Jesus’ comment about God’s graciousness to the ungrateful follows his command to love enemies, do what is good, and expect nothing in return (Luke 6:33-35). Many of us are inclined to do good to those who will give us something in return—or who will at least have the decency to express gratitude to us in return. But Jesus calls us to love those who do not give us something in return—he calls us to a non-quid quo pro kind of love. More than that, he calls us to love even those who do not have the decency to show us gratitude. Why? Because we are to be children of the Most High. We are to be like our merciful Father, who is gracious with the ungrateful. The biblical picture of giving thanks requires expressing gratitude for what we have received. But a genuinely thankful person must also love sacrificially, giving up the self for the good of others—even to those who are certain to be ungrateful for the sacrifice.

3. Jesus Giving Thanks

The other Gospel accounts record Jesus giving thanks before meals—ordinary or miraculous. John’s Gospel also records Jesus thanking God after he raised Lazarus from the dead. But in Luke’s Gospel account, there is only one instance of Jesus giving thanks. You might already have the scene in mind.

It is the Last Supper, as Jesus institutes the meal that we call variously the Lord’s Supper, the Last Supper, Communion, or the Eucharist—a word that comes from the Greek verb eucharisteō (εὐχαριστέω), meaning to give thanks. Jesus took the bread, “gave thanks, broke it, gave it to them, and said, ‘This is my body, which is given for you’” (Luke 22:19).

We are so familiar with these lines that we may have lost the confusion that may have accompanied its first utterance. Giving thanks before a meal we understand. But giving thanks for the bread that will memorialize Jesus’ traumatic suffering and sacrificial death? That should give us pause—and it should inform our theology of giving thanks. I’m not sure how Jesus or his disciples processed this moment, but surely the infusion of thanksgiving into a moment that ritualizes the death of our Savior caused deep reflection on Jesus’s willingness to sacrifice, the nature of love, and the enduring quality of gratitude in the face of the valley of the shadow of death.

You see, giving thanks is not restricted to the enjoyable and gratuitous aspects of life—instances where we experience excess, decadence, and delight. Instead, giving thanks ought to characterize Christians in all circumstances, even those that entail deep suffering and calls to sacrificial giving. We give thanks not only when we receive but also when we have the opportunity to give up ourselves for the good of others—when we experience loss and hardship, when we face trials of various kinds, and even when we face death.

Conclusion

We would all do well to reflect further on gratitude and thanksgiving in the biblical texts. But for now, let’s remember happy circumstances are not a precondition for gratitude. Rather, in imitation of Christ, we ought to give thanks in all things. More than that, in response to God's gracious, saving work in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit, this Thanksgiving, we should be the most grateful of all people—expressing that gratitude in our words to God and in our service to others.

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