Pope Francis continually encourages us to reflect inwardly on our spiritual lives in ways that compel us to take concrete actions toward building God’s kingdom on earth. I recently wrote about some ways that eschatological reflection can lead us to act. Likewise—in the spirit of Thanksgiving—I’d like to reflect on how living gratefully can also lead us to better live out our mission.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus heals ten lepers. Only one—a Samaritan—returns to thank him. Jesus remarks, “Ten were cleansed, were they not? Where are the other nine? Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God?” The word “return” is significant. It seems likely that the other nine lepers—in their joy over their healing and ability to return to their families and their lives—had private thoughts and prayers of gratitude about the man who healed them. In his divinity, we know that Jesus heard private prayers—as he heard those of Nathaniel, when he prayed under the fig tree (Jn 1:48-51). Therefore, we can only assume that Jesus likewise heard the prayers of gratitude of the other nine. Is it possible that private prayers of thanksgiving inadequately express true gratitude to God? In this passage, Jesus is critical of their failure of the nine to return. In other words, he is rebuking their failure to show their gratitude through concrete words and actions.
What does it mean to return to give thanks to Jesus today? Obviously, Christ has ascended to the Father and does not walk among us as he did in the Gospel passage. It’s tempting to think that returning to give thanks simply means going to church, where we find Jesus present in the Eucharist—which means “thanksgiving,” after all. But we must remember that Jesus is also present in our neighbor. He is present particularly in the poor, the hungry, the thirsty, the imprisoned, and the stranger.
It is easy to privately offer thanks for God’s gifts, whether at Mass or with our families around our Thanksgiving tables. But do we return to thank Jesus through our lives and actions? Do we return and thank Jesus in the poor and marginalized by being present to them? Are we too quick to identify with the one healed leper who returned, when we are really more like the nine? Have we considered that we may express gratitude to Jesus much more powerfully when we return to give thanks to him in the hungry and imprisoned?
Remember the parable of the buried talents (Mt 25:14-30). When God gives us gifts, spiritually and physically, he expects us to pour those gifts back out into the world, so that they may be multiplied. God doesn’t give us gifts as ends to themselves. We are not showing true Christian gratitude when we become attached to what we’ve been given and more keep it for ourselves. The man who buried his talent cared for and protected his gift—diligently so. But his understanding of the world was limited. He felt that his gift, once received, had to be protected at all costs. But God consistently seeks to pull his people out of this finite understanding of the world and toward the eternal—where gratitude, like love, increases its measure by being poured out to others. In a culture dominated by consumerism and individualism, we can only comprehend this paradox through the lens of faith, where we show gratitude for what we have been given by pouring our gifts out for others.
Our culture has produced distortions of true faith with heretical ideas like the “Prosperity Gospel,” which is almost the antithesis of Catholic social teaching. The Prosperity Gospel says that material wealth is a gift from God to those he favors because they live moral lives. This is wrong, not only because we cannot earn the gifts of God, but because his gifts aren’t meant to be taken and kept by us. God’s gifts are meant to serve the whole. Catholic social teaching goes as far as to say that excess wealth is stealing from the poor. In Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis quotes two Church Fathers who taught this concept, known as the universal destination of goods. He writes, “Saint John Chrysostom summarizes it in this way: ‘Not to share our wealth with the poor is to rob them and take away their livelihood. The riches we possess are not our own, but theirs as well.’ In the words of Saint Gregory the Great, ‘When we provide the needy with their basic needs, we are giving them what belongs to them, not to us’” (FT 119). We show authentic Christian gratitude when we live according to this teaching.
While our hyper-consumerist society focuses on material gifts, we should not forget our other gifts. I think about the loneliness that plagues so many people, particularly in our culture that can be so isolating. In our culture, for example, grandparents are often less likely to see their grandchildren as they are in other societies. In our modern neighborhoods, children are often less visible. So many people love children but are rarely able to spend time with them. As a mother of seven, there really aren’t words to express the gratitude I feel for the blessing of each of my children. I remember the first time my oldest son smiled at me. I experienced a joy I didn’t know was possible. I was so overwhelmed by this gift that I felt called by God to share it with others. I prayed that God would allow our family to help bring this joy to others. Soon I became very well-known as the crazy mother who always let other people hold her baby. Yes, I was watchful and prudent, but at the same time I refused to become overprotective.
Of course, this a small example of sharing a gift from God. But as my children grow older, I am beginning to realize the greater challenges my husband and I will need to face and choices we must make regarding our most treasured gift, our children. In the Catholic world, there is a strong pull to protect your own family at all cost. Popular ideas like the “Benedict option” advocate a retreat from the world in order to protect your family from outside influences. But is this really the right approach for Catholic families? In some ways this seems to me like hiding a gift from God under a bushel basket and keeping it to myself, for my pleasure and fulfillment. Our gratitude compels us to share our family as a light to the world, to serve the common good of the world around us.
Sometimes living gratefully costs us. It would have been a sacrifice, however small, for the nine lepers to return and give thanks to Jesus. This year, during the pandemic, many of us are sacrificing large family gatherings at Thanksgiving out of love and gratitude for our families. This comes at a cost. And it saddens me to see so many prominent Catholics boasting on social media that they will be having large Thanksgiving gatherings despite public health guidelines. Some of them say they are choosing “family over fear.” One public figure has even called this a “revolution.” But I wonder; is this really how Jesus is calling us to give thanks for our family? Is this possibly more about indulgence at the expense of the common good and concern for the wellbeing of others? Gratitude is not a sentiment or feeling. Like other hard truths of our faith, authentic gratitude is deeper and requires sacrifice. Once again, our gifts are not about us.
Earlier this week, Pope Francis tweeted, “We were not created to dream about vacations or the weekend, but to make God’s dreams come true in this world. God made us capable of dreaming, so that we could embrace the beauty of life. The works of mercy are the most beautiful works life.” Vacations, like holidays, are good things. But Francis is reminding us that our central purpose is to fulfill God’s dreams for the world. In doing so, we will find deeper beauty. Thanksgiving 2020 undoubtedly looks different for many of us, but I pray that we can take the time to look introspectively and ask ourselves how we are living our gratitude for God’s gifts in our lives. Are we using them for our own ends or to bring his dreams to fulfillment? This Thanksgiving, let us live gratefully by caring for Jesus in others.
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Melinda Ribnek is a lifelong Catholic, originally from Savannah, Georgia. She currently lives on California's Central Coast with her husband Brian and their seven children. In her spare time, she volunteers for the Church and in her community.