Trinity 17: Giving thanks

Clare Amos, the Director of Lay Discipleship, uses the lectionary Old Testament reading (2 Kings 5.1-3,7-15c) and the Gospel (Luke 17.11-19) to explore the importance of thankfulness. The picture below, which shows Hambledon Hill, close to where she lives when in Dorset, always evokes in Clare a sense of thankfulness.

It’s a great short punchline in today’s Gospel reading! ‘And he was a Samaritan.’ (Luke 17.16) For me, part of the inspiration of Scripture is when it says less rather than more – and leaves us to fill in the gaps for ourselves. So Luke’s Gospel doesn’t give us all the details of Jewish and Samaritan interrelationships – or the lack of them. Rather the Gospel lets us work out for ourselves the apparent contradiction that a Samaritan, the very person who might have been expected to be hostile to Jesus as a Jew, is the one person in this group of ten who both thanks Jesus and praises God for his healing.

Thanksgiving and gratitude are motifs which link together the Gospel and the Old Testament ‘connected’ reading (2 Kings 5.1-3,7-15c) which tells the tale of Namaan the Syrian.

Years ago, in my early days of studying theology, I came across the comment, ‘Gratitude is the primary ethical emotion.’ At this point in time I really cannot remember where it came from or who said it, but it is a remark that that has remained with me as a key interpretative principle for life – and thought – ever since. It must have been around the same time that I first came across the spiritual classic by J Neville Ward, The Use of Praying, which explores the various dimensions of the life of prayer. There are lots of spiritual nuggets in that book, but the primary take-away that I have always treasured is Neville Ward’s insistence that Christian prayer needs to begin with thanking – rather than say confession or intercession, which is often thought of as the starting-point for prayer. He suggests that confession and then intercession do indeed spring out of thankfulness – but that it is thankfulness which comes first. Here are a few of his gems:

  • ‘Thankfulness is happiness spontaneously reaching out beyond itself, wanting to make contact with its cause.’
  • ‘All prayer is some form or extension of thanksgiving or offering.’
  • ‘It is far more important that young Christians should be taught that Christianity is a religion dominated by thankfulness than that “he died to make us good”.’
  • ‘Thankfulness and appreciation of life unlock the door to the prison of the self.’

And of course Neville Ward also points out that one of the names for the primary and distinctive act of Christian worship is ‘Eucharist’ – a word which simply means thanksgiving. This comes home to me especially when I am on holiday in Greece and the regular word for ‘thank you’ in common speech is efcharisto, which derives from the same Greek root. Whenever I am in that country I go round saying efcharisto more frequently than I would usually say ‘thank you’, simply because I like being reminded of the connection!

hambledon hill

The tale of Namaan the Syrian and his healing from leprosy is one of the great Old Testament stories that both young and old can appreciate. The fact that it is referred to in the New Testament, in the course of Jesus’ synagogue sermon in Nazareth (Luke 4.27), suggests that it was seen as an exemplar by later generations. It speaks both of the importance of thankfulness – Namaan’s response after his healing is profound – and also of a sense of wonder, on the part of those who drew together the biblical traditions, as well as on the part of Namaan himself – that God’s generosity can be shown in this way to a person who was outside the covenant community. Indeed somehow the two: his alien status and his sense of thankfulness belong together (as indeed is also the case with the Samaritan of Luke 17). What might this mean for those of us who feel very much that we ‘belong’ – whether it is to the household of faith or to particular political and national entities? Do we somehow need the gift of being helped to see our reality through the fresh and different eyes of others to enable us to appreciate life in a spirit of thankfulness? Is part of our current political problem a ‘weariness’ about Europe so that we do not realise how fortunate we are to live in this continent?

I am a bit sorry that the lectionary editors chose to conclude the Old Testament reading with verse 15. Because one of my favourite titbits in the Old Testament comes a couple of verses further along. When Elisha refuses Namaan’s offer of a present to show gratitude for his healing, Namaan responds by asking for ‘two mule-loads of earth’ (2 Kings 5.17) to take back with him to Damascus. The reason for his request is that when he is back in Damascus he intends to worship the God of Elisha and Israel. However this sat uneasily with the theology of the time in which particular gods – including the God of Israel – were each identified with a particular nation and a particular territory. So Namaan asks for a little bit of the territory of Israel to create as it were an ‘embassy’ of the God of Israel in Damascus. It is deliciously quaint, yet it also marks a breakthrough which will eventually lead to a profound awareness of the incomparability of the God we worship as Lord of time and space. And it is Namaan’s spirit of thankfulness which begins to open the door to this insight.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the lectionary readings selected by Common Worship for Harvest also encourage us to cultivate a spirit of thankfulness. That is especially true of the Old Testament passage, Deuteronomy 26.1-11. Many of our chaplaincies will be celebrating harvest festival around this time: in Holy Trinity Geneva we did so last Sunday. The key message of the excellent sermon was that we should remember our history, and remember the stranger. Both of which seem to me to be a vital part of what thankfulness should mean.

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