Gratitude in the New Testament
Gratitude is a wide-ranging theme of the New Testament. It is apparent, for example, in Jesus’s feeding of the five thousand, the only miracle found in each of the four Gospels (Matt. 15:36; Mk. 8:6; Lk. 9:16; Jn. 6:11). We in our contemporary culture have difficulty with the physical miracles; what exactly is happening? The key to understanding the miracle is not the physical increase in the food but the context of gratitude in which Jesus sets it. By giving thanks to God and by blessing the bread and fish, Jesus acknowledges God’s presence with his world and with his people. His thankfulness liberates him to make good use of God’s gifts in feeding all those who have followed him into the desert. God’s gifts, free for all, are sufficient for all—and more. Hence, according to Luke, there is an immense superfluity of food left over. God’s gifts never come to an end.
We with our limited perspective, like the crowd in St. John’s account, may miss the point. Our understanding is confined to the physical world; we do not appreciate the moral character of the world that Jesus reveals is characterized by God’s presence. In a different sense, those in the crowd that followed Jesus into the wilderness were also focused on physical events: they mistook the signs and thought he was the Messiah who would overthrow Roman rule. But as John writes, “When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself” (Jn. 6:15). Jesus’s gratitude for all that God had given him frees him both to make best use of the resources at hand and to satisfy the crowd’s hunger, but also to show God’s intimate concern for them in their sociopolitical situation. Physical force would not liberate them; they were foolish to think they could take their future into their own hands. Only an awareness of the gracious presence of God would nourish their deep desire for peace and freedom.
St. Luke underlines the crucial role of thankfulness in his account of Jesus’s healing of ten lepers. Only one, and he a heretical Samaritan, returned to give thanks; the rest presumably took it for granted and misunderstood the context. Luke writes, “Then Jesus asked, ‘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?’ Then he said to him, ‘Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well’” (Lk. 17:17-19). It seems from the latter remark that Jesus believed the man’s gratitude was a dimension of his healing. Jesus is not looking for thanks himself; rather, he wants us to recognize that the source of true health is God. So the miracle here is the Samaritan’s return, “praising God with a loud voice” (Lk. 17:15-16). Bodies may be healed, but without recognition of God’s presence, lives will not be transformed. The Samaritan may indeed thank Jesus, but the miracle is the transformation of his life through his gratitude to God.
The centrality of gratitude in the practice of Christian Faith is underlined in Jesus’s celebration of the Passover meal with his disciples on the eve of his Crucifixion. He thanks God for bread and wine, thus transforming them into signs of God’s presence. Only then does he share them (Matt. 26:27; Mk. 14:23; Lk. 22:17, 19). This is especially significant as the meal is the foundation of the Eucharist (the Service of Thanksgiving), also known as the “Last Supper,” or more commonly, “the Mass.” This will be discussed later, for it is the focus of Christian worship summing up in word and action the Christian celebration of the intimacy of God’s gracious relationship with his world.
Gratitude is prominent too in the writings of St. Paul. He thanks God for his success in drawing people to be faithful to the vision of God revealed in Jesus Christ and grounds his hope in the joy of God’s presence as celebrated in the Eucharist (Rom. 1:8; 1 Cor. 1:4ff.; 1 Thess. 1:2; 2 Thess. 2:13; 1 Cor. 11:24). In particular, he begins every request to God with thanksgiving: “Rejoice in the Lord always: again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:4-7). This is a classic statement of the place of the virtue of gratitude in the practice of the Christian Faith. First, remind yourselves of God’s presence with gratitude, Paul advises the Philippians, because you may then find your world transformed by the discovery that everything you need is within your grasp.
St. Paul continually recalls the enormity of the gift that he believes the world receives from God in Christ; in his letters, he encourages the churches to share the thrill of their faith. “Give thanks in all circumstances,” St. Paul urges his readers in the first surviving piece of Christian literature (1 Thess. 5:18). It is interesting that Islam should share the same perspective: “At the heart of Islam is the teaching that one should praise and be thankful to God in every circumstance” (Mobin-Uddin, 2002). Paul’s instruction is all the more powerful because the situation of the Thessalonian Church was far from easy. Founded in about 315 BC and conquered by Rome in 168 BC, Thes- salonica became the capital of the province of Macedonia in 146 BC. It grew to become an economic, political, and commercial center, attracting a large cosmopolitan population. Archaeological research has uncovered physical evidence of the presence of conflicting religious traditions, which potentially threatened public order.
St. Paul came to Thessalonica probably in 50 AD, following his expulsion from Philippi. The Jewish community was sufficiently established enough to have built a synagogue where Paul preached with some success, thereby arousing the opposition of the Jews (Acts 17:1-2). The epistle itself suggests that the majority of the Christians in Thessalonica were in fact gentiles. Paul was prevented from returning to visit the community, but prompted by reports from Timothy of theological confusion, he wrote to encourage them. They questioned the fate of those who had died, and Paul tried to assuage their fears. Thankfulness characterizes the letter; however, it is thankfulness not to the Thessalonians but to God for their willing reception and acceptance of the Good News of Christ notwithstanding their difficulties.
Paul’s thankfulness is obviously not based on material prosperity; there is nothing naive or superficial about it. His focus is God (1 Thess. 1:2; 2:13; 3:9). It is God who has transformed their lives and opened their minds and hearts to the reality of God’s presence in Christ. They live in a challenging religious environment, they suffer for their faith, they are theologically puzzled, and from time to time, they do not see eye to eye. But despite these concerns and doubtless many others, they must settle themselves with the thought that because God is with them, who can be against them (Rom. 8:31-39)? Paul knows the truth of this for himself but is encouraged when he recalls the faith he has received and gives thanks to God for it (2 Cor. 11:21b-27). Faith is encouraged when, aware of God’s presence, we know we can and should give thanks in all circumstances. It is an experience many professionals enjoy, whatever the sheer complexity, ambiguity, and personal perplexity they may frequently find themselves in.