We hear and say the word thanks fairly often, though perhaps not often enough and usually without much thought. Thanksgiving Day is our most popular national holiday, yet few of us recognize and acknowledge the religious dimension of that day. Last Sunday’s master-servant parable reminded us that we are God’s servants and have no reason to expect God to thank us for doing what God asks of us. But while God may have no obligation to thank us, we have an obligation to thank God. Today’s Scripture readings can help us to understand better the rich biblical concept of thanksgiving.
The Hebrew word hodah, generally translated as “give thanks,” means “confess, profess or state publicly.” In the Bible, to give thanks means to state publicly that at this moment God was at work. That moment could be the creation of the world or ancient Israel’s exodus from Egypt. Or it could be my rescue from danger or recovery from illness. Thanksgiving in the Bible is directed to God, involves a public profession and is profoundly religious.
The healing of Naaman the Syrian from leprosy (some form of skin disease regarded as contagious), which is described in 2 Kings 5, is a good example of the biblical approach to thanksgiving. Having been healed of his leprosy, the gentile Naaman recognizes that the God of Israel was at work through Elisha the prophet. Naaman makes a public profession of his conviction (“Now I know that there is no God in all the earth, except in Israel”) and promises to offer sacrifice only to Yahweh. Likewise, Psalm 98 is a public celebration of Yahweh’s mighty acts in creation and in the exodus from Egypt; it invites God’s people to join all creation in giving testimony (thanksgiving) to God.
The biblical concept of thanksgiving as public witness to God’s action is prominent in Luke’s account of the cleansing of the 10 lepers. Their healing takes place during Jesus’ journey from Galilee to Jerusalem. Ten persons suffering from infectious skin conditions and kept separate from the general population approach Jesus, crying out, “Jesus, Master! Have pity on us!” When Jesus tells them to show themselves to the priests (who, according to Leviticus 13–14, would provide the verification of their healing needed before they could return to normal life), they go on their way. That action took great faith, since there had been no explicit healing action or word from Jesus. They believed in Jesus’ power to heal, and on their way the 10 found themselves to have been miraculously healed.
All’s well that ends well. Not quite. Only one of the healed lepers returns to Jesus to give public witness to God about his healing. And that one was the one least expected by a Jewish audience to do so, since he was a Samaritan, someone whose identity as a Jew was suspect. Thus Jesus asks, “Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God?”
The popular media have reduced the Thanksgiving holiday to football, turkey and sentimental family scenes. These things are fine in themselves, but they tend to obscure the real meaning of thanksgiving as profoundly religious and thoroughly spiritual. In the biblical context thanksgiving begins with an acknowledgement of God’s actions in our world and on our behalf. In thanking God we proclaim publicly who God is (our creator, redeemer and sustainer), who we are (God’s servants) and what God has done for us individually and collectively. The word “Eucharist” means thanksgiving. When we celebrate the Eucharist, we are proclaiming God’s mighty acts on our behalf, especially in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.
Today’s selection from 2 Timothy 2 depicts Paul as suffering imprisonment for the Gospel. Despite his circumstances, Paul affirms that “the word of God is not chained,” and regards his present condition as an apostolic opportunity. He apparently could have contact with visitors and could write letters to the communities that he had founded. Paul was convinced that his experience of the risen Christ had transformed his life and made possible his ministry, which was in effect bearing public witness to what God had done in him through Christ. His good news summarized in the creedal formula as “remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead” was a thanksgiving in the biblical sense of public witness to what God had done in transforming him. The fact that Paul began almost every letter with a thanksgiving was not merely a nod to ancient epistolary convention. Rather, no matter how dire the circumstances in which Paul found himself (see 2 Cor 11:23-30 for a lengthy catalogue of Paul’s sufferings for the Gospel), he began nearly every letter with words like those in Rom 1:8: “I give thanks to my God through Jesus Christ for all of you.”