The perils of gratitude

“For of those to whom much is given, much is required.”  – John F. Kennedy, 1961

“What shall I return to the Lord for all his bounty to me?”  – Psalms 116:12

As we celebrate Thanksgiving and enter the treacherous waters of the Christmas season, I think it’s worth pausing for a moment to consider one of our species’ most disruptive and dangerous spiritual enterprises: gratitude.

JFK beautifully paraphrased Luke 12:48 when he said, “For of those to whom much is given, much is required.”   This understanding makes an “attitude of gratitude” a very dangerous proposition.  Because acknowledging our blessings just might make us realize that we’re not living up to our service potential.  

Where gratitude really gets dicey is when we shift our focus from what we HAVE – which essentially confuses God with Santa Claus anyway – and start thanking God for what we ARE.  Acknowledging God’s blessings in making us who we are forces us to evaluate how we got here.  And thoughtful analysis of this question strongly suggests that human beings are God’s preferred instruments of grace.

Let’s think about this Biblically.  Did God REALLY need Moses and Aaron running around waving a shepherd’s staff in order to send the ten plagues?  Did God REALLY need Samson to knock down the Philistine palace?  Did God REALLY need Elijah whooping and hollering in order to set fire to a sopping wet sacrifice?  Did a God that could part the Red Sea and send manna from heaven REALLY need Jesus going around actually TOUCHING lepers in order to heal them?

The short answer: hell, yes.

Imagine if Mary had only been considering her material blessings that day when Gabriel barged in on her unannounced:

And having come in, the angel said to her, “Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women!”

But when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and considered what manner of greeting this was.  Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.  And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name JESUS.  He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David.  And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end.”

Then Mary said to the angel, “Couldn’t my dad just write you a check?”

If money is the instrument of God’s grace in this world, then all we would be expected to do in the service of humankind is redistribute some of our material wealth.  But if human beings are the instruments of God’s grace in this world, we are morally obligated to be the same for someone else.

Having worked for several years with some of the poorest of the poor in our country, I find it difficult not to see most misfortune as a function of, “There, but for the grace of God.”  Grace, in this metaphor, is not a slick, shiny “thing” like a good job, a high IQ, or the means to write fat checks so we can feel good about other people doing the heavy lifting.  No, I mean grace as a God-given desire to translate the blessing of our selves into blessings unto others.

Without my parents, my husband, my brother, a small, earnest army of teachers and mentors, and a big, crazy army of friends and coworkers I wouldn’t be in a position to serve because I wouldn’t know how.  They have been the grace of God in my life.  These people are everywhere in the world. 

To them, and for them, may we be truly grateful.

© Marian the Seminarian, 2011

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