January 22, 2015 Length: 13:26
Fr. Christopher asks, "Why do we thank people? A cynic may answer to encourage more present giving in the future, and there is some truth to that. We do it to acknowledge the love and kindnesses of people and because there is a relationship. If there is not a two way exchange it is not a real relationship."
We have recently had Christmas, when amongst other traditions, there have been gifts given or, better, exchanged. I want to ask our children about their presents:
Did they get what they wanted? Did they send thank you letters or emails? Did they thank the givers? Discussion on giving thanks and why.
Why do we thank people? A cynic may answer to encourage more present giving in the future, and there is some truth to that. We do it to acknowledge the love and kindnesses of people and because there is a relationship. If there is not a two way exchange it is not a real relationship. This applies to God and His dealings with us too.
Let us be clear there is a personal relationship involved with God. One of the errors that some people in the west fall into is the idea of a remote God. People may believe in God yet still see Him as not caring about human actions or worries. This is a form of deism, which is a philosophical position which took root in the eighteenth century, accepting the notion of God as a creator yet assuming that God then just allowed the cosmos to continue on its own path without further divine action. These ideas deny any sort of active participation by God in history.
Some deist ideas are found in heterodox Christianity, not least a reluctance to accept any supernatural action by God; there is a tendency to reject miracles for instance. In contrast to such views Orthodox Christianity stresses the Incarnation of God in Christ. We are very clear that Christ is both fully man and fully God. He loved humanity enough to take on our nature. God is therefore active in history in the most intimate manner. We have a real personal relationship with God. That means, amongst other things, that we ask for blessings and we give thanks when our requests; that is, our prayers, are answered.
Today’s Gospel is about an encounter between a group of lepers and Christ. The lepers stood at a distance. Contact with a leper made a person unclean under Jewish law and so they were simply untouchable. They clearly recognised that Christ was in a position to help them, so they asked for His mercy. A cry for mercy is based on wanting help, or granting something. It is not a case of justice or of rights. In fact we make the same plea throughout the Liturgy: “Lord have mercy”. We are acknowledging our unworthiness, but we are also asking with confidence that God will grant the request and so restore the right relationship between us and him. The lepers could not demand healing; they could only ask for mercy. Likewise we have no authority to demand a blessing any more than we have to demand presents from friends.
Christ’s response to the lepers is to tell them to go to present themselves to the priests. Priests could certify the healing, and so the afflicted men would be re-admitted to society. The faith of the men is shown by the way they started on their way to claim the certification before the healing had yet taken place. Their demonstrated faith lead to physical healing.
Do we act in faith, trusting God? God knows the reality of our faith and trust in Him but we need to know this faith for our own sakes. We know we have faith when we rely on Him; we know we rely on Him when our actions show it both to Him and to us.
There is another healing at work in this story too. There was one man who returns to give thanks. He was, of course, a Samaritan, which means that in Jewish eyes he was a heretic. Yet this man returned to thank Christ for what He had done for him. St Cyril of Alexandria pointed out in his commentary on this passage: “The nine then falling into a thankless forgetfulness, did not return to give glory to God”. The Samaritan man did however just that. It is at this point that Christ told him: “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.” (Luke 17:17). What is the way this man has been made well? He has already been healed of the awful illness he suffered physically. Yet there is another aspect, a second healing. The man’s gratitude gives a spiritual benefit; his soul is restored by his glorifying God and acknowledging what has happened.
Faith is good, yet it needs to be in the context of a good relationship with God. Thankfulness is good in relationships. It is a sign of a close friendship that we are helped and it is also a sign of that friendship when we acknowledge the gratitude we feel, and ought to feel, at such kindness and compassion. St Peter of Damascus wrote that : “He who has received a gift from God, and is ungrateful for it, is already on the way to losing it” and that “ When God is thanked, He gives us still further blessings, while we, by receiving His gifts, love Him all the more and through this love attain that divine wisdom whose beginning is the fear of God (cf. Prov. 1:7)” (Book 1: A Treasury of Divine Knowledge, The Philokalia Vol. 3). In much the same vein we are urged: “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).
If we fail to write thank you letters for gifts then we risk offending the giver; why should they send gifts which are not appreciated? Why should God bless us if we treat His gifts with contempt? If we give thanks we are blessed with knowing more deeply how much we depend on God. God may not need our thanks, some would argue, in the way that He does not need our love, if one takes the view that God needs nothing from us. However, He wants a good relationship with us and a relationship needs to be right on every level. Certainly a right relationship with God is a wonderful thing for us.
If we can give thanks to people who make the effort to give us delightful things for Christmas and birthdays, how much more should we make at least the same effort for the God who sustains us and gives us every blessing? In giving thanks we are transformed; we see our relationship with God working and so we understand that God gives us so much. As we are closer to God we are able to be open to more of what He wants from us and what He wants to bless us with. “Gratitude from the receiver incites the giver to bestow gifts greater than before. He who is ungrateful in lesser things, is false and unjust in greater.” the Monks Callistus and Ignatius (Directions to Hesychasts in the Philokalia).
So when we thank givers of gifts we do the right thing. When we thank God for His blessings to us we also do well. It strengthens our relationships with Him.
God is generous, for that and for all His mercies let us give worthy thanks.