We are in a two week sermon series on Gratitude – using Diana Butler Bass’s book: Grateul: The transformative Power of Giving Thanks. Have you ever been in a gratitude loop of saying or expressing thank you. One of my clergy colleagues, Elizabeth Ingram Schindler told this story in a sermon, of visiting in a friend’s home then following up by sending a thank you gift. The friend sent back a thank you note for the thank you gift. My friend was suddenly caught off guard. No idea what to do. Should she write a thank you note for the thank you note for the thank you gift for the hospitality offered. Is this a never ending circle of thank yous? She thought when she sent the gift that they were even. She received something, she sent something, the circle was closed. But when she got something back, she was suddenly in debt again, throwing her off balance. It’s a funny scenario of how we think of gratitude in societal cultural terms – a complex system of duty, requirement, obligation. If we receive something, we owe gratitude in return. Where gratitude is targeted. A payback for a gift, closing the loop. If you feceive a gift, you give gratitude. Back and forth. Sometimes gets out of hand.
I’ve been in a few conversations where someone volunteered their displeasure or judgment after having given a wedding gift and not receiving a thank you note in return. Those kinds of comments make me more mindful of making sure to send a note of appreciation and gratitude for gifts given, as well as reminding me of times where perhaps I have been remiss in not closing the loop offering gratitude. Those kinds of thoughts don’t necessarily make me more internally grateful, they simply add to my shame of wondering if I ended up being cast into the pile of those perceived as ingrates, culturally and socially incompetent of closing the loop of gratitude.
In her Book on Gratitude, DBB talks about two different structures of gratitude. There was a time when gratitude was Law – a pyramid of gratitude. A ruler would offer protection, employment to the people, the people would, in turn, be expected to give back to the ruler. Ancient Rome & Egypt are examples of this structure of Transactional Gratitude: Pharaoh & Caesar owned everything & distributed gifts & favors at will. The response of the people was “gratia” in the form of loyalty, taxes, tributes & service. Failure to fulfill your obligation made you an ingrate, punishable by the seizure of property, prison, exile or execution. It’s transactional gratitude based on “quid pro quo” tit for tat – “I do something for you, so you must do something for me.” Obligation, reciprocity. “I have to. I must.” It has little to do with authentic feelings of joy, love, or appreciation.
I learned the story of Zacchaeus when I was a kid. “Zacchaeus was a wee little man, a wee little man was he. He climbed up in a sycamore tree for the Lord he wanted to see. And when the Savior passed that way He looked up in the tree, And he said, ‘Zacchaeus, you come down! For I’m going to your house today!” The lyrics emphasize his height, but the story is about a rich man who colluded with Roman authorities, the only way a Jewish person, not a Roman citizen could get rich. It’s a political story – Jesus revealed a critique of the oppressive Roman system of “gratitude as quid pro quo”. The Romans offered political positions to locals in places where they had conquered. Tax Collectors were the main agents of the patronage system. While Pax Romana ensured peace and prosperity flowed down from the emperor, Tax Collector’s made sure that loyalty and gratitude in the form of taxes and cash came up from the provinces to pay the military and enrich those at the top of the pyramid. Tax Collector’s could buy their way to higher status in this Roman system by skimming profit off the top. Those beneath you hated you, and those above you distrusted you. Z knew how to play the game. DBB in her exegesis of this story calls him quite literally “a climber.” Z wanted to see this man who might inspire rebellion and cut off his ‘cash flow’ or threaten his position. Or Perhaps he was spiritually curious. Or both. Z thought that gratitude was a political structure of benefactors and beneficiaries that he could manipulate. Jesus said, stop climbing. Come to the table. Come and sit. I’m coming to your house where, in the presence of Jesus, it’s hard to know who is the host and who is the guest. Jesus invited him to come down from his old life, to stop participating in a corrupt system of gratitude that oppressed his own people. Jesus asks, Tree or table? Do you want to continue Climbing the pyramid to get ahead or recline with friends at table?
Out of this new understanding of gratitude, Z promises to give away 1/2 of his wealth to the poor and pay back those whom he defrauded 4x as much. He basically resigns, choosing to extricate himself from the Roman hierarchical structure of quid pro quo, gratitude as debt and duty, obligation.
DBB: Who wants to be part of a system of gratitude based on hierarchy & pryamids? Perpetuating a system that rewards privilege and is held together by those who are indebted? A structure where people cheated to get there? Politics has a long history of misappropriating gratitude, making it about patronage, privilege, power, and quid pro quo. Instead of a reciprocal arrangement of corrupted gratitude geared toward enriching those at the top of the social pyramid who control the flow of benefits to everyone else, Jesus envisioned a different structure of gratitude – as hospitality & table fellowship, of mutuality and relationship.
How do we move into this structure of gratitude, when Transactional gratitude still exists, though not in a legal sense. People sometimes find authentic gratitude difficult because they may think of it in terms of beneficiaries of a gift, where you’re in debt. We often hear this phrase: “I owe you a debt of gratitude.” We’re in debt to the benefactor until we fulfill that debt by…giving a return gift, sending a thank-you note, doing a favor in return, closing the loop.
The Latin word gratia, meaning “favor, regard, goodwill” is a direct translation of the Greek word kharis. Kharis was one of three goddesses, who were known as the Kharites – the Three Graces. The Kharities gave their gifts without discrimination and they were the embodiment of gratitude and benevolence in the ancient world. Kharis, is also a word found in the gospel meaning everything from beauty to joy, delight, kindness, good will, grace, favor, benefit, charm, gracefulness, pleasure, wit, gratitude, thankfulness. It is the word we translate as grace. Unmerited, favor and blessing. Grace is God’s love poured out and given to us in ways completely beyond our control. Something we can never repay. This kind of gratitude invites us to step away from transactional gratitude, to a place of simply receiving and authentically feeling thank you. It is from this grace that calls forth our response of authentic gratitude where we have the capacity to respond with greater goodness and love. Ps 9: “I will give thanks to you, Lord, with my whole heart.” Ps 26: “I will raise my voice in thanksgiving & declare your wonderful works.”
The structure the Bible puts on gratitude is about abundance, enough for all, It’s about table fellowship & the sharing of gifts for free without expectation of return. So the other story that Cathi read: Jesus says that when you give a dinner, don’t just invite your relatives & rich friends who can pay you back, creating a quid pro quo system, but instead, when you give a banquet, you invite those who can never afford to repay you. And if you offer a meal with no expectation of return, then you will be blessed. When? With the resurrection of the righteous. As in, getting another star in your crown, going on to your great reward, a really long time from now. Jesus disconnects the structure of quid pro quo, or transactional gratitude from the possibility of payback by putting the blessing that you receive so far in the future that it becomes irrelevant to the act of giving the gift.
DBB argues that gratitude must be “pro bono,” or for the good of all, and given with no strings attached. Gratefulness is a form of grace, to be given and received with nothing expected in return. Personal Gratitude is connected and flows into communal gratitude, and that is a spiritual practice for the life of the church.
Mary Jo Leddy’s “10 habits of being” – Radical Gratitude. Hinge between the personal/public practices of gratitude. “We need to develop specific practices for shaping our common life”—a politics of gratitude—“that secure conditions that reflect the worth and dignity of all.” If it is difficult to live gratefully as individuals, achieving a communal sense of gratitude will challenge us in even more profound ways, and perhaps it’s the journey we are invited to take with Jesus.
Gratitude can be an act of resistance and defiance. The defiance of kindness in the face of anger, of connection in the face of division, hope in the face of fear. Not that of force or direct confrontation. Gratitude undoes evil by tunneling under its foundations of anger resentment, and greed. It strengthens character and moral resolve. Waking us to a new sense of who we are individually and communally. Not one that denies pain or overlooks injustice. Gratitude, however invalidates the false narrative that these things are the sum total of human existence, that despair is the last word. It opens our eyes to see that We all share in the ultimate gift of life itself. We are beneficiaries & benefactors together.
If gratitude is understood as a communal table in the round, instead of a pyramid of transactions, if gratitude is understood to exist within God’s creation of abundance where -as Wendell Berry says- “everything we need is here,” the moral issue becomes, “How do we pass this gift around with no expectation of return to make sure that everyone is fed & everyone is cared for & that everyone has access to the good gifts of all of creation?” “How do we steward those gifts?” rather than, “How do we control their distribution?” Gratitude is the doorway into a universe of grace and gift.
DBB finishes her book with this: Gratitude Grounds our lives in the world with others. IT is an emotion AND an ethical way of life. It is A disposition, a set of habits, an awareness. But ultimately, Gratitude is a place, perhaps the place where we find our truest and best selves. To know the mystery of life is to be grateful to God in all things, through all things.
Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it. 2A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. 3He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. 4So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. 5When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” 6So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. 7All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” 8Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” 9Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
12He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”