An undeniable characteristic of St. Paul is his continuous, almost bubbling gratitude for his redemption through Jesus Christ. This is the meaning of true joy – a reality not dependent on circumstances but on a radical change of being.
From a human standpoint, Paul would have been much better off had he remained a Pharisee. He would have been respected by his peers for his impressive erudition and by his compatriots for his zeal, his patriotism, to put it in modern terms. He would have been warm in winter and rested in the summer. If he traveled at all it would have been for purposes admired by those who hold seminars and attend conferences; he would have been consulted as an authority and rewarded with the appropriate stipends and finances.
Instead, his life was turned upside down by the encounter with the glorified Christ, and he rejoiced in the upheaval. His peers no longer admired him; they mostly wanted him to shut up, and the quickest way for getting him to shut up was either imprisonment or stoning. His compatriots no longer found solidarity with him but considered him a traitor. Instead of comfort, he lived in constant discomfort. He who could have made plenty of money by teaching the Law found himself working like a laborer with his hands in order not to become a burden to his friends, in order to survive.
He who could have traveled for leisure is now crisscrossing the Greco-Roman world on foot; many times, in order not to be killed, he travels stealthily through the dangers of the night; and all this at a time when travel was an immense hardship. Instead of praises, he has scorn and the lash heaped upon his back. On and on one could list his physical sufferings. To top it all off, he doesn’t dare marry so that his life of hardship would not be shared by a woman; so he lives in loneliness.
And yet, he cannot help himself: he expresses his immense gratitude to the God who brought him to this condition. What a paradox he is: the wondrous paradox of a redeemed soul!
Paul, together with other early Christians, reminds us of our brothers and sisters in the developing world today – worshipers in Haiti, in many parts of Africa, in places where famine and danger lurk continuously. Their suffering seems bearable to them because they, like Paul, know in whom they believe and who their Redeemer is.
Out of such joy and gratitude springs a desire to minister others. In the occasion of his letter to the Corinthians, Paul is encouraging them in the collecting of money for the poor in Jerusalem. He reminds his readers that God’s gifts have been given abundantly and they, in turn, need to respond out of the gratitude.
From this epistle lesson and the gospel story we are reminded again that gratitude rises easily in those who think they are not deserving, like the Samaritan who returns to Jesus to offer thanks for his healing; but is difficult, if not rare, in those who think they deserve all good things, like the rest of the lepers who were healed and did not return.
In our troubled world today we are all aware of the discrepancy between the very rich and the rest of us. The tragedy of the very rich who have much more than they need or will ever need is that they often act with a lack of gratitude toward God or toward other human beings who work hard; they continue to hoard money while their workers are being laid off; or they refuse to release the money regardless of the suffering this causes. The word “tragedy” is appropriate here because we know from scripture, history, and experience that such people are imprisoned in selfishness and greed. One wonders how they sleep at night. It is a terrible thing for the soul when a person thinks he or she deserves riches, does not want to share them, and cannot feel the joy of gratitude.
On this Thanksgiving Day it is the others, the many, many more, who interest us. They are like the people St. Paul was writing to: ordinary, hard-working folks who, despite their own needs, contributed to the hungry in Jerusalem and surroundings. Paul assures them that God is not stingy; God gives abundantly. In this passage where he exhorts the poor to share with those who are poorer, Paul uses words like “bountiful,” “abundant,” “cheerful,” and “enriched.” As God does not give sparingly, so Paul does not expect them to give sparingly. And over and above all this, Paul knows that the recipients will be filled not only with food but with overflowing thanksgiving.
We turn once more to that very short account of a remarkable encounter between 10 lepers and Jesus. They ask Jesus to heal them; he doesn’t say anything to them about the illness or the healing; he simply orders them to go show themselves to the priest. But they are healed. When the one grateful person returns to fall at Jesus’ feet, one hears the sadness and even surprise in Jesus’ voice: “But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God?”
On this Thanksgiving Day and beyond, let us be like the one who remembers and returns to the giver of life to offer thanks and praises to God. On this Thanksgiving Day, let us recognize who the giver of life is and let our own thanks bubble up as they did in St. Paul. For all of us – when we are tired, hungry, lonely, or sick – long to hear the words: “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”