Jesus the Ingrate

So let’s talk about the ingrates – the ungrateful lot – in our gospel this morning. 

First, we have those nine men and women healed by Jesus of leprosy, who don’t bother to come back and say thank you for it. Jesus gave them their lives back, because a diagnosis of leprosy meant that you had to live outside the city gates to avoid contaminating anyone else. And yet the only person who returns is a Samaritan, a foreigner; he falls at Jesus’s feet and says thank you. But what debt does Jesus call in? What favour does he expect? What indebtedness has this foreign stranger incurred by being healed? Nothing – he is honoured for giving thanks, and told to rise and go on his way, a whole person again.

That is because Jesus – preacher, teacher, healer, Son of God –  is also an ingrate. 

Gratitude has been the subject of discussion in my house this week since Erin was researching some of the science about it for a story. We began to consider how gratitude works in the world, the social manners that it greases, the good feeling that we get from expressing and receiving it. It is both a hard and an easy time to feel grateful: we resent what we have had to give up, but we are also reminded of what we took for granted. 

But thinking carefully about gratitude also leads to questions about who we expect to be grateful, and the way we expect them to show it. Is someone who calls attention to police corruption ungrateful for the security offered by the police? Is an immigrant who points out shortcomings in society “ungrateful” for their status as a Canadian? Or should we be thankful to people who point out where things are wrong, who propose better ways.  Isn’t that how the status quo has been transformed for the better each and every time?

And how often gratitude is used to create an IOU, a sense of indebtedness to one another? How often do we measure the favours we bestow against those we receive, like the dollar price of gifts under the tree? Is this gratitude doing its best work within us? Is this the quid-pro-quo kind of thanks that Jesus seeks? 

To understand how Jesus was an ingrate himself, we need to look at the time in which he lived. Roman society was basically using debt as a currency, to secure power for the rich and keep the rest of society in check – and it was constantly in conflict with the Jewish community, whose view on gratitude was that it was a moral practice. As Diana Butler Bass, an American historian of Christianity explains: to the Romans, gratitude was not just a nice thing to do; it was a political and economic and social currency. She describes their society as a pyramid: from the point at the top, the wealthy few, and Caesar, were meant to flow some gifts: the promise of security, enough food for families to get by – in drizzles at a time. The big swathe of people at the bottom then sent indebtedness back up, with taxes, tithes, glorification, and obedience. Your debts reinforced your role in society; you were expected to pay them. 

So, when our nine lepers run off and never come back, we should have some sympathy; they were the product of that world.  Perhaps they were worried that the debt Jesus would ask for in return was too high for them to pay, that it might just lead to a different kind of prison than the one they had left. Indeed, there may have been many reasons for them not to return in thanks, and perhaps some of them eventually did. The focus of the gospel and Jesus’s response is not to condemn them – we don’t hear that he took back his healing. It is to honour the Samaritan, and also to demonstrate that Jesus would not be grateful in the way that society dictated, in the way that the powers that be expected, in the way that tradition prescribed; Jesus was ungrateful for the system, a challenger of the status quo. To those who liked things as they were, with people in their place, Jesus was an ingrate.

Because what does Jesus do again, and again?  He wipes the slate clean; he clears the debt. He says, “Get up and go on your way.” He stresses to people that they should give to each other humbly and quietly, and without looking for anything in return. The effect of this is immediate: if you don’t know whose is the debt collected and who is the debtor, you don’t know who is above another person and who is below. A clean slate washes that away. We all become equal, called to give as we are able. In this pyramid, suddenly, we all stand together, and the one holding our debts is God, and God has erased them. We aren’t beholden, we aren’t put in our place, we aren’t in debt. God is not about an IOU. God is about invitations, we are invited to the gospel table, we are called to be generous. We are not meant to stay up at night stewing over what we owe, and we are definitely not meant to keep a ledger of what we are owed.

And so, Jesus refuses to be grateful in a system that has expectations of why we show gratitude and how. Instead his definition of gratitude is the one we extend ourselves, not something to expect. Jesus understands that giving thanks naturally leads to getting thanks; it inspires giving in and of itself. 

The practice of gratitude is one of the most beautiful parts about being human; it builds up community, it heals wounds, it gives life and hope to people. But to mean something, it must go somewhere, it must travel outside ourselves.

So, what is the answer? How are we to be ingrates like Jesus and grateful to God? I think of it this way: like Jesus, we have to question the role that gratitude plays in the world, how it is used as a mannerly way to establish control. And give thanks not for material wealth, but for people, the ones who heal us, who help us, who guide us: the ones who say, in the words of Jesus: “Get up and go on your way.” God has wiped our slates clean, released us from our debts. In thankfulness, we do the same. 

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