Being Thankful (Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost)

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Thanksgiving is almost upon us, and it’s a time most of us look forward to.  We enjoy the great food and the time we get to spend with family and friends.  We enjoy watching games and parades.  And, it’s also great to get a few days off!

But this is also the time of year when we all extol the virtues of “giving thanks” and “being thankful.”  And yet, I’ve often found that this is frequently a difficult thing for many of us to do.  Of course, we all talk a good game, but particularly in our society, being people who truly feel thankful and operate from a sense of thankfulness can be difficult.  And this is for several reasons.

Being thankful can be difficult because:

  • So many of us focus on “stuff” – that is, we look at the things we have when we consider what we’re thankful for.  Of course, most of us have a lot of stuff!  In fact, we have so much “stuff” that we have to keep having yard sales to get rid of it!  But the problem is that when we focus on “stuff”, it’s really easy to notice how much more “stuff” somebody else has in comparison to me.  Or how much nicer their stuff is.  And at Thanksgiving, many of us extol the fact that we have the basics – food and clothing and a warm place to live.  Yet at the same time, we’re already thinking about the coolest electronic upgrade that we’re planning to buy around Christmas…!
  • As a result of focusing on “stuff”, we don’t focus on opportunity – you know, lots of us also talk about being thankful for “good health” and “friends and family” and “living in a free country.” But if you have those things, what can you do in the coming year that you couldn’t if you didn’t have your health, or you didn’t have friends to do things with or you didn’t have the freedoms you enjoy?  Thankfulness is not simply about having relationships and healthy conditions in your life.  It’s about recognizing the opportunities and possibilities that those things give you to make a difference in the life of the world around you…
  • We don’t really enjoy the idea of needing to be “thankful” to anyone – our society promotes the ideal of “self-made” people.  We often credit either hard work or luck for any good fortune we have.  And when Thanksgiving arrives, most of us would much rather be the people who share with somebody “less fortunate” than to be somebody in need who has to say “thank-you.”  Even Christians have this problem when we say “thank you”   to God.  We don’t want to burden God by needing too much help.  And so there are tons of folks who believe the Bible says, “God helps those who help themselves” (you know, who do most of the work themselves!) But, as many of you know, that’s not the Bible, that’s Ben Franklin!

I suspect that thankfulness has always been difficult for people, not just for us.  And it’s perhaps one of the issues that Jesus is addressing in today’s parable.  Jesus sets up a story in which 3 slaves are commanded by their master to manage his money. In this context, these three would have been understood to be financial managers of towns which had been conquered.  They had all been made slaves, but  they knew how to do this stuff, and do it well.  And then the set up is that each of them receives huge amounts of money to manage!

A “talent” was the equivalent of 20 year’s wages.  Even one talent was an enormous sum.  But the guy with that one talent:

  • Was probably hung up on the quantitative difference between 1 and 5, or even 1 and 2.  No matter how much “stuff” he had, it was a fraction of what the other two had.  And so even if other people might have looked at him and thought, “wow, has he got a lot to trade with!”, in his eyes, he was impoverished…
  • Can’t see opportunity, because he’s hung up on “stuff.”  The other two immediately go out and take advantage of the new opportunity they have.  But not the guy with the one talent.  He literally buries it in the ground, because he lacks the imagination to envision what could now be possible for others, but also for himself… (in the slavery of the Graeco-Roman world, if slaves like these did a particularly good job at stuff like this, that was one of the ways they might earn their freedom, so it’s goofy not to at least try…!)
  • Misunderstands his relationship with the master – he thinks the master is harsh and is setting him up to lose.  But the master actually trusts him, and has given him an amount “according to his ability”.  The master knows he can handle this.  But the guy with the one talent doesn’t want to have to be thankful, and so he does the one thing that logically WILL get him in trouble – he does what we might call today “quiet quitting.”  He just stops working. But at least he won’t have to say “thank you” to anyone!

And in the end, the guy with one talent gets in trouble not because he failed financially.  The other two do indeed succeed financially, but they aren’t praised because they’re “successful” or “profitable” or even “smarter than the average investor.”  They’re praised because they’re “trustworthy”.  They did what they were expected to do.  And they did it to the best of their ability.  You get the impression that, even if they had lost money, they still would have “entered into the joy of their master” because they would have been “trustworthy” in managing the money.

And being “trustworthy” is, I think, related to a sense of thankfulness. When you’re thankful, you can focus on what you have, instead of what you don’t have or what others have.  When you’re thankful, you can see opportunity not just for yourself, but for others, no matter how much or how little you have.  And when you’re thankful, you know that those opportunities are not simply the result of “good luck” that you have to hide in the ground so you won’t lose it.  Instead, those opportunities are the result of a God who loves you and has entrusted you to do something good with them.

And so as we commence upon this time of national thanksgiving, don’t just be “thankful” in general.  Instead, try not to focus so much on the “stuff” you have or don’t have.  Look for the opportunities and possibilities that God is giving you in your life that you may not have noticed before.  And consider how you’ll use those opportunities in the coming year to make a difference in the lives of others around you, and in so doing, enter into the joy of the Master.