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What is Gratitude?

By 18 November, 2017January 3rd, 2023No Comments
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By F. Luis Casasus, General Superior of idente missionaries
Commentary on the Sunday Gospel of 19-11-2017, Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time (Book of Proverbs 31:10-13.19-20.30-31; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-6; Matthew 25:14-30)

Please, do not look at the dictionary. Nor ask a psychologist. They will give you a very limited response:

* The quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness.

* A social emotion that signals our recognition of the things others have done for us.

These are right and beautiful words, but they do not capture the deep sense, the full extent and the real essence of gratitude. Only Jesus, with the Parable of the Three Servants, gives us an ecstatic and unitive view of gratitude. It is more than an emotion or an educated expression: The highest form of gratitude is to use what you have been given. To show appreciation and satisfaction for the gift received are just the prelude to gratitude. Imagine that you receive the latest model of a car as a gift and then you do not even say Thank you to the person who gave it to you…and moreover, you do not even think what to do with it. This does not reveal a healthy state of mind!

Gratitude is one of the first signs of a thinking, rational creature. Animals, plant life, and other living matter can express thanks but they are not transformed by it. In our Parish in Seville (Spain) we adopted a stray cat, who is really pleased with that…but he almost destroyed a second stray cat who attempted to stay with us as a refugee. Gratitude makes us human, and therefore, images of God Himself. Thanksgiving is in the essence of our union with God and differentiates us from the rest of creation, a genuine proof of His constitutive presence in us.

This central role that gratitude plays in our true nature was accurately portrayed by Jesus in the parable of the Unmerciful Servant (Mt 18:21-35).

The parable imagines a king who goes to settle accounts with his servants. Jesus tells of a servant who owes his master ten thousand bags of gold. He will be sold into slavery along with his family. He gets down on his knees and begs for time to pay the king back. The king is moved by his plea and makes an incalculable forgiveness.

This king transforms this situation of misery into joy. As we hear this parable so far our hearts are lightened. We who are perhaps burdened by our own debts hear this story with hope. But then the story takes a turn, of course, defying our expectations. We learn that this servant with the unbelievably forgiven debt is owed a sum by a fellow servant.

Our hearts are leaning into a happy expectation that the forgiven servant will in turn forgive his debtor, expanding our happiness. And so then it is jarring to hear the next words that the forgiven servant takes his debtor and grabs him by the neck. The other servants take our outrage and their own to the king who demands that the forgiven servant be brought back to him. And thus, the forgiveness of the debt is rescinded and he will be punished until the debt is paid.

The point of the story is that the king has freed his kingdom from the fear of debt. This is no small matter. And his subjects are happy about that freedom. Grateful for that freedom. This generosity now displayed from the top down changes everything.

But the unforgiving servant was supposed to be moved to extend that forgiveness to every other person. This should be the natural (and supernatural) happy ending. The king’s gratitude is contagious, and the other servants expected to see its effects. The horrible punishment for the perpetrator is intended for someone who rejects its very nature, God and the best opportunities to make a difference in his life.

Please, consider the four points Pope Francis makes about today’s parable of the Three Servants:

* It’s as if He tells us: Here is my mercy, my tenderness, my forgiveness: take it and use it. And what have we done? Who have we “infected” with our faith? How many people have we encouraged with our hope? How much love have we shared with our neighbor? They are questions that do us well to ask.

* Any environment, even the most distant and impractical, can become a place where talents can bear fruit. There are no situations or places that are closed to the Christian presence and witness. The witness that Jesus asks us is not closed, its open, it depends on us.

* This parable urges us to not hide our faith and our belonging to Christ, to not bury the Word of the Gospel, but to make it circulate in our life, in our relationships, in our concrete situations, as a power that undermines, that purifies, that renews. Likewise forgiveness, which the Lord gives us especially in the Sacrament of Reconciliation: let us not close it in ourselves, but rather let it unleash its power, that breaks down those walls that our selfishness has built up, that it makes us take the first steps in relationships that are stuck, to resume dialogue where there is no more communication. Make these talents, these gifts that the Lord has entrusted to us be given to others, so that they grow and bear fruit with our witness.

* The Virgin Mary embodies this attitude in the most beautiful and fullest way. She received and accepted the greatest gift: Jesus, and in turn has offered Him to humanity with a generous heart.

Our Mother Mary was grateful for the gift of her Son and for the gift of the entire humanity. This gratitude for the gift of our neighbor is a common feature of all saints: We always give thanks to God, the father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you (Col.1:3).

Sometimes we perceive life circumstances to be misfortunate, contributing to our demise or preventing us from proceeding with our plans, our hopes and dreams. In fact, some of these pursuits may masquerade as hidden vices. When God permits something to happen that frustrates or thwarts our grandiose plans, we believe He is punishing us when, in fact, we should thank Him for drawing us closer to Him through means contrary to our desires. This is the testimony of a young mother:

I remember when our daughter was born. I was so angry that God allowed her to be afflicted with a rare genetic condition that would require a lifetime of surgeries and specialists. But it was actually in God’s goodness that He made our daughter the way she is, Apert Syndrome and all. When I live moment to moment instead of in fear or worry about what might or might not happen to her, I appreciate the gift of now.

In all created things discern the providence and wisdom of God, and in all things give Him thanks (St. Teresa of Avila).

A second question appears: What are the talents God gave it to you? There is a common, but quite shallow, understanding of this parable that it teaches the need for us to put our natural gifts to work for God. Someone says: I play the piano and I would like to devote my talent to God. Another says: I think I have a gift for speaking and I would like to develop that talent and devote it to Christ.

What we learn from this parable is that we will be held accountable for what we do, or fail to do, with the opportunities God provides for us. So the talents of the parables are to us golden moments of opportunity to invest in the right direction.

The investment must be made wholly for the benefit of the absent Lord. The talent is not given to the servant for his own use. The unfaithful servant in the parable did not waste the master’s money, he wasted an opportunity. As a result he was judged wicked and lazy. I am sure we have all felt that wasted opportunity from time to time as it relates to sharing the Gospel and our relationship with the Most Holy Trinity.

These are the words of our father Founder regarding this spiritual and fully human investment:

Rather than denouncing, protesting or committing ourselves with the governments, we should promote, until the last effort, all the creative effort, projection of so many human talents, in the service of the salvific action of the Church. This way, it is possible to improve the cultural level of the peoples and the assistance they need in all aspects, with a most noble view, which is already victorious (Christ and his sense of enterprise).

The first servant was a man of faith. This is manifested by the fact that he went at once. Alexander the Great, when asked how he had conquered the world, replied: By not delaying. This servant did not waste any time in investing his master’s money; he didn’t want to lose even a day’s interest on that money, so he went at once. He was not fearful or lazy, but he believed so strongly that he could make a profit with his master’s money that he went at once.

But the lazy servant in the gospel kept the talent that his master entrusted to him, not so much out of fear as out of sheer ingratitude. If he was aware of how much confidence and love the master had for him in entrusting him with the talent, then surely he would have been so grateful and sought to increase that amount through investment, even if it was done conservatively. But he allowed it to stay idle, as if he had not even received it, and almost forgot all about it.

We are invited to take even the smallest steps in the direction of this God who loves us. He Himself can transform that littleness. All glory to Him forever.

Developing the talents we receive can have unexpected consequences, just because if I realize that all I have is a gift, that is not mine by right or entitlement but rather is lent to me by the Lord, I begin to understand how important it is to use God’s gifts wisely and to be accountable for the ways I use them. God crowns effort, not success, because sometimes we cannot control success. We can always, however, control our efforts God never gives to us more than we can handle. He knows our strengths and He knows our weaknesses. God never demands from a man abilities which he has not got; but he does demand that a man should use to the full the abilities which he does possess. Peter said it well: As each one has received a gift, minister it to one another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God.

Relating to gratitude, please, think about this “dynamics” of our ascetical and mystical life, I think it is fairly realistic:

In order to grow in humility, we must first be humiliated, and humility bears the fruit of charity and gratitude. A heart that loves God is so full (with talents, opportunities) that it cannot be contained within itself, and so its thankfulness is expressed through love, and apostolate, bringing others closer to Christ.

Perhaps we do not do world-shaking actions! Yet a small act of love to another person changes the world. The smallest act of faith transforms the whole universe: The righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of my Father. Our Heavenly Father knows what to do with our humble efforts.

Are we grateful for the talents we have received? Or have we forgotten what we have received freely from God through our parents, relatives, and friends and from the Christian community? St Paul reminds us: If anyone wants to boast, let him boast about the Lord.

Let me conclude with a beautiful story of L.B. Cowan, just in case you have to share this Parable with children:

 A king went into his garden one morning and found everything withered and dying. He asked the oak standing near the gate what the trouble was. The oak said it was sick of life and determined to die because it was not tall and beautiful like the pine. The pine was all troubled because it could not bear grapes, like the grapevine. The grapevine was going to throw its life away because it could not stand erect and produce fruit as big as the peach tree. The geranium was fretting because it was not tall and fragrant like the lilac. And so it was throughout the garden. Yet coming to a violet he found its bright face lifted as cheery as ever. Well, little violet, I’m glad, amidst all this discouragement, to find one brave little flower. You do not seem to be the least disheartened. No, I am not of much account, but I thought that if you wanted an oak, or a pine, or a lilac, you would have planted one. Since I knew you wanted a violet I am determined to be the best little violet I can be.