Many years ago, Arthur Simon, a well-known advocate for the poor, was visiting the African nation of Mozambique during a severe famine. He and his companions came across a group of refuges who had left their village in search of food. They had only the tattered clothes on their backs and a few cooking pots. At night they slept in makeshift tents, and by day they foraged for berries, nuts and little creatures to supplement the meager daily ration of grain provided by a relief agency. Many of their number had died, and each of them had a terrible personal tale to tell. Yet, as Simon was preparing to leave them, a group of their women began to sing, clap, and dance in a circle. They were obviously happy, and Simon asked an interpreter what it was they were singing. What he heard came as a shock. These impoverished and hungry refugees who had endured such hardships were singing, "We have food! We have clothes! We have everything!" They had so little, and yet they were so grateful.
I find a story like this amazing. I know that, in spite of the blessings that surround me, I sometimes grumble about my situation, and I am both ashamed and inspired by the witness of those, like the women in Mozambique, who are truly grateful for the little they have. If I were in their shoes, I wonder how I might react to those circumstances. Would I be able to express gratitude? Or would I be nothing but bitter?
Today’s Scripture readings remind us that we, God’s people, often fail to be as grateful as we might be. For instance, we heard how Naaman the Syrian was grateful for the healing ministry of Elisha the prophet, in contrast to God’s people, who had rejected Elisha’s ministry. In the gospel we heard how Jesus healed ten lepers. Yet only one of them came back to thank Jesus, and he was a Samaritan- not considered to be one of God’s people, while the other nine were.
You and I are people of God. Are we truly grateful for all that God has done for us? It’s a question we need to ask ourselves, because all of us, at times, can come up a little short in the gratitude department, for any number of reasons. Sometimes we take our blessings for granted. We think we’re entitled to them or that we’ve earned them, and we forget that they’re gifts from God. Maybe we’re resentful about things we want but don’t have, and we stop being grateful for the things we do have. It’s so easy for envy and self-pity to squeeze gratitude out of our hearts. Or it could be that we so often focus upon the negative, that we fail to ever see the positive. That’s why it’s important for us to cultivate gratitude, by intentionally counting our blessings, and thanking God for them.
At a human level, cultivating gratitude is certainly worth the effort. Study after study has shown that grateful people are happier and healthier. One interesting study had a group of healthy young adults make a daily list of things they were thankful for, while another group of healthy young adults made lists of headaches and hassles instead. Two other groups consisted of people with chronic neuromuscular disease. One counted blessings, the other tracked what they thought were the opposite. After three weeks of this, the participants who counted blessings- both the healthy and the ill- reported feeling more energetic and optimistic than the other participants, and they slept better as well. Furthermore, the grateful groups were more likely to reach out and help those with personal problems and offer them emotional support. This suggests that while ungrateful people are focused mostly upon their own needs, grateful people are more likely to consider the needs of others. In other words, ingratitude breeds selfishness, and gratitude inspires service.
Maybe that last insight can help us to appreciate what Jesus did for us at the Last Supper. Our Lord knew that he was about to be betrayed by a friend, and that he’d be abandoned, rejected, tortured, and brutally executed. Yet in spite of that, he was still able to be grateful- grateful to do God’s will, and grateful to be able to do something that would help those he loved, namely, suffer and die for them that they might live forever. Because he was grateful, he was able to think of us. What’s more, he left us a sacrament at that Last Supper- the Eucharist, which is a Greek word meaning "thanksgiving." In his darkest hour, Jesus gave us this gift so that we, like him, might give thanks to God, even when things seem pretty dark for us.
Jesus commands us to celebrate the Eucharist every Sunday. You might say then that Jesus commands us to be grateful, because he knows how easy it is for us to be ungrateful. He saw that when nine lepers he had healed ran off and left him behind, without even offering a simple word of thanks.
All of us have things that we should thank God for, but don’t. This doesn’t need to be the case, however. We can make a special effort to identify our blessings, especially those we often overlook or undervalue. Let’s try that this week. Like the women in Mozambique, let’s not forget the basics- food, clothing, life itself. Let’s include family, friends, work, freedom and little things like a cool breeze or a fresh cup of coffee. Then there are those challenges that help us grow, and the lessons we’ve learned through hardship. Most of all, there’s God’s love for us, his gifts of faith and hope, and his promise of eternal life. Then, once we’ve counted our blessings, let’s bring them all in our heart to our next Eucharist and offer praise and thanksgiving to God the Father, in union with Jesus, who himself has shown us the way.