As a college German major, I’ve known for a while of a curiosity in that language. In German if you thank someone by saying “Danke,” the person whom you are thanking is likely to respond with “Bitte,” which is the German equivalent of “You’re welcome.” Except that “bitte” is also the word for “please” and is further a cognate of the verb “bitten,” which means to ask for something, to make a request (it may even be an off-shoot of “beten” which is the German verb for “to pray”).
A few years ago we lived near an Italian family and so whenever the children of this family came over to play with my kids, I’d try to learn a little Italian. One day I asked the oldest girl in that family how to say “You’re welcome” in Italian. I already knew how to say “Grazie” (“thank you”) but didn’t know how to respond if someone said “Grazie” to me. She said to say “Prego.” She then said that curiously enough a form of that word (“prega”) can also mean “please” and that the verb form (“pregare”) can mean to ask for something or even to pray for something.
And a little linguistic light bulb went off in my head: in German and Italian “bitte” and “prego” as a way of saying “you’re welcome” loop around to words that have to do with asking for something in the first place. Linguistically both languages suggest a tight connection between the asking for something and the subsequent giving thanks for it in the form of what the thanked person says in reply to your word of gratitude.
Please. Thank you. You’re welcome.
Bitte. Danke. Bitte.
Prega. Grazie. Prego.
You ask for something and you perhaps say “Please.” You get what you ask for and after saying “Thanks,” the person whom you are thanking gives your original “please” a half-twist so as to turn it into “you’re welcome,” completing a kind of natural cycle, closing a kind of natural loop.
And make no mistake: it is a natural loop. When it is not closed, when the circle is not completed, things are out of joint. Unexpressed thanks is an insidious way to hurt someone. A sin of omission if ever there were one, a lack of thanks-giving is a passive form of verbal abuse. We all know how we can wound people through what we actively spew out of our mouths. But silence can have a heft all its own–failing to thank people is an emptiness with substance, a gratitude vacuum that suffocates. As Lewis Smedes reminds us, life is out of joint when we fail to give thanks. The insensate way by which some people receive and receive and receive yet without ever saying “Thank you” is a baffling phenomenon–baffling, it seems, even to God, as this brief story in Luke 17 makes clear.
“Didn’t I heal ten lepers? Where are the other nine? Was no one found to praise God except this foreigner?” That last question is the narrative time-bomb of this story: the only thankful leper was a Samaritan. The nine Jewish lepers didn’t say a word to Jesus. Only the “loathsome” (by Jewish standards) Samaritan comes back to render proper thanks.
Ingratitude little by little kills those who never receive the gratitude they deserve in life. But anything that kills others is not exactly healthy for the person who fails to say “Thanks” either. Failing to express gratitude sooner or later coarsens us even as it fosters an undue sense of entitlement. After a time, we don’t deign to say “Thank you” to various workers in our lives because we feel we deserve the service they’ve rendered. We’ve earned it. We’ve paid our dues, laid down our cash, slaved away at our own job to make this dinner out, this vacation, this shopping spree possible. To say “Thank you” to certain people would be to admit that maybe what we’re getting in life is less an accomplishment and more part and parcel of the larger gift of God. But for some people that is simply too demeaning.
In the film The Remains of the Day, Anthony Hopkins plays a butler to a super-rich family. While researching this role, Mr. Hopkins interviewed a real-life butler. This butler told Hopkins that his goal in life is complete and total obsequiousness–a skilled ability to blend into the woodwork of any room like a mere fixture, on a par with table lamps and andirons. In fact, Anthony Hopkins said one sentence he will never forget is when this man said that you can sum up an excellent butler this way: “The room seems emptier when he’s in it.”
The room seems emptier when he’s in it. The goal is to do your work, fill your wine glasses, clear the plates and silverware without being noticed, much less thanked. But that’s just the problem with routine ingratitude: it makes people disappear. You are the center of your own universe and others don’t warrant entree into that inner sanctum of yourself.
But a simple word of thanks makes people visible again, it humanizes them. In the film Schindler’s List, the evil camp commandant, Amon Goeth, was known to deal with boredom by taking his rifle and randomly shooting passing Jews from his balcony. They weren’t human to him, they were just animals. All except for Helen Hirsch, who becomes his maid and for whom he develops affection. The startling moment when Oskar Schindler realizes this is when Helen quietly steals into the room and clears a plate of cookies. But before she is able silently to exit the room, Goeth says, “Helen, thank you.” He noticed her. He humanized her. And it showed because he thanked her. He thanked her by name.
“What is the chief goal of human life?” the Westminster Catechism famously asks in its opening question and answer. “To glorify God and enjoy Him forever,” is the answer. A chief way we do that is by thanking God moment by moment for the gifts that God has lavished upon us. That great big gratitude sounds a keynote and sets the tone for all of life, which means that Christians should just generally be the most polite, thankful people around. We are on the lookout for chances to say little words of thanks to all kinds of people as the natural, effervescent overflow of the thanks that constantly bubbles up in our hearts.
After expressing his wonderment at the fact that only 1 out of 10 had returned with thanksgiving, Jesus says to the Samaritan who did come back, “Rise and go; your faith has saved you.” Has SAVED you. That’s what it literally says in the Greek, although most Bibles translate it as “healed you” or perhaps “has made you whole.” All ten lepers were healed, but there is a hint in Jesus’ final words that maybe just the one who came back to say “Thank you” was also saved in some deeper sense. Perhaps we could guess that only those who properly respond to the goodness of God show that they “get it,” they understand how the universe works and so in that way show that salvation is operative in their lives.
In her novel, Ladder of Years, Anne Tyler introduces us to Delia Grinstead. Delia is a lovely,
loveable, and utterly giving wife and mother who regularly does her level best to keep her household running smoothly. But as her children grow up, they become “great, galumphing, unmannerly, and supercilious creatures” who ignore Delia and who flinch from her hugs. What’s more, they expect that their favorite foods will always be in the pantry or the fridge, but they never thank Delia for purchasing these sundries (though they will complain loudly should she forget one day). Meanwhile Delia’s husband is so wrapped up in his medical practice that he, too, brushes past Delia day in and day out, regularly failing to notice the spic-n-span house, the clean laundry, the warm food set before his distracted face each evening.
After years of this neglect, Delia begins to feel like “a tiny gnat, whirring around her family’s edges.” Their ongoing lack of gratitude has killed something in Delia–not all at once, mind you, but day by day Delia dies a little, wilting like a flower that receives too little moisture. She doesn’t even realize how dead she has become until one day she meets someone who is kind, who thanks Delia for a little something. This stranger’s kind gratitude is like a few precious drops of water applied to her soul–a few little thankful droplets that reveal just how dry, cracked, and barren the landscape of her soul had become.
Finally the day comes when Delia just walks away from her family. She’s taking a stroll on a beach and just keeps on going. Once her family realizes she is missing, they have a curiously difficult time describing Delia to the police. They just can’t seem to recall the color of her eyes, her height or weight, what she was wearing when they last saw her. Of course, they’d never really seen her to begin with. They had been blinded by ingratitude.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 13, 2019
Luke 17:11-19 Commentary