I once heard of a visiting minister who preached in the chapel at Yale University. He took as his outline the four letters: Y, A, L, E. He held forth for 16 minutes on youth. The audience was unimpressed. He went on for 17 minutes about ambition. By now the entire congregation was asleep.
Undaunted, he preached 14 minutes on loyalty, winding up with 13 minutes and 15 seconds on energy. At the close of the service he followed the choir in procession down the aisle and found a student in the last row still kneeling in prayer. He leaned over and said, “Perhaps you would be good enough to tell me what I said that moved you so deeply.” The young man answered, “I was just offering a prayer of thanks that I go to Yale and not the Massachusetts Institute of Technology!”
If you look hard enough, you can always find something for which to be grateful! Gratitude is at the heart of the gospel story of Simon’s house full of Pharisees and a nameless woman who walks in off the street. The contrast between them could hardly have been stronger.
Jesus described it in the way: “I came into your home, and you gave me no water for my feet. ... You did not welcome me with a kiss. ... You provided no olive oil for my head.” All of these were common courtesies, although they may sound strange to us. Simon had not even treated Jesus to the ordinary standards of hospitality.
Jesus asked: “Do you see this woman? She has washed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. ... She has not stopped kissing my feet since I came. ... She has covered my feet with perfume.”
Jesus described the difference in the attitude behind their actions with a riddle. Two men owe money to a money lender. One only owes a small amount – 50 coins. The other owes a fortune – 500 coins. Neither could pay it back. In an act of unexpected generosity, the lender cancels both debts. “Who,” he asked, “will be the most grateful?” Simon answered, “The one who was forgiven the most.” Jesus said, “You are right.”
The most important contrast between the woman and the Pharisees was not in their goodness, but in their gratitude; not in the measure of their righteousness, but in the measure of their response to the generosity of God. These Pharisees thought they were getting just what they deserved; but the woman, knowing that she had received infinitely more than she could ever ask or think, responded in extravagant gratitude.
The story is told of a man who went to have his portrait painted. As he sat down in front of the artist, he said, “Be sure to do me justice.” The artist responded, “You don’t need justice; what you need is mercy!” Don’t we all!
The story of the Pharisees and the woman cuts directly across the grain of the most common assumption upon which most of us operate. The assumption is this: everything I have is mine; I earned it and I can do with it whatever I want.
This is a half-truth and, therefore, also a half-lie. The half-truth is the second half: you can do what you want with what you have. Your time, your energy, your body, your mind, your relationships, your money, your freedom, your opportunities – you can do with them what you want. You can use or abuse them, save or squander them. It is up to you.
That is the half-truth. The half-lie is the front end: the assumption that everything we have is ours, that we earned it, and we deserve it. Both the Bible and human experience say that is a lie. We brought nothing into this world, and we will take nothing from it. You do not find luggage racks in maternity wards, and you cannot hook a U-Haul to a hearse! In the meantime, everything we have is on loan to us from a gracious, generous God.
It is said that Charles Darwin kept a notebook in which he used to jot down all the things that contradicted his theories. He knew that those would be precisely the things that he would tend to forget. Now I wonder if we ought not keep that kind of a notebook to record all the things we have received, things we never earned nor did anything to deserve, because those are precisely the things we tend to forget.
Here are some of the things I would list in my notebook. I was born in the United States. Put that in my notebook. I could have been born in the barren desert sands of Ethiopia, a child of starvation. I could have been born in the black ghettos of South Africa, under the demonic rule of a white minority. I could have been born in a hundred places under the oppression of totalitarianism. But I was born in the United States. I did not earn or deserve that. It was given to me as a gift.
I was also born into a Christian home, surrounded by people who knew the love of God and did everything in their power to help me experience that love. Put that in my notebook. I could have been born into a home where no one cared, where I had to learn to survive on my own, where the only mention of God would have been in the rampant profanity of our day. I did not deserve or earn the home into which I was born. It was a gift.
I love the words of Psalm 16: “The lines fall for me in pleasant places.” And they have. Put that in my notebook. When I was a child growing up in upstate South Carolina, who would have ever guessed that the lines of my life would lead me to places where I met (or was I given?) my wife?
Who would have ever guessed that the lines of my life would lead me through the bluegrass of Kentucky where I met some of the closest friends anyone could ever have? Who would have guessed that the lines would lead back to South Carolina? And then to Savannah, and finally back to Aiken.
Who could have ever guessed that, beyond heart-rending grief, I would be blessed again with a spouse and a son-by-choice, experiencing the renewal of life and the reaffirmation of love? I did not ask for that; I did not earn or deserve it. It was given to me as a gift.
I learned this lesson from a man I met some years ago. He was not famous or wealthy. He worked most of his life as the manager of a clothes store. When I met him, he was moving into the final stages of his battle with cancer. He was in pain most of the time, unable to do very much to help himself.
However, if asked how the man was doing, his daughter would say, “Well, it’s rough, really rough. But my dad figures that when you put it all in the balance, life has been so good to him that nothing that happens from here on out could change that.”
When he died, he did not leave a large estate of material goods. He did leave a daughter who is one of the finest Christian physicians I have ever met. He also left for me the memory of a person who knew what the psalmist meant: “All the good things I have come from You. You, Lord, are all I have, and You give me all I need; My future is in Your hands. How wonderful are Your gifts to me; How good they are!”
Take out your own notebook and begin your list. Perhaps you, like the grateful woman, will respond to God’s gracious goodness with extravagant gratitude.
Rev. Dr. Fred Andrea is Aiken’s First Baptist Church’s pastor.