For what are you grateful?

“Thank God I’m not like that schlemiel.”

Well, okay, that’s not exactly how the parable goes. You probably know the story:

Two people went up to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed about himself with these words, ‘God, I thank you that I’m not like everyone else—crooks, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week. I give a tenth of everything I receive.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance. He wouldn’t even lift his eyes to look toward heaven. Rather, he struck his chest and said, ‘God, show mercy to me, a sinner.’ I tell you, this person went down to his home justified rather than the Pharisee. All who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those who make themselves low will be lifted up. (Luke 18:10-15, CEB)

Jesus tells this cautionary tale to challenge those who were so certain of their own righteousness that they looked down their spiritual noses at everyone else. It would have been doubly shocking to his audience to hear a story in which the Pharisee was the villain, and a tax collector — that dirty, rotten traitor to his people! — was the hero. But that’s the way of Jesus’ parables; they tend to turn our social assumptions upside-down.

Today, on Thanksgiving, I want to take a moment to reflect on what the parable might teach us about giving thanks. The Pharisee gives the appearance of offering a prayer of gratitude to God — but I think it’s fair to question whether this is truly a prayer at all. At best, his blatantly self-congratulatory words are directed toward a caricature of God; at worst, he’s merely talking to himself, because he has become the god of his own moral universe.

The tax collector, however, for all his reprehensible past, is actually praying to God. He doesn’t even dare to look heavenward, for he knows more deeply than the Pharisee does what kind of righteousness God demands, and finds himself wanting.

I’m not suggesting that we sit around our Thanksgiving tables beating our breasts. But I am asking us to consider the extent to which our prayers of thanks might be unknowingly tinged with self-congratulation. Do we thank God, for example, for the blessings that come with our socially privileged place in society? That may be more an expression of civil religion than biblical faith.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t be grateful as we “count our blessings.” But what perception of God lies beneath? Are we praying to a god who gives nice things to nice people? Or to the God who in his infinite justice champions the poor and destitute?

How can we know the difference? Think of all the things for which you might say “thanks,” then ask yourself: would I still be grateful to God even if all these were taken away? Of what would such gratitude consist?

Whether our table is richly or sparsely spread, therefore, let us thank God that our lives are bathed in a mercy we don’t deserve. For therein lies a gratitude that can never be taken away.