Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: The Difference Between Thanksgiving & Gratitude

This Thanksgiving Day, I’d like to share some thoughts about the difference between “feelings of gratitude” on the one hand, and “actions of thanksgiving” on the other.

There’s a Bible story that helps us realize there is a big difference between “gratitude” and “thanksgiving,” and that’s the story found in the Gospel of Luke (Luke 17:11-19) where Jesus heals ten lepers of their disease.

What’s referred to as “leprosy” in Jesus’ day was actually a whole host of dreaded skin diseases. The physical aspect of the diseases were bad – deformities and pain. What made it even worse was the isolation it brought – for centuries before Jesus, and certainly in Jesus’ time, the disease was considered a defilement. . . according to Levitical law, lepers were to be “put outside the camp,” unclean, not to be touched or even associated with.

So as bad as the physical aspect of the disease was, perhaps the worst aspect was the way people dealt with it – quarantine, isolation.

That is why the lepers in this story, even though they approach Jesus, were “keeping their distance.” They had to; they were required to.

But they call out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”

When Jesus sees them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.”

That would have been an odd response. In Leviticus there is an elaborate ritual for someone showing themselves to the priests who have been already been healed of leprosy. . . what sacrifices should be made, what oils are to be used, how long the waiting period should be to be certain the cure is permanent, the specific conditions of the timing of one’s re-entry into society, and so on.

At this point in the story, they still have the disease. But they’re told to show themselves to the priests as if they were already cured. So they head off to do so.

And as they went, they were made clean.

All ten of them were cured of this disease.

But only one of those cured lepers turns back to give thanks.

Now again, remember: ten lepers – ten different people – are cured of a dread disease, a disease that excluded them from society and reduced them to miserable lives as beggars.

Can you imagine? One minute they are suffering from deteriorating skin and are social outcasts, and the next minute, at the healing word of Jesus, all of a sudden their skin is smooth and they are on their way to the temple to be restored to society.

The possibilities! The excitement! The feeling of gratitude!

The joy they must have felt.

All ten lepers were likely filled with an enormous sense of gratitude. How could they not be? Their lives had just been radically changed.

But one of them, “seeing that he was cured,” turned back, came back.

One – only one man – gave thanks. But only one, “seeing that he was cured,” turned back, came back, and gave thanks.

Again, I don’t think the other nine were ingrates. They were probably in a hurry to show themselves to the priest because the re-entry process took months, once you were declared clean. It’s understandable that they wanted to get the clock running ASAP.

But only one turned his feelings of gratitude into tangible, visible, audible actions of thanksgiving.

Like the other nine, this man cried out for help and was made clean (cured), and was going on his way to be restored to society.

But unlike the other nine, this man, “seeing that he was cured,” turned back…came back, knelt down before Jesus.

This man, in other words, did something with his “feeling of gratitude” to turn it into an action of thanksgiving.

What’s the difference? It’s worth considering this Thanksgiving Day:

“Gratitude” is a feeling…

…“thanks-giving” is an action.

For example: I am grateful for someone’s initiative, hard work, team spirit and drive.

That is a thought…a feeling I have…an emotion.

Here’s the thing: that someone may, or may not be aware of my gratitude: how could they be?

People are not aware of our feelings of gratitude unless we take some action of thanksgiving.

This Thanksgiving, most of us will spend a few minutes reflecting on those things or people for which we are grateful. What if you were take another moment and ask yourself “how will I turn my feeling of gratitude” into a concrete, tangible action of thanks-giving?”

This Thanksgiving, do yourself, and someone else, a favor, and

1) spend a few minutes thinking about something for which you are grateful. For what, or whom, are you grateful?

2) Figure out a way to translate your feeling of gratitude into a tangible, visible action of thanksgiving.

What note…email…phone call…small gift or favor…can you do to translate your “feeling of gratitude” into an“action of Thanks-giving”?


 John Ohmer is Rector at The Falls Church Episcopal.