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Speaking to the Soul: The Danger of Thanks

Speaking to the Soul: The Danger of Thanks

Proper 4, Year One

[Go to Mission St Clare for an online version of the Daily Office including today’s scripture readings.]


Today’s Readings for the Daily Office:
Psalms 40, 54 (morning) // 51 (evening)

Deuteronomy 26:1-11

2 Corinthians 8:16-24

Luke 18:9-14

Although our daily lives of prayer can often benefit from a more intentional practice of gratitude,  today’s gospel reminds us that some unhealthy prayers begin with the words, “God, I thank you.” In today’s Scripture reading, Jesus contrasts the prayers of two people, a Pharisee and a tax collector. The Pharisee starts his prayer, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” The tax collector, on the other hand, keeps his prayer short and simple: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

Even if our words of prayer don’t condemn others as directly as the Pharisee, our prayers of thanksgiving might imply that God has favored us over someone else. For example, we may give thanks for the greater share of goods and opportunities that have come our way, but perhaps we have received them due more to our social privileges than to God’s generosity. And when we give thanks for the ways we’ve been spared or healed, what do we suggest about the equally faithful people who have not survived the same disasters or illnesses? Are we thanking God for preferential treatment?

There’s always a danger in prayers that begin, “God, I thank you.” But the most dangerous part of that prayer might not be the thanks so much as the “I”, which narrows our prayers to thanking God for the gifts that have been funneled to us and ours.

In our prayers of thanksgiving, we can strive instead to thank God for this world’s resource–insofar as they suffice for human flourishing, but not insofar as they are unevenly distributed. And we can thank God for the salvation extended to all people and not simply as it is bestowed on those judged to be adequately faithful or righteous.

Our prayers of gratitude can help us savor the material goodness, the creative opportunities, and the companions of this life. Prayers of thanksgiving can also help us savor whatever life and health is in us, for however long they last, since life and health are not rewards or guarantees. But as we thank God, may we never forget the dangers of praying at the expense of others.

Lora Walsh blogs about taking risks and seeking grace at A Daily Scandal. She serves as curate of Grace Episcopal Church in Siloam Springs and as director of the Ark Fellows, an Episcopal Service Corps  program sponsored by St. Paul’s in Fayetteville, Arkansas.


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