This past week all around our country families gathered to celebrate Thanksgiving Day, a day marked by family, food and football. Thanksgiving Day is a meaningful opportunity to relax, spend some time with family and reflect on the many things for which we should be grateful. Additionally, for many the Thanksgiving holiday also marks the official beginning of the Christmas season. In a sense this is fitting, for the entire Christmas season should be shaped by a thankfulness for all that Christmas represents.
Still, it is easy to celebrate the holiday season with the wrong kind of thanksgiving. That there can be such a thing as a “wrong kind of thanksgiving” may seem a bit odd, but it is well illustrated for us in one of Jesus’ parables: the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14). In this parable, which is told “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt” (18:9), a Pharisee and a tax collector made their way to the temple in Jerusalem to offer their daily prayer. When they arrived, however, their prayers sounded very different.
On the one hand, the Pharisee used his prayer as an opportunity to thank God for how wonderful the Pharisee was: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men…” (18:11-12). On the other hand, the tax collector, who did not feel worthy even to draw near the temple or lift up his eyes to heaven, offered a simple prayer characterized by humility: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (18:13). The Pharisee used his prayer of thanksgiving as an occasion for boasting and self-exaltation, whereas the tax collector prayed in a way that recognized his own sin and insufficiency before God. Not surprisingly, only the tax collector was accounted as righteous in God’s sight (18:14).
In the same way, it is possible for us to use this holiday season as an opportunity to feed not only our bellies but also our pride. As we consider all the things for which we should be grateful, it is easy for us to congratulate ourselves for our role in producing all that we possess. We can begin to consider that what we have comes to us as earnings, not as blessings (see 1 Corinthians 4:7; James 1:17). Equally sinister can be the sense that the virtues we possess—and are even “thankful for” as the Pharisee verbalized—contribute to our righteous standing before God and thus form the basis for exaltation of oneself and contempt of others. Ironically, then, we can use the Thanksgiving/Christmas season to stoke the fires of our own pride and self-exaltation.
Instead, let’s use this season as an occasion to remind ourselves of our own sins and insufficiencies as we relate to God and others. Let’s recognize, as the tax collector did, that our only hope for justification and righteousness in the present and on the future Day of Judgment is the mercy of God in Christ that we receive by repentance and faith. Let’s use this holiday to seek—and find—God’s mercy afresh, for in so doing we will find an abundance of grace that produces in us a heart of thanksgiving, to the glory of God (2 Corinthians 4:15; cf. Psalm 50:14-15). For only in this way will we express the right kind of thanksgiving.
Blessings in Christ, Joshua Greever
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