“Thanksgiving,” or some variation of the word, is found in the Bible more than 120 times -- almost always in a positive context. But I've always thought a passage of Scripture in which gratitude to God is portrayed as not only improper but perhaps even sinful best explains why we are right to celebrate today.
Abraham Lincoln may have felt much same way when he established a “day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father.” It was 1863, in the midst of a Civil War that would claim more than 600,000 lives, including his own. Even so, he was moved to acknowledge “bounties which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come . . . They are gracious gifts of the most high God who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.”
The militant secularists have been so obsessed with scrubbing all religious references from Christmas that they have overlooked the true meaning of the first of the season's major “holidays.” Only narcissists are grateful to or for themselves, after all. The act of thanksgiving is inherently directed outward, toward others. And while it is appropriate to express gratitude toward friends, family and others, Lincoln's proclamation left no doubt as from whom those and all other blessings flow.
And that's precisely why Christ's parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector so perfectly explains why Lincoln could give thanks for God's blessings in the midst of the worst carnage this nation has even known – and why we should continue to guard against making Thanksgiving more about us, and less about God.
The parable, recorded in Luke, explains that the both men had gone to the temple to pray but that the Pharisee stood up and thanked God that he was “not like other men – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.”
The tax collector, meanwhile, stood at a distance and would not even look up. Instead, he beat his breast and prayed, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Christ assured his listeners that only the reviled tax collector went home justified before God, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
This is grace – blessings bestowed upon us by God without any worthiness on our part. We cannot earn it, but we can and should give thanks for it.
In America today, unfortunately, there is growing willingness to talk about physical possessions as “entitlements.” But why should anyone be grateful for something they have a right to receive – and other people have an obligation to provide?
It is unfair to compare almost any president to Lincoln, and I did not intend to inject politics into this column. But as I began writing I (and no doubt millions of others) received an e-mailed Thanksgiving greeting from First Lady Michelle Obama, and the contrast is too stark to ignore.
After listing a litany of alleged political accomplishments, Michelle Obama closes with: “As you spend time with your loved ones this holiday season, be sure to talk with them about what health care can mean for them.”
That's right: There was no mention of the Almighty, but plenty of encouragement to thank the president for the Affordable Care Act. Everyone else, presumably, is left to thank God their coverage hasn't yet been canceled because of Obamacare.
Lincoln's own political difficulties dwarfed Obama's, yet he thanked God for “fruitful fields and healthful skies” and admitted that “no human counsel hath devised, nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things.”
For that reason, he appropriately called upon Americans to give thanks in a way that radiates outward, not inward. It is not self-congratulatory, neither does it solicit recognition or gratitude.
For some, family or financial circumstances make the holidays less than joyous. But that is precisely the beauty and power of Lincoln's message, and of Christ's parable: Even in the midst of sorrow, rejection, misery or death, God's grace prevails. Perhaps especially there.
America has been, is and always will be far from perfect. But as long as it is still wise enough and humble enough to give thanks, it has hope.