Seven months ago, my niece gave birth to a baby boy. A month ago, my nephew’s wife also gave birth to a baby son. The warm blankets with which these babies are wrapped represent the love and care which surround the children in their infancy. Like a protective shield, loving people surround the children. The babies are fed, clothed, changed and bathed. The children are always receiving. Nothing is expected back, except, perhaps occasional sparks of recognition in their eyes or perhaps a coy smile.

As the months proceed, the children will begin to repeat words. Two words that their parents hope will be part of their vocabulary are, “Thank you.” Of course, the words have no meaning to the small children, other than that it makes the parents happy. The parents are happy because, in a small way, the children are beginning to appreciate the kindness of other people.

Many parents teach their children small prayers, for instance before meals or before going to bed. These simple prayers acknowledge that food and all the good things of life are gifts from God.

In the first years of school, the children slowly learn to read, to write, to add, to subtract, to sing and to play. Still, the parents never tire of reminding the growing children of the two words that acknowledge the generosity and kindness of others. In truth, we never stop learning to say, “Thank you.”

In today’s Gospel (Luke 17:11-19), ten lepers call out to Jesus from their distance: “Master, have pity on us.” Of course, Jesus pitied them. When their disease was recognized, they were forced to leave their families and their homes and live on the margins of society. People who loved them might leave off small bundles of food or clothes. Otherwise their only companions were others afflicted with leprosy.

Jesus healed them in an unusual way. Even though they had not yet been healed, Jesus sent them to show themselves to the priests, which the Book of Leviticus prescribed for those who recovered from leprosy (Lev 14:3-4). As they went, they were healed.

One came back and thanked Jesus. Of course, they were all relieved that their sufferings were over. They wanted to go back to their families and get started on their lives afresh. In a way, their behavior was understandable. Still, they were oblivious to the fact that the wonderful change in their lives had been given to them by a person.

Jesus was disappointed. Healing the external scars of their illness was only the beginning of what Jesus wanted to give them. St. Thomas Aquinas has said, “The purpose of the outward healings worked by Christ is the healing of the soul” (3a. 44, 3, ad 3).[1] The deeper healing was the ability to appreciate God’s goodness.

Almost everyone would agree with St. Thomas Aquinas that gratitude is a virtue, an almost- permanent inclination to act in a good way. Thomas considers the virtue of gratitude as a sub-category of the virtue of justice. Justice inclines one to give each person what is rightfully hers or his. Gratitude, which Thomas describes as “excelling thankfulness,” is a repayment for benefits that have been received (2a2ae. 106, 1).

St. Thomas attests that the first one to whom we should be grateful is God, “the primary source of all that we have” (2a2ae. 106, 1). If we stop for a moment and think, we can realize that life itself is the most wonderful gift. Our parents, our families, our minds, our souls, our bodies with all their parts, are wonderful gifts, as is even the faith with which we enables us to see the meaning of all that is. Nothing in this marvelous world had to be, not even ourselves.

Thomas asserts that the second ones to whom we owe gratitude are our parents, upon whom we depend for our “birth and upbringing” (2a2ae. 106, 1). For Thomas, gratitude reflects the relationship with our benefactors. Parents have a right to receive “honor and reverence and, when in need, help and support” (2a2ae. 106, 3).

We owe gratitude to those leaders of society who enable our way of life. We owe gratitude to those from whom “we have received some special, personal kindness” (2a2ae. 106, 1).

Thomas offers a general principle: “The thanks of the one who receives responds to the graciousness of the one who gives, and should therefore be greater where greater favor has been shown. A favor is a thing that is done freely” (2a2ae. 106, 2).

The value of the gift isn’t just the gift itself but the value to the person. Thomas notes, “A small gift given to a poor person is more precious than an expensive gift to a wealthy person” (2a2ae. 106, 2).

Every person can be grateful “A poor person is not without gratitude as long as he does what he can. Since kindness depends on the heart rather than on the deed, gratitude depends chiefly on the heart” (2a2ae. 106, 3, ad 5). Thomas explains: “No one is excused from gratitude through inability to repay, for the very reason that the mere will suffices for repayment of the debt of gratitude” (2a2ae. 107, 1, ad 2).

Even when what we have been given may have come from mixed motives, Thomas believes that we should also be grateful: “To be more conscious of good than of evil is a mark of goodness of heart” (2a2ae. 106, 3, ad 2).

We can be grateful to those who don’t seem to need our thanks: “However well off a man may be, it is possible to thank him for his kindness by showing him reverence and honor” (2a2ae. 106, 3, ad 5). Whatever type of person a benefactor may be, “the kindness he has shown should be held in memory” (2a2ae. 106, 3, ad 5).

Thomas affirms that the significance of the gift depends on “the affection of the heart and the gift itself” (2a2ae. 106, 4).

The gift is not so much what has been received as much as the intention, “Gratitude regards the disposition of the giver more than what was given” (2a2ae. 106, 5). Thomas teaches that we should recognize the kindness in the will of the giver: “Every moral act depends on the will. Hence, a kindly action, in so far as it is praiseworthy and is deserving of gratitude consists in the thing done but formally and chiefly in the will” (2a2ae. 106, 5, ad 1).

Thomas reflects that only God knows a person’s disposition but there are signs that help us know: “A benefactor’s disposition is known by the way in which he does the kindly action, for instance through his doing it joyfully and readily” (2a2ae. 106, 5, ad 3).

Thomas proposes that since the benefactor gave freely, our response should go further than the benefactor in order to also give freely (2a2ae. 106, 6). In other words, if our response is equal to what we have received, it isn’t freely-given. In returning thanks, “the affection of the heart should be made at once” although we might respond with a gift at a suitable occasion (2a2ae. 106, 4).

In some instances, it seems that our gratitude can never be enough: “If we consider the benefits that a child receives from parents, namely, to be and to live, the child cannot make an equal repayment but if we consider the will of the giver and of the one wanting to repay… If the child is unable to repay, the will to pay back would be sufficient for gratitude” ((2a2ae. 106, 6, ad 1).

According to Thomas, ingratitude is always a sin because the debt of gratitude is a moral debt and the sin is contrary to the virtue of gratitude, even if it happens through forgetfulness which is negligence (2a2ae. 107, 1). Thomas affirms: “A debt in gratitude has is origins in the indebtedness of love, from which no one should want to be freed. When someone is unwilling to owe this debt, there is a lack of love for the benefactor” (2a2ae. 107, 1, ad 3).

Thomas proposes three steps in gratitude: “The first is that the person admit that he/she has received a favor; the second, that he/she praises it and expresses thanks; the third that he/she repay it in the proper circumstances and according to his/her means” (2a2ae. 107, 2). The sins of ingratitude correspond to the three steps in that failure to admit the favor is the most serious, failure to express thanks is somewhat less serious and failure to repay is the least serious.

Thomas thinks that we should not be quick to assume that a person is ungrateful. Rather, we should try to encourage gratitude: “The one who gives should be inclined to turn the person’s ingratitude into gratitude. If he does not achieve this by being kind once, he may try again. If the more he/she repeats the favors and the person becomes more ungrateful then the giver should cease giving favors” (2a2ae. 107, 4).

In general, Thomas’ attitude is to be patient with the ungrateful: “Whoever bestows a favor must not quickly become an avenger of ingratitude, but, as a kindly physician, seek by repeated kindness to remedy it” (2a2ae. 107, 4, ad 3). Surely, that is the approach that God has taken with many of us.

Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.

 


[1] References to St. Thomas’ Summa Theologiae give the part of the Summa, which, in this case, is the third part. Then the question is given, which here is question 44 and then the article, which here, is the 3rd. If the reference is from Thomas response to an objection, the number of the objection is added, with the Latin word, ad, meaning “to,” in this case, it is the reply to the third objection.