On Gratitude and Duty ~ Robert Arbogast

Meditation by Robert Arbogast. Minister at Olentangy Christian Reformed Church ~ Columbus, Ohio

Who of us doesn’t like to be appreciated? To get a pat on the back, to get an “attaboy” — that
makes us feel good inside. It can validate our passions and commitments. It can encourage us to
keep going, even when the going is tough.Good leaders know how to motivate people, how to get them going and keep them going. To do this, good leaders have different motivational tools at their disposal. Wise leaders know the right time to use each tool. And there certainly is a time to say an “attaboy,” to say, “Well done!” Because we all like to be appreciated. And being appreciated motivates us, keeps us going. Jesus acknowledges the importance of this kind of appreciation. According to one of his parables, about the most wonderful thing to hear is, “Well done, good and trustworthy servant” (Matthew25:21). “Well done.” The hope of hearing that from Jesus himself is a real motivation for the Christian. But there is a flip side to this picture. Luke 17 takes us there. Appreciation may be a wonderful thing. But Jesus says, “Don’t expect a big ‘Thank you’ just for doing your duty.” We’ve going the other way in our culture: On 9/11, nine years ago yesterday, 343 members of the fire department, sixty police officers, and eight private paramedics died at the World Trade Center in New York City. Our leaders were quick to label them “heroes.” We all agreed. Since October 2001, US military personnel have been engaged in conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Once again, our leaders have labeled them “heroes.” Our little village of Sunbury is the home of the “Ohio Fallen Heroes Memorial,” in honor of many sacrifices made by our military in those conflicts. When he successfully ditched US Airways flight 1549 in the Hudson River in January 2009 with no loss of life, Captain Chesley Sullenberger was hailed as a “hero.” Who could disagree? When giant African pouched rats were trained to detect live land mines — land mines that make vast stretches of land in dozens of African countries useless — they, the rats, were given a brand name: Hero Rats.

Two common threads are clearly visible in all these cases. First, a sincere desire to express
appreciation for what has been done, and to acknowledge its significance. Rightly so. Second, in each case, those involved were doing their duty, doing what they had signed up for (okay, maybe not the rats!), doing what they had been trained to do. My understanding is that most people labeled “heroes” don’t themselves think the label fits.Again and again, they say they were just doing their duty, just doing what they had been trained for, what they had prepared for. For that reason, they don’t consider themselves heroes. People like thatare modest models for the followers of Jesus.

They teach us an important lesson. The Kingdom of God requires a lot from us. Certain duties are imposed upon us: We have a duty to be a watchful, wide awake people, faithful in worship, diligent in prayer, not fitting worship and prayer into our schedules, but building our schedules around worship and prayer. We have a duty to be culturally aware and, where necessary, culturally resistant, not surfing uncritically on political waves, not buying conventional wisdom about “the good life” and how to get there. We have a duty to seek first God’s kingdom and its justice, not worrying so much about me getting mine, but about everyone flourishing, letting a kingdom-first perspective shape my life, shaping, to take one example, my spending and giving habits, recognizing that my paycheck or investment dividend is not mine, it’s God’s, all of it, to be used for God’s purposes, which have more than my comfort in mind.

When we do these sorts of things and more, when we live this way, our Lord tells us not to
imagine that we’re doing anything special or heroic. We’re just doing our duty. It’s what we signed up for through faith. It’s what discipleship trains us to do. “Don’t expect to be thanked,” Jesus says. Actually it runs just the other way around. It’s no accident that the following story in Luke 17 is about the ten lepers. A key issue in that story is gratitude. But notice the way it runs. It runs from the lepers, one of them anyway, to Jesus. That one leper had things right. He came back, fell before Jesus, and poured out his gratitude. And he had reason for gratitude.

In our day we try to be sensitive. We try not to define or identify someone by a disease or
disability. But those ten men were defined by “leprosy,” by a skin disorder, or something worse, that marked them. They were set apart from other people, but not as heroes. They were at best victims, at worst objects of scorn.But on their way to the local religious officials, the ones who certified diseases and cures, who
decided matters of exclusion and inclusion — on the way, they were healed. In other words, they
were re-defined, and the world was about to be re-opened to them. And one of them, a Samaritan
— who, according to common wisdom, should not have known better — one of them came back to say, “Thank you,” to show gratitude to Jesus for a new life. That’s the direction of Christian discipleship. Disciples don’t expect Jesus to say, “Thanks so much. You’ve really been pitching in lately.” Not at all. As a matter of fact, it’s just the other way around. All of discipleship, every task, every duty, every commitment, is our way of saying, “Thank you,” to Jesus.

Our Heidelberg Catechism asks, What do I need to know to live and to die in the joy of the
comfort of belonging to Jesus? The answer is in three parts, and this is the third: How I am to thank God, how I am to show gratitude, for the new life I have in Christ (cp. QA 2). That’s our motivation, gratitude. And how can we not be grateful? The story of the lepers makes the point. Those ten lepers live in a world apart. It’s a restricted world defined by brokenness. It’s a world of alienation, of separation. And it’s a world that will go on and on, because the rules and definitions are fixed.

Then Jesus turns things upside down. He creates a new world and welcomes those ten men into it. It’s a world of connection and communion. It’s a world of wholeness. It’s a world they had only dreamed of. One of them enters that world most fully — most fully, because he went back to its source, went back overwhelmed and overflowing with gratitude. Here’s the Gospel. The old world was a dark world of brokenness and alienation, a world scarred by sin and ruled by death, a world of misery, injustice, abandonment. But Jesus broke the back of that old world. Sin and death exhausted themselves on him. They are spent forces, flailing about still, but on the road to extinction. And so they could not hold him. And he rose, giving birth to a new world, a new world that gathers in broken and ruined people, a new world that by God’s grace we have begun to taste and see. We haven’t seen it all, not by any stretch. But we’ve seen enough. And we do get our tastes. And we have faith in Jesus, faith by which we are sure of what we hope for and certain of what we don’t see (Hebrews 11:1). And so we are grateful. Because a new world is born, and by God’s grace we are born (again) into it!

Some people would give anything to see the future. We do see the future in Jesus Christ. And
that future is, and always will be, our home. So, for us, life is all about saying, “Thank you,” to God.Otherwise, it is no life at all.So go ahead. Call Chesley Sullenberger a hero. Call fallen soldiers heroes. Call first respondersheroes. Call mine-detecting rats heroes, if you want. But as a disciple of Jesus Christ, don’t expect to be called a hero yourself, and don’t expect Jesus to say, “Thank you.” As faithful disciples, we’re only doing our duty, our grateful duty.

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