While writing Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks, I reread Luke's account of Zacchaeus. Like many Christians, I knew the story from Sunday school -- the "wee little man" who climbed a tree to see Jesus. I thought of it as a charming tale that taught us to go to any length to catch a vision of God. But researching Grateful convinced me that gratitude was at the center of an important political tension in the Roman world regarding debts and obligation. The story of Zacchaeus transformed from a children's story to a powerful encounter between Jesus and an unjust system of quid pro quo. Corrupted gratitude can snare us, or, as Jesus taught, a renewed vision of gratefulness can liberate us. The Zacchaeus story shows us how.
Zacchaeus thought that gratitude was a political structure of benefactors and beneficiaries that he could manipulate for his own benefit. Then Jesus called him down from that tree and invited him to a table. “Stop climbing, Zacchaeus. Come and sit.” Whereas Rome practiced gratitude as a hierarchy of political and economic obligation, of debt and duty, Jesus envisioned gratitude as hospitality of mutuality and relationship, of gift and response. Jesus opened the door for Zacchaeus to “come down” from his old life, to stop participating in a corrupt system of gratitude that oppressed his own people. In a moment, Jesus turned his world upside down: Who was the guest and who was the host? The Roman structure of gratitude collapsed when assigned roles disappeared and the conventional gifts of hospitality could not be repaid. Instead, Jesus imagined a place where oppressed and oppressor leave their “stations” and meet as friends, where forgiveness is practiced and gratitude expresses itself not in debt payment but in passing on generous gifts to others.
At the end of the story, Jesus explains that he did this because “the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10). Jesus came to deliver those ensnared in the punishment and privilege of gratitude and to set them free from quid pro quo patronage. In its place, he established a table of hospitality where all are guests and no one owes anything to anyone else. Around this table, gifts pass without regard to payback or debt. Everyone sits. Everyone eats. And, recognizing that everything is a gift, all are grateful. Tree or table? Climbing to get ahead or reclining with friends? Choose. What you choose results in either slavery or abundance.
This is the ancient wisdom of gratitude, told in a Jewish political context by early Christian writers. But we can see beyond its unique religious frame to the story’s larger relevance for today. Who wants to be part of a system of gratitude based on hierarchy?
To be obligated to repay every favor done? Who wants to perpetuate a system that rewards privilege and is held together by indebtedness? A structure where we are pretty sure that the people above us cheated us to get there? Think of how we depict Thanksgiving — people around a table eating a meal.
In the United States, it is the romanticized image of our most primal gratitude myth: Europeans and Natives sharing around a table. Of course, it did not happen that way. But that is what myths are — stories that express something we desire, what we hope will be, and how we dream of happiness and peace. There is something in our hearts that longs to banish quid pro quo to the pages of dusty history books forever and instead create a common table where we pass gifts to one another without regard for station or status, where boundaries dissolve around plenty. That is the way of salvation. We know this, and, like Zacchaeus, many of us long for it. We just do not know how to come down from the tree.
Diana Butler Bass is the author of eight books on American religion, including “Christianity After Religion," "Christianity for the Rest of Us,” and “A People's History of Christianity.” This is excerpted from "Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks." Copyright © 2018 by Diana Butler Bass. Published by HarperOne.