One summer day a farmer took a truckload of wheat to the grain elevator at a nearby town; afterwards he went to a small restaurant for lunch. There happened to be a group of rowdy teenagers sitting a few tables over; they were demonstrating poor manners by shouting, teasing the waitress, and loudly criticizing the food. When they noticed the farmer make the Sign of the Cross and bow his head in prayer before eating, they laughed, and one of them called out, “Hey, old man, does everyone do that where you come from?” The farmer answered, “No, son, the pigs don’t” (Msgr. Arthur Tonne, Five-Minute Homilies on the Gospels, p. 97).
Failing to give thanks is a sign of poor breeding or immaturity. A wise and kind-hearted king was trying to teach his royal sons to live with a grateful and humble spirit, but without much success—so he arranged for a poor beggar to show up for a meal at the royal table. The unwashed, poorly-clad man ignored everyone, ravenously ate his fill, then got up and left without saying a word. The king’s sons were outraged and said, “Father, he ate your food without showing any gratitude!” To their surprise, the king quietly rebuked them, saying, “And you have failed, again and again, to give thanks to your Heavenly Father for His blessings, despite my best efforts. That beggar at least has the excuse of not knowing any better—so you are more ungrateful than he is” (Roy Zuck, The Speaker’s Quote Book, p. 380). When Jesus teaches that more will be expected of those to whom more is given (Lk. 12:48), this standard applies not only to material and spiritual blessings, but also to gratitude. Only by being genuinely thankful for our Heavenly Father’s gifts are our hearts truly open to the fullness of God’s love for us.
The account of the multiplication of the loaves and fish (Jn 6:1-15) is not only the story of a miracle performed by Jesus; it’s also a demonstration of how the Lord wants us to act. We’re told that before beginning to distribute the little bit of available food provided by a boy in the crowd, Jesus gave thanks. Gratitude is the key, for it allows God’s grace to be present in a wondrous way. If we are grateful, we will be like the boy (2 Kgs 4:42-44) who shared his food, instead of keeping it to himself. If we are grateful, we will be like the apostles, who at the Lord’s command, gathered up all the leftovers, rather than letting them go to waste. If we are grateful, we will trust in God’s loving care for us, as Elisha the prophet did when he told his servant to feed one hundred people with only twenty barley loaves. If we are grateful, we will try to live in the spirit St. Paul describes in the Letter to the Ephesians (4:1-6): with humility, gentleness, and patience, so as to preserve the bond of peace and the unity given through the Holy Spirit. Gratitude is a very powerful virtue, for it makes us more aware of, and receptive to, the life-giving and creative energy that constantly flows out from the Throne of God—and the more we’re in touch with this Divine power, the more it can change our lives.
Three hundred years ago author Daniel Defoe wrote his famous novel Robinson Crusoe, the story of an English seaman shipwrecked on a deserted island. After he addressed his immediate physical needs by constructing a crude shelter and salvaging what he could from the wrecked ship, Crusoe addressed his spiritual needs. He made a list with two columns. One column listed all the challenges or problems he would have to overcome in order to survive; the other column listed all the reasons he had to be thankful, despite his unfortunate circumstances—namely: he was alive, unlike the rest of the ship’s crew who had drowned; the odds were good he would be able to find food and water on the island; he had very little clothing, but he didn’t need much because the climate was warm; there were no dangerous animals or violent men who might threaten his life; and while he lacked human company, he knew God was with him. Giving thanks—or, as we might say today, looking on the bright side—gave this fictional character the outlook or attitude he needed to survive, and even thrive, until he was rescued twenty-eight years later (James S. Hewett, Illustrations Unlimited, p. 258).
Gratitude is indeed a survival skill; discouragement and despair cannot take root in a thankful heart. Also, the more we thank God, the more we invite Him to continue blessing us. If you were very rich and had two nieces or nephews, and one always thanked you for the favors you did and the gifts you sent, while the other seemed indifferent and made no response, which one would you more likely remember in your will or want somehow to bless in an even greater way? So it is with God. He loves all His children, but He truly enjoys blessing those who take the time to thank Him and approach Him with humility and gratitude. Doing this is our way of actively cooperating with His grace, and of inviting Him to continue doing even more for us.
God is willing and able to work miracles on our behalf, though He normally chooses to do so in a quiet, behind-the-scenes way, allowing fortunate timing and unexpected coincidences to mask or disguise His presence and activity. That way we have to make a little bit of an effort to recognize and thank Him for His loving care—and it’s this little bit of effort on our part that proves our gratitude is genuine. Not only does this please the Lord; it also makes us better and happier persons, while drawing us closer to God and thereby helping us grow spiritually. In the end, Satan cannot lead astray, or do lasting harm, to a person who lives in a spirit of gratitude; those who are truly thankful for the Lord’s blessings during their lives on earth will have the chance to thank Him in person in the Kingdom of Heaven. To use an analogy: a pig on a farm doesn’t in any way thank the farmer for feeding it, but a dog will wag its tail, bark joyfully, and lick the farmer’s hand. Which of the two animals will the farmer play with, take on a walk, and allow into the farmhouse? That’s something very down-to-earth, but important, for us to consider.
When Jesus gave thanks before multiplying the loaves and fish, He was reminding us that a grateful heart allows God to do great things. The more we put this lesson into practice, the more reason we will have to rejoice.