A Thankless Job? Reflections on The Ten Lepers from Luke 17:11-19
October 13, 2013
My mother's generation was big on thank-you notes. My mother always said that you could tell a lot about a person depending on whether or not they bothered to write them. One time, she told me of a friend who, whenever a bride did not have the good manners to write a thank-you note for a wedding gift, would write her the following note (the names are made up):
Thank you for inviting us to your lovely wedding. I am writing to make sure that you received our gift. If you didn't, can you let me know and I'll arrange for a duplicate to be sent to you?
Wishing you every happiness in your marriage,
Jean and John Smith
It sounds so passive aggressive, doesn't it? Or at least very Ann Landers. It puts the bride in a tough spot. Assuming she got the gift and has just not yet gotten around to writing thank-you notes or doesn't intend to do so, how is she supposed to respond?
I did receive your gift and apologize for not having written you a thank-you note yet. Please don't interpret this as lack of gratitude. I've just been very busy.
I did receive your gift but have made the decision not to write thank you notes since I'm very busy and they are very time consuming. You may, if you wish, send me a duplicate gift.
All good wishes to you in your marriage,
My mother's friend was sending ungrateful brides a message with her passive aggressive little note. She wasn't afraid her gift had not been received. She wanted the bride to receive the message that not sending thank-you notes is unacceptable, ill-mannered behavior. She wanted a thank you. And I see her point.
People should thank other people when they do kind things for them. When I invite several people to a picnic and one of them writes a thank-you note and none of the others even writes a thank-you email, I admire the good manners of the one who wrote the note and chalk the others' non-communication up to their being busy and having moved on to the next thing. It doesn't erode my estimation of them. Nor does it enhance it. I remember my cousin went to a lot of trouble a few years ago, to open her home to a family reunion. She had lovely food and was very hospitable. And I meant to thank her, but never did, except in my own thoughts. My mama taught me better than that. I taught my children to write thank-you notes. My son wrote one to a college professor he found particularly helpful and later was asked to work as a summer intern for the professor. When he asked him why he chose him, the professor said, "You wrote me that thank-you note. No one does that anymore. It made you stand out in my mind."
All right, I felt a little vindicated by the fact that my son thanked me for teaching him the value of thank-you notes. But I didn't teach him to write thank-you notes to be thanked for it. Doing things for the sake of being thanked is not a motivation for the long haul. It is too dependent on the whims of other people. My mother is right, though. While we don't do things to be thanked, whether or not someone thanks us tells us something about them.
Jesus didn't do things to be thanked. It's a good thing, too because people responded in lots of ways, but not often with thanks.
Alyce M. McKenzie is the George W. and Nell Ayers Le Van Professor of Preaching and Worship at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.