Robert Emmons, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, and psychology professor Michael McCullough of the University of Miami, have long been interested in the role gratitude plays in physical and emotional well being. They took two groups of volunteers and randomly assigned them to focus on one of two things each week: focus on things that irritate them or things for which they were grateful.
The first group concentrated on everything that went wrong or that irritated them. The second group recalled recent events or people for whom they were grateful.
The results: The people who focused on gratitude were happier. They saw their lives in favorable terms. They reported fewer negative physical symptoms such as headaches or colds, and they were active in many ways that were good for them. Those who were grateful quite simply enjoyed a higher quality of life.
Emmons was surprised. “This is not just something that makes people happy, like a positive-thinking/optimism kind of thing. A feeling of gratitude really gets people to do something, to become more pro-social, more compassionate.” Such was not the case in the other group: they were miserable.
Which group are you in this evening? Maybe you are one of those who look for things that irritate you. Well if you are, then you probably don’t have to wait long. How long do you have to wait before you are flustered? It wasn’t long for Simon the Pharisee to find something that irritated him. Why do I say this? He was looking for it. Simon invites Jesus over to get to know him; he was looking to see if Jesus was who he claimed to be: a prophet of God. But Simon was skeptical; he was not sure if Jesus was true prophet. Surprisingly Simon found what he was looking for: Jesus was not a prophet (so he thought). Why? Because if Jesus was a prophet he would have known that “This Woman” who is touching Jesus (attending to Jesus’ needs) is a sort of loose woman that no “true prophet” would have anything to do with. But Jesus knew this. Jesus knew that this Pharisee was the sort of man who looked for things that irritated him. Jesus knew that this man saw life as a glass that’s half empty. If given lemons, he would make every one and every situation around him sour.
But as a prophet Jesus was also able to discern truly what sort of woman “That Woman” was who had been attending to his needs. This woman did not belong to the group of people who look for things to irritate them (like Simon), but she belonged to a second group of people, people who focuse on things which they were grateful for. Only a grateful person could serve Jesus the way she did. Unlike her critic “cynical Simon” who looks under every rock, leaving no stone unturned to find some offense (so that he may express his ingratitude) this woman serves Jesus with tears of gratitude. Have you ever been so grateful for something… that you have tears of joy? Well this is what happens to this woman—she expresses her gratitude with tears. In fact it was a floodgate of tears: she cried enough tears to wet the feet, to drench the feet of Jesus; so many tears drenched Jesus’ feet that it was enough to saturate all of the caked-on-dirt and grime and dung that Jesus had collected in his day’s journey. Mind you, Jesus and his contemporaries wore sandals with toes exposed. Jesus and his contemporaries would walk (not on nice clean paved roads) but on dirty, muddy, grimy roads. They would have to walk though dung left by horses and mules and donkeys. All of this would be caked on one’s feet. We moderns don’t know a thing about stinky feet like the ancient Palestinians. We have nothing compared to ancient “Palestinian toe-jam.” This woman wipes off the dirt, grime, and dung from Jesus’ feet with her hair and then pours perfume (her expensive perfume) on them. As opposed to being critical, she was thankful for Jesus and his presence. Why? Why was she so thankful?
This woman was a known sinner in town; she was known for her sinful, disgraceful life. Most likely she was a prostitute. There is nothing glamorous about the sex trade industry. Prostitution is one of those sins that racks the body, destroys one’s sense of dignity; it leaves one jilted, and critical and cynical of life, of relationships. If anything it makes more sense for this woman to be in the first group; she has more reason to be critical and cynical than Simon the Pharisee. But she wasn’t! She was the very opposite. She was grateful. Why?
Jesus tells us why. He does this by-way-of a Parable. Jesus asks the Pharisee (Simon) I got something to tell you, a Parable. It’s a story about two men who owe a money lender: one owed five-hundred denarii, the other fifty. The money lender decided to cancel out both of their debts. Jesus asked rhetorically “Now Simon…tell me which one will love him (the money lender) all the more? Which one will be more grateful” Simon said “I guess the one with the bigger debt.” Jesus responds with a resounding eureka, A+ “cynical Simon.” Jesus then turns to Simon and tells him (and us) why this woman who had more reasons to be critical and cynical of life, and relations and even to Jesus more than anyone in this sanctuary tonight. This woman was able to love, was able to be grateful, was able to focus on things she was grateful for because she has been forgiven of much: no more guilt, no more punishment. She, unlike Simon, was aware of the fact that she was a dreadful sinner, estranged from God. She was aware of what sin had done to herself, others, and (most importantly God). She felt the weight of sin bearing down on her to the point of suffocation. It was in these circumstances that Jesus comes and liberates her, redeems her, tending to her emotional, and psychological and spiritual scars of sin. This woman was morally, emotionally, spiritually dead and Jesus brought her back to life with these words: “your sins are forgiven.” This woman had an awful lot to be thankful for and she knew it.
The only difference between Simon and this woman is that she knew she had a lot to be thankful for. Simon did not. The woman was aware of her immense moral debt she owed God; that’s what made her appreciate what Jesus did for her. This is why she could say even on a bad day when asked “how are you doing?” by responding “better than I deserve!!” This is why she couldn’t help but to focus on things she was grateful for. What else is there? But this also explains Simon. Simon was not aware of the moral debt he owed God. Such people think that things are owed to them. If we think everything is owed to us—and we do not have everything—then it’s natural to be critical, cynical, and ungrateful even in the midst of grace. This is why the other guests were critical of Jesus when he said to the woman “your sins are forgiven.” They murmured, “Who is this who even forgives sins.” God’s grace was in their midst and they missed it because they were too smug, self-satisfied, and ungrateful…too busy focusing on what irritated them.
In conclusion, I will not ask of you this Thanksgiving Eve “what do you have to be thankful for?” That should be obvious. But I will ask, “which group do you affiliate with the most?” Do you look for things that irritate you? Are you critical, cynical, and ungrateful? Are you in that group that focuses on what is owed to you? Or are you in the other group that focuses on what is owed to God (giving thanks to God), focusing on all that you have to be thankful for? If so… be thankful!