A few years ago, self-described agnostic and humorist A.J. Jacobs spent a year trying to take the Bible literally and then wrote a book about it. Jacobs, the editor-at-large for Esquire magazine and author of three New York Times bestsellers, grew up in a Jewish household that was only nominally religious. He claims that he had always been drawn to his culture’s Holy Scriptures, and wondered if taking it word-for-word could help him reach some of his own conclusions about religion and maybe even his own faith. The following is a portion from his entry on Day 84, where Jacobs explains his attempts to keep Deuteronomy 8:10, an injunction in the Hebrew Bible to give thanks.
“In Deuteronomy, the Bible says that we should thank the Lord when we’ve eaten our fill—grace after meals, it’s called. Christians moved the grace to the beginning of the meal, pre-appetizer.
To be safe, I’m praying both before and after.
Today, before taking my lunch of hummus and pita bread, I stand up from my seat at the kitchen table, close my eyes, and say in a hushed tone: ‘I’d like to thank God for the land he provided so that this food might be grown.’
Technically, that’s enough. That fulfills the Bible’s commandment. But while in thanksgiving mode, I decide to spread the gratitude around: ‘I’d like to thank the famer who grew the chick-peas for this hummus. And the workers who picked the chick-peas. And the truckers who drove them to the store. And the old Italian lady who sold the hummus to me at Zingone’s deli and told me ‘Lots of love.’ Thank you.’
Now that I type it, it sounds like an overly earnest Oscar speech for best supporting Middle Eastern spread. But saying it feels good. Here’s the thing: I’m still having trouble conceptualizing an infinite being, so I’m working on the questionable theory that a large quantity is at least closer to infinity. Hence the overabundance of ‘thank yous.’ Sometimes I get on a roll, thanking people for a couple of minutes straight—the people who designed the packaging and the guys who loaded the cartons onto the conveyor belt. My wife, Julie, has usually started in on her food by this point.
The prayers are helpful. They remind me that the food didn’t spontaneously generate in my fridge. They make me feel more connected, more grateful, more grounded, more aware of my place in this complicated hummus cycle. They remind me to taste the hummus instead of shoveling into my maw like it’s a nutrition pill. And they remind me that I’m lucky to have food at all. Basically, they help me get outside of my self-obsessed cranium” ( Jacobs, A.J., “By the Book: An Experiment in Biblical Living” in The Christian Century. Vol 124, no. 21, October 16, 2007 pp26).
Getting us out of our self-obsessed cranium: words of thanksgiving wisdom from a person who isn’t even convinced there is a God. It is a simple concept, really—opening ourselves up to “spread the gratitude around”—but one that is somehow difficult to remember and do. Perhaps that’s one reason why God essentially commanded his people Israel to perform acts of thanksgiving: so they would be reminded that they didn’t just spontaneously generate in the Sinai desert. In fact, they were once slaves whom God delivered to a life of freedom. In fact, they were once slaves who longed for a taste of plenty.
And what exactly do they say at this annual Feast of Weeks, as it came to be called? Put simply, they recite their story. They say—and I paraphrase—‘God, we finally made it to this great place, here to the freedom and the plenty. We did not get here on our own strength. You brought us out of Egypt with your own deeds of power. And you have been the guide of this great journey and the giver of this great land. Thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you.’ One may think that a pre-scripted “thank you” is not genuine, but as Jacobs and the Israelites were sure to learn, a “thank-you,” no matter how it comes, intends to get us out of our own self-obsessed craniums and connect us, not simply to the world around us, but to the One who surrounds us with plenty.
It is a fitting model for us on a national day of thanksgiving. A disproportionate share of the world’s resources pour into the United States each year. And our country continues to receive and resettle a large portion of the world’s refugees and immigrants.
America is not the Land of Canaan, and our system of government does not rely on divine mandates, but as people of faith within this country, we can frame our thanksgivings in the pattern of those forefathers and foremothers in faith. We can remember that our God is a God of abundance, who connects us through his providence in ways that we don’t often recognize when we’re just shoving this plenty into our maws.
That is what is so revolutionary about this command from Deuteronomy: that is, the giving of first fruits, not what is leftover in the granary and orchard floor. Together with the re-telling of their story, this ritual was not just a thanksgiving for the past, but also a pledge to look into the future and see it as hopeful, continually blessed. The act of taking that first batch of crops which finally came up from the soil, after long weeks of planting and farming, and dedicating it to God for the good of the community suggested a confidence that God would surely provide additional batches which could be enjoyed and consumed and saved. By remembering and thanking in this manner, we, as members of the overall most affluent country, can help transform the world to think this way. With even the foreigners and strangers in our midst, as well as the families whose ancestors may date back to the Pilgrims, we give thanks to a Creator who does want us not only to be able to acknowledge our inherent connectedness, but also to know his guidance of us through the years.
But lest we forget that there really is enough to around, and lest we forget that all land is really intended for the good of everyone…
And lest we forget that God looks upon us as redeemed people of one skin and blood…
And lest our fighting and our quarrelling and our hoarding consume us and drown out the voices of praise and thanksgiving...
Then may God then remind us again that He has gone one step even farther than we’d imagine and given humankind the greatest gift yet—the life of his own Son. God has not left himself out of this cycle of giving and receiving nor withheld himself from the grinding dead-end of hoarding and wasting. On the cross, God has lived our forgetfulness, himself, and in Jesus Christ suffers the full portion of our greed and selfishness, and yet still provides us with forgiveness and love.
We receive this life from our great Giver—the first fruits of the resurrection—and we remember our story, which leads from our sin…to the table…to the cross…to eternal life. We remember our story as beloved children of the Most High—“it is he who has made us, and we are his” (Psalm 100:3) —and let loose with our overabundance of “thank you’s!”
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.