Sometimes I need a reminder of the Apostle Paul's curriculum vitae. Though his life was dramatically changed when Christ spoke to him on the road to Damascus his pedigree as a Jews Jew is well established in Scripture. Trained in the prestigious school of Gamaliel in Jerusalem, he was a Pharisee and son of a Pharisee, and held Roman citizen- ship. His Jewish education and background give me pause as I consider a thought from his letter to the church at Rome. It's just an observation from seven trips to the Holy Land that I'll attach to Paul. It is one lens through which the precious words of his letters resonate with me. You see, like most Jews Paul was astute about Jewish history. His Epistles brim with historical references. Yes, his writing was Spirit inspired. But, he also knew what he was talking about when Jewish history shadowed his texts.
One of those is special right now in the ten days leading up to our national observance of Thanksgiving. In the opening chapter of Romans Paul summarized Israel's broken covenant with God. It is a profound application of Israel's past and a reminder of the ways their fall parallels our own spiritual decline. He wrote---
For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to
him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were
darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools.
Romans 1:21-22, ESV
He's describing a spiritual digression In Israel that in many ways seems applicable in our nation right now.
1. Israel knew God, intimately.
2. They did not honor him as God, perhaps a cessation of their worship.
3. They did not give him thanks.
As a result, they became futile in their thinking, their foolish hearts were darkened, and, though they claimed to be wise, they became fools. The absence of a spirit of gratitude and thanksgiving launched them on a path of futility, darkness, and foolishness.
There's a word play here I cannot overlook. In verse 22 the root of the word translated "wise" is a well-known Greek term, "sophia". Right next to it, the word "fools" is a compound of the root "moros", meaning "moron", or "fool". Modern linguists have combined these two words into "sophomore", or the more behavioral application "sophomoric", meaning pretentious or juvenile. There's some debate about the origin of our use of the word "sophomore" as a reference to the second year of high school or college. But, there's little debate about the meaning of "sophomoric". Sophomoric people think they're wise. But, they are fools.
What is the foolery involved in this failure to give thanks? Paul could have certainly identified it with great historical precision. But, he didn't. Still, I have a thought. What kind of foolishness could attend humans who are basically ungrateful? It's right there in Deuteronomy, the warning God gave to Israel as they wandered in the desert and prepared to enter the promised land.
Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have
gotten me this wealth.’ You shall remember the Lord your God, for it is he who
gives you power to get wealth, that he may confirm his covenant that he swore
to your fathers, as it is this day.
Deuteronomy 8:17-18, ESV
Self-absorbed humans think we deserve the blessings of this life. So, rather than offering genuine, heart-felt gratitude to God for the blessings that are ours we foolishly think we did it, presuming that the bounty and blessings of this life are the result of our intellect, work ethic, ingenuity, single-mindedness, and privilege. Like Israel summarized by Paul in the opening chapter of Romans this kind of thinking is futile and foolish. We think we're so wise. We're not. Without thanksgiving we're just sophomores.
A scene from a favorite old motion picture flashes across my screen. From the movie Shenandoah, it illustrates this prideful spirit and futile thinking. Picture this---Charlie Anderson, a proud and independent Virginia farmer has committed to keep his family out of the Civil War. He also made a death-bed promise to his wife that he would raise their six sons and daughter in a Christian home. So, they attend church every week and pray before their large evening meals. Now, the six sons, daughter, and a daughter-in-law are sitting at the well provisioned table. Mr. Anderson, played by James Stewart, prays---
Lord, we cleared this land. We plowed it, sowed it, and harvested it. We cooked
the harvest. It wouldn’t be here, we wouldn’t be eatin’ it if we hadn’t done it all
ourselves. We worked dog-bone hard for every crumb and morsel, but we thank
you just the same anyway, Lord, for the food we’re about to eat. Amen.
We thank you just the same, anyway. Sounds like the prayers many of us might offer this thanksgiving. You know, futile, darkened, foolish thinking.
And, finally, that's the point. Grateful hearts produce wise thinking about life, the source of all things, the One who creates, provides, and sustains. It's the reality that Israel discovered in antiquity, what Paul wrote about to the Roman church, and that is real right now around the world and in our nation. It is the truth that a thankful heart changes us. And, the beginning place is right here between our ears, in our minds.
Being thankful changes our minds. So, be thankful. and wise.