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Politics of Scripture

The Politics of Continual Thanksgiving—Colossians 3:12-17 (Alastair Roberts)

The political significance of Paul’s charge to the Colossians to give thanks to the Father in all things that they say and do is surprising in its far-reaching implications. The proper direction of our gratitude to God, the giver of all good gifts, limits the power of those who would dominate by indebting others, encourages us to release others from their debts to us, and frees us to give to those who cannot repay: it is one of the most radical political actions the Church engages in.

12 As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. 13 Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14 Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. 16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. 17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Paul accords great importance and prominence to gratitude and thanksgiving in this charge to the Colossian Christians—‘be thankful’ (ἐυχάριστος—v.15); ‘with gratitude in your hearts’ (χάρις—v.16); ‘giving thanks to God the Father’ (ἐυχαριστέω—v.17).[1] Earlier, he charges them to ‘forgive each other’ (χαρίζομαι—v.13), just as Christ forgave them. God’s forgiving provides the impetus for our own forgiving, and his abundant giving is answered with our joyful thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is to be absolutely integral to the Colossian Christians’ lives, characterizing ‘whatever’ they do, whether ‘in word or deed’.

The significance given to thanksgiving and gratitude at key points within the New Testament is such that it is presented as a central manner in which the telos of sacrifice is realized within the Church. Even after declaring the old covenant sacrificial system redundant, the author of the book of Hebrews exhorts his readers ‘continually’ to offer a ‘sacrifice of praise’ (Hebrews 13:15), most likely adopting the language of the Septuagint of Leviticus 7:15 and Psalm 116:17, which refer to the peace offering for thanksgiving (תּוׄדׇה) in the same terms (θυσία ἀινέσεως).[2] From the earliest years of the Church, the term ‘Eucharist’ (‘thanksgiving’) was adopted to refer to the Lord’s Supper (Didache 9:1). While the old covenant involved a continual (twice daily) burnt offering (Exodus 29:39, 42) and tribute offering (Leviticus 6:20; Numbers 4:16), the new covenant is distinguished by its ‘continual’ thanksgiving offering—its perpetual Eucharist.[3] At the time of the reign of David, Levitical song was ritually coordinated with the sacrifices of the tabernacle/temple, and came to bear a sacrificial meaning.[4] The singing of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God that Paul encourages in verse 16 is a continuation of this sacrificial meaning, the offering of the ‘fruit of lips’ (Hebrews 13:15; cf. Hosea 14:2).[5] Both sacramentally and more generally, thanksgiving is a defining practice of the Church.

To some, this defining Christian practice of thanksgiving may appear to be rather unpromising as a source of political challenge. Indeed, it may be at such points that the force of Marx’s designation of religion as the ‘opium of the people’ makes itself felt: continual thanksgiving prevents us from articulating and addressing our suffering and keeps us compliant with powers that bind us. Yet, as Peter Leithart observes in his recent book, Gratitude: An Intellectual History, the Christian approach to gratitude is profoundly subversive, especially within patronage cultures where political and social advancement and dominance arise in large measure through unilateral impositions of obligation and the gaining of honor by means of gift-giving.

Within the first century world, the New Testament’s teaching concerning gift-giving and reception was a threatening one, not least in how persistent it was in directing thanksgiving to God over all others. This determined rendering of thanks to God undermined the leverage of the powerfully obliging reciprocities that dominated social life and the hierarchies that they produced and sustained. It made possible the ‘ingratitude’ of departing from tradition, of leaving father and mother to follow Christ, and of reneging on the imposed social debts by which patrons and powerful ‘benefactors’ secured their power; by firmly directing gratitude to God it resisted the supposed entitlement of the wealthy to employ God’s gifts to them as means of accruing power by imposing debts upon others. The new form of gift economy established by Christ and the apostles led to the eschewing of honor competitions, to releasing others from debt, and to the replacement of the vicious asymmetries of hierarchical patron-client gift relations with those of mutual patronage.

Leithart remarks upon the Apostle Paul’s own practice of thanksgiving in his letters, and the manner in which it demonstrates the distinctive character of resolutely God-directed gratitude. Paul’s expressions of thanksgiving in his letters, he observes, are ‘offered almost exclusively to God alone’ and Paul offers such thanks for benefits received by others no less than for those he has received himself.[6] Perhaps most startling to his contemporaries’ ears would the way in which he responded to gifts given to him, not least when he expresses his appreciation for the support of the Philippians in the words ‘I thank my God for your remembrance of me,’ in reference to their support of him in his ministry (Philippians 1:3-5). Leithart remarks:

By Greco-Roman standards, it is not adequate thanks. Paul was the one who received, the Philippians the ones who gave, and yet Paul’s thanks are offered to a third party, the Father, the patron of both Philippians and apostles. Paul acts as if their gift was not directed to him at all; he calls it a sacrifice whose fragrant aroma is well pleasing to God.[7]

Paul doesn’t employ the language or perform the cultural courtesies associated with indebtedness. Rather than placing Paul in the Philippians’ debt, their gift is a token of their communion with him in his gospel ministry. Paul nowhere expresses an expectation or obligation to repay them, but directs their attention to God, their common Benefactor, who acts as the guarantor of any debt Paul might incur: ‘And my God will fully satisfy every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus’ (Philippians 4:19).

In the community of Jesus, the only debt is the debt of love. Thanks is owed, but it is owed for rather than to benefactors. Recipients of gifts are not indebted to the givers; they do not owe return payment. Givers do not impose burdens of gratitude on their beneficiaries; they cannot use their gifts to lord over recipients.[8]

The Church’s continual practice of thanksgiving cultivates a well-directed sense of gratitude, which has liberating political potential. When we repeatedly recognize and honor our great divine Benefactor as the ultimate generous giver of every good and perfect gift, whatever hands we may have received them from, the power of lesser benefactors to wield control over us by their ‘gifts’ is considerably weakened, as they can no longer command the sort of gratitude and obligations that belong to God alone. The economy of gift ceases to be an engine of hierarchy and social inequality when our thanks and obligation for all gifts is ultimately seen to belong to God alone. All others are, at best, channels of and participants in God’s act of giving.

Furthermore, when God is understood to be the guarantor of debts, giving to the poor can be regarded as a matter of ‘lending to the Lord’ (Proverbs 19:17). Rather than indebting the recipients of charity to the givers, it frees both to engage in the transaction, trusting that repayment would be provided by a third party. As John Barclay suggests, the conviction that God would repay those who gave to the poor was complemented by the agency afforded to the recipient of charity in blessing the giver (Deuteronomy 24:13), or seeking recompense against the uncharitable (Deuteronomy 24:14-15).[9] In such a manner, the hierarchy of the cultural form of patronage was replaced by a mutual patronage, one reinforced by the Christian teaching that the one Gift of the Spirit was re-presented in the many spiritual gifts of the members of the body of Christ.[10] Such a practice of gift can produce the loving unity that Paul calls for in these verses, disarming the logic that drives antagonism and hostile competition.

The forgiveness at the heart of the gospel is a proclamation of a release from debts, a release that Paul enjoins the Colossians to spread to others in verse 13. Just as God doesn’t charge our sins against us, so we are to hand over the tallies of the debts that others owe us to him, demanding neither recompense nor repayment from their hands. Once again, God’s giving and forgiving is the reality around which our social relations must be ordered. Our continual recalling of this reality in the act of Christian thanksgiving is a recurring disclosure and reapplication of its reorienting potential.

The continual practice and discipline of Christian thanksgiving remains a politically subversive act. Forgiven and thankful people who are trained to owe no one anything except to love one another (Romans 13:8) are hard to enslave, whether through guilt or through indebtedness. Such persons live as those ultimately beholden to God alone. Our continual thanksgiving to God acquaints us with the limits of the obligations others can place upon us by gifts that they themselves have received from God’s hands. Trust in God as the guarantor of all debts frees us from seeking vengeance, frees us to give to those who cannot repay, and frees us to release others from their indebtedness. Far from leading to political impotence or quietism, restoring the centrality of heartfelt and joyful thanksgiving to God within the life of the Church may prove to be among the most important political activities to which we could commit ourselves.

[1] See also Colossians 2:7 and 4:2.
[2] The natural affinity that this peace offering—the only animal sacrifice that required the offering of bread with the animal (Leviticus 7:12-13), bread given to the priest—has with the Eucharist is suggestive.
[3] Peter J. Leithart, Gratitude: An Intellectual History (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2014), 71.
[4] Peter J. Leithart, From Silence to Song: The Davidic Liturgical Revolution (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2003).
[5] Moshe Halbertal, On Sacrifice (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012), 48ff.
[6] Gratitude, 73
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid. 74
[9] John M.G. Barclay, Paul & the Gift (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015), 44.
[10] Gratitude, 76

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