1,600 years before Plymouth, a Thanksgiving feast took place in Israel just before the most important week in human history — and it was all about gratitude

Many centuries before the autumn 1621 meal in Plymouth between the colonists and the Wampanoag, another kind of Thanksgiving feast took place in Israel — and it quietly set the stage for the most important week in human history.

The details come from the Bible — specifically the Gospel of John, chapter 12.

It’s a little slice of life wedged between perhaps Jesus’ greatest miracle — raising his friend Lazarus from the dead — and his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, which marks the beginning of Passover week — the last week of Jesus’ life.

But on the day before he enters Jerusalem upon a donkey, treading over palm branches amid cries of “Hosanna,” Jesus returns to nearby Bethany to once again be with Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha, along with his disciples and perhaps others.

On this day, the thankful siblings give Jesus a “dinner.”

My pastor discussed this passage on Sunday and mentioned that the Greek word used for “dinner” or “supper” in John 12:2 is the same word used in Revelation 19:9 to describe the “marriage supper of the Lamb.” Amazing that this hidden-away gathering — those in power were already plotting to kill Jesus, and he had to be cautious about where he walked — carries and reveals so much spiritual meaning.

Turns out this feast in honor of the Lamb about to be sacrificed for us is centered squarely on gratitude.

We learn that as Martha serves the meal and Lazarus reclines at the table with Jesus, Mary takes expensive ointment, anoints Jesus’ feet with it, then wipes his feet with her hair. With that, the whole house is filled with a lavish fragrance — indeed, this is special stuff that appears to be worth the equivalent of a year’s wages.

But my pastor pointed out that the monetary value of the ointment doesn’t matter to Mary in this moment: She only wants to be present with Jesus and express her love not only for what he’s done but also for who he’s become in her life.

Judas, on the other hand, criticizes Mary’s extravagant gesture as a waste of finances — after which Jesus tells him, “Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial. For the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.”

There’s much to be drawn from this snapshot of a gathering in a Middle Eastern town long before turkeys, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and sleeping it all off, only to rise early on Black Friday to take advantage of outrageous discounts on Christmas presents.

Here we see gratitude lived out. A willingness to give up that which is most valuable in a bottom-line sense in order to bestow it upon the One who is most valuable in the eternal sense. My pastor wisely noted that when we give — whether it’s our time, our money, our physical efforts, our emotional selves — we give a little bit more of our selfishness away.

What’s more, he added that if we practice the discipline not only of giving but of gratitude — daily gratitude, in fact — we can literally change our attitudes for the better over time. Therefore, no matter what has happened to us, no matter how bad we’ve had it or think we’ve had it, we can reshape our attitudes and hearts by purposely focusing on things we’re grateful for on a daily basis.

On this Thanksgiving, I’m grateful for truths like this that feed my soul and enlighten the path ahead. I’m particularly grateful for Mary’s example of extravagant love that pushes cost aside in favor of simply sitting at Jesus’ feet.

Really, is there any better place to be?

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