Van Ens: Thanksgiving with no strings attached |

Van Ens: Thanksgiving with no strings attached

Although Latin is a dead language, it enjoys a rebirth in American conversation. The term quid pro quo, which stands for “getting something for something,” or more colloquially, “You scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours,” is popularly expressed.

President Donald Trump declares ad infinitum (repeatedly to infinity) that he has not used his office as a crowbar, prying open Ukraine to deliver political dirt on former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter before congressionally authorized foreign aid would be released. “No quid pro quo!” bellows the president.

Wisecracking pundit Joe Queenan advises President Trump about other Latin phrases that precisely mean “to give in order to get.” “Even though most classics buffs who graduated magna cum laude are thrilled to see (and hear) quid pro quo come to the forefront, not everyone is equally pleased,” writes Queenan, tongue-in-cheek.

“Purists argue that sine qua non (“without this, nothing”) is a much more poetic and useful phrase, as is ne plus ultra (“beyond this point, there’s no more”). They resent that the parvenu quid pro quo, a narrow legalistic term, may be muscling other far pithier phrases out of the spotlight,” writes Queenan in the Wall Street Journal.

That he didn’t show gratitude as a quid pro quo payback transaction is a refreshing aspect of the ministry of Jesus because we often do not. Invited to Thanksgiving dinner, we feel obligated to host the family feast next holiday season. A friend sends a holiday greeting. We reciprocate with a note to them, showing we aren’t social misfits. Don’t we attach strings to much of what we say and do leading up to holiday celebrations?

Jesus didn’t cut such “payback” deals. His generosity came from his heart rather than from an impulse to get ahead in life.

The Gospel of John (John 6:1-14) tells how Jesus retreated from the pressures of healing the sick. He climbed a Judean mountain to a plateau where he could relax with his disciples. Hungry crowds wouldn’t give him space, however. They expected Jesus to fill their hollow bellies. Jesus’ disciples surveyed this huge crowd and spied a boy who caught two fish to make sandwiches with a paltry five barley loaves.

“Jesus then took the loaves, and when had given thanks, he distributed them to those in the crowd who were seated; so also, the fish, as much as they wanted” (John 6:11). Much is embedded in this text that the casual reader, not familiar with biblical Jewish norms, misses. For starters, Jesus didn’t designate a table with head chairs occupied by the best and brightest. The crowd ate miraculously multiplied fish and bread, using their laps as makeshift tables.

Jesus seated the crowd while he stood to distribute food. Rabbis usually sat when they taught crowds that stood like soldiers in rank. By reversing the seated/standing social order, Jesus’ thankful posture served common folk who usually received slight attention.

The biblical writer also describes the crowd seated on grass. Unusual, isn’t it, that a lush green spot appears in a land of parched vegetation and hot desert sand?

The biblical writer takes liberties with facts about this green pastoral. Why? In order to suggest that if we render thanks with no strings attached, we create a healthy atmosphere in which people feel honored and respected.

Pastor Verlon Fosner has practiced “no quid pro quo ministry” in downtown Seattle since July 2007. The church he serves stood in an impoverished part of the city, with membership declining. The Old Guard suggested transplanting the church in the suburbs. Fosner convinced them to stay put and join him in a year-around “no quid pro quo” thanksgiving ministry for street people.

Fosner figured Jesus seldom preached from a pulpit. Instead, he sat with folks at meals and taught them as they digested soul food along with fish and bread. Fosner’s ministry built a city-wide reputation, admirers dubbing it “Dinner Church.” People ate. They conversed. And Pastor Fosner told them stories of Jesus, the guy who didn’t expect any returns from his investment with people down on their luck.

When asked why a good meal at church attracts folks, Fosner responds, sounding like Jesus, “It’s the best metaphor for the gospel we’ve found. We put out quality, abundant food because we’d rather show the gospel than have to just explain it.

“People walk through the line and see more food than they can possibly eat— all the colors and carved meats — and they realize Jesus paid for this. They’re not being billed for it. Then we build on this imagery throughout the evening. The food provides a critical, immediate sense of abundance of generosity and divine care for people.”

At your table this Thanksgiving Day, practice “no quid pro quo gratitude.” No strings attached thanksgiving ties you closely to Jesus, the Jewish rabbi who gave without expecting to gain.

The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries (, which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.

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