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All this was revolutionized when Jesus interrupted the dance of gift and return gift by focusing all the attention on the one divine Giver, the one whom Jesus called "Father." "[T]he central theme of Jesus' teaching on gift and reciprocity," according to Leithart, "is the revelation of the Father as the generous Patron of all his children."

What happens to the elaborate, delicately choreographed waltz of gifts and return gifts if benefactors can look to God rather than to their friends for any reciprocation they might need? If God is ultimately behind every gesture of generosity, then the rationale for lording it over others and enforcing servile relationships is undone. Suddenly the complicated dance becomes unnecessary. Opting out becomes a possibility. Benefactors don't have to pressure their clients to return their gifts, and recipients don't have to remain shackled to the expectations of their patrons. "The only debts [Christians] owe are to love one another and to give thanks to God."

No Strings Attached

The remainder of Leithart's book traces the fate of this revolutionary idea Jesus unleashed. Throughout subsequent history, some thinkers latched on to Jesus' vision, attempting to recover and re-proclaim his subversive wisdom. The 16th-century Reformers, in Leithart's narrative, tried to apply Jesus' teaching in a context where gift-giving had become, in the church no less than in wider society, commercialized and regulated. In contrast to medieval Catholicism, Martin Luther insisted that the Mass shouldn't be understood as an exchange calculated to procure blessings from God. Holy Communion is a unilateral divine gift, expecting nothing from believers other than thanksgiving. But by the same token, if God gave without strings attached, then Christians could give to others with similar abandon.

Still, in Leithart's reading, this emphasis on the grateful return didn't quite manage to carry the day in the Reformation. The Reformers, rightly concerned to prioritize divine grace and leave no room for human efforts to repay it, were less successful than the New Testament authors in sketching a seesaw movement of divine generosity and complementary human response. Their emphasis on unilateral grace was perpetually in danger of being reduced to altruism, with no consequent impulse of gratitude and reciprocity. William Tyndale thought that believers should "neither look for reward in the earth, nor yet in heaven," effectively leaving no theological space for gratitude. What Leithart calls the infinite circle in Jesus' teaching—the constant spiral of divine gifts followed by human acts of charity and gratefulness that the divine gifts elicited and empowered—was flattened into a line.

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Giving Thanks for Gratitude