That's the question a friend of mine and I ask when we are about to eat a meal in a public restaurant. I call it an "abstract" — a very short one for sure — of a prayer of thanksgiving.
The Jewish people of the first century were used to saying the Eighteen Benedictions. "Benediction" comes from "bene" meaning "good" and "diction" meaning "words." Put it together and you get "good words" or as we say, "blessing." "To bless" is to "speak good words" to someone.
In this case, the Eighteen Benedictions are a set of good words, or blessings, spoken to God. And, of course, there were eighteen of them. These words of gratitude would be given to God three times a day: morning, afternoon, and evening. Observant Jews would use these benedictions to "bless" or "thank" God for all sorts of things. They would thank him for their health, for their food, and for their wine. They'd thank him on the Sabbath that they didn't have to work. They had blessings for lamps that gave light, blessings for rain, and blessings for finishing construction on a home.
The rabbis said, "He who enjoys anything from creation, which is without blessing, commits misuse." It's a form of theft. So they learned to be grateful for everything in their lives. I don't know about you, but I find this to be an important perspective I need to incorporate into my own life!
The Eighteen Benedictions were also called the Amidah, which means "standing," because they were to be said while standing up. The rabbis figured that if you pray while you're sitting down, you might fall asleep. (Has that ever happened to you during your prayer time?) So they would stand up to pray.
However, sometimes a person might find himself in a difficult situation or find herself in an emergency. So the Jewish people were also taught to say abstracts of the blessings — shortened forms of the Amidah. Rabbi Eliezer, a younger contemporary of Jesus, taught this abbreviation of the Eighteen Benedictions:
May your will be done in heaven above, grant peace of mind to those who fear you [on earth] below, and do what seems best to you. Blessed are you, O LORD, who answers prayer.
The Lord's Prayer that Jesus taught (Matthew 6:9-13) is most likely an abstract that he taught his disciples as their Rabbi when they asked him to teach them to pray. What was given to them, and now also shared with us, is a framework from which we can learn to pray and expand our thanks to God.
The rabbis also taught that the Eighteen Benedictions were not to be fixed, but rather expanded. Eliezer taught:
He who makes his prayer fixed, his prayer is not a true supplication.
Jesus appears to be doing something similar when he instructed his disciples how to pray using the short prayer we know as the Lord's Prayer. At the same time, Jesus is also cautioning his disciples to not feel like they had to use many words to be heard because they were praying to their Father who loved them and knew what they needed (Matthew 6:5-8).
[A]lways giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ (Ephesians 5:20 NIV).
Similarly, he taught the Colossian disciples:
Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful (Colossians 4:2).
In addition, he taught the new, persecuted Christians in Thessalonica:
Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).
Clearly, God's people are called to be a people who give thanks!
So, why don't we try pausing three times each day to be thankful. We can thank the Father for whatever we are doing at that moment — with whatever we might be eating, with whomever we are sharing company, and wherever we find ourselves enjoying the many blessings of God in our lives.
If we think we are entitled to these blessings, we will never be thankful. Maybe that's why the rabbis added another teaching about the Eighteen Benedictions. "Never say the Eighteen when you're on a donkey," because being up high could make us feel a little proud or self-sufficient. It's humbling to come down to earth when we thank God for our blessings. So we are not to say the benedictions on a donkey.
Let's use this Thanksgiving week as a time to "get down off our donkeys"! Let's begin to pause three times a day to give thanks. Let's take out pen and paper and write out our own benedictions to God. My guess is that we'll quickly move past eighteen as we begin to notice all the ways God has blessed us. Before long, we'll be on our way towards a more grateful attitude and becoming a person who "is always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ."