A Serpent's Tooth “How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child!”
With these poignant words King Lear, one of Shakespeare's most familiar and tragic characters, describes the heart-wrenching agony of raising a child who carelessly responds to a parent's loving “pains and benefits [with] laughter and contempt.” As the story of Lear unfolds, we find he is in fact little deserving of his children's gratitude, yet his statement has the ring of truth, that kernel of insight we so often find in great literature. Shakespeare's “King Lear” was first performed on or very near Christmas, 1606, and bears a lesson in keeping with the season.
Secular holiday music often concludes with a verse describing “the day after Christmas,” replete with broken toys, cast-off gifts and disappointed children. This, sadly, barely suggests the depth of ingratitude seen across the broad swath of modern society. Parents who have sacrificed for years to pay for their children's education find that opportunity being squandered, the education unappreciated and time wasted. Benefactors are horrified to see their gifts misused, even scorned, by their recipients. One need look no further than the abuses which followed hurricane Katrina to see that ingratitude is not limited to children, and on closer inspection this thankless attitude can be found wherever an undeserved gift is given.
This attitude, in fact, defines a significant aspect of the fallen human nature. Our first parents, dissatisfied with Paradise, turned their backs on God in a vain effort to fulfill their own desires, and it was in Paradise that mankind armed himself with that deadly fang, the serpent's tooth of which Lear speaks. At every turn, throughout history, though God's Grace is sufficient (2 Corinthians 12:9) fallen man demands more, demands his – our – own way, the Serpent's tooth turned against the Father who loves us. Even within the Church, from the Golden Calf of Moses' time to today's “contemporary worship,” like spoiled, thankless children we act as though God's gifts were insufficient and in need of improvement, if not complete replacement.
Traditionally, though without warrant – another stab of that thankless fang – we reserve to this season our consideration of the entrance into the world of the One who, rather than wielding the serpent's tooth, was Himself ordained to be most grievously wounded by it. Though fully human and like us in every other way, throughout His life our Savior never displayed the ingratitude which characterizes our own sinful lives. He taught us thankfulness especially in His model prayer, but in everything He showed the posture and practice of true gratitude, and “made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant” (Philemon 2:7). We must never forget, amidst the tinsel and lights, that Christ's birth was the beginning of His humiliation and the unquestioning obedience which freed us. The thankless, dissatisfied child in each of us can, by the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit, be replaced by the grateful child we were created to be. This begins with prayer, “the most important part of the thankfulness God requires of us” (Heidelberg Catechism Ans. 116). In time, by God's grace, though haltingly and imperfectly we can begin to express genuine thankfulness in the way Christ taught us – “If you love Me, keep My commandments” (John 14:15).
We will not, and cannot, do so perfectly; Jesus did that for us. But the thankful child will, “with all seriousness of purpose, … begin to live according to all, not only some, of God's commandments” [Catechism, Ans. 114]. Instead of discontent, we can show gratitude, and at last we shall be free of that serpent's tooth.
“Saved by His love, incessant we shall sing Eternal praise to Heaven's almighty King.” Psalm Hymnal #346:6