Gratitude as the Source of Much That Is Good, Proper 23 (C) - 2004

October 10, 2004

Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice.

Let us look again at the scene described in the Gospel story, for it is riveting. This encounter with Jesus has a unique quality that must be examined closely.

Jesus was a great walker. He covered a vast length of miles in the very short period of his ministry of one to three years (the exact time span of his public ministry is difficult to determine but the extent of the miles covered is undisputed). It is evident from the stories about him that he encountered many people on his walking tours of Galilee, Judea, Samaria, and beyond. He seems to have been easily accessible to all who needed to see him. There are instances when he needed to be alone, to commune with his Father in heaven. And this is a great comfort to us: that he made an effort to be alone, to pray; his encounters are an inspiration to all that is good within us because we see that he did not seek the company of the powerful of this world whenever he needed to be with other people. Nowhere do we read that he made an effort to speak to the political authorities—no “prayer breakfasts” for this popular preacher; he never tried to have a conference in order to influence Caiaphas, the chief priest of the times—Jesus did not think much of “lobbying” the powerful, yet he never hesitated to speak out about their hypocrisy and to call them to repentance.

Yet he was always available to hear the pleas and questions of the common people, the ones who came to hear him preach, the ones who came to be healed, even the ones who came to taunt him.

In this instance, he is walking south toward Jerusalem. Galilee is in the north, with Samaria lying between Galilee and Judea, west of the river Jordan. It is a mountainous place with the occasional green areas, but since everyone walked during those years, it was inevitable that he would meet other travelers. In this instance, he is just south of Galilee, approaching a village probably to spend the night or to secure provisions for the trek to the south. Since the lepers “call out” to him, it is a sure bet that he has not yet entered the village. This must have been in a rather deserted place because the lepers wouldn’t dare appear in the midst of a crowd. Notice how they keep themselves separate. They call out to him from the distance; they do not approach. Did he approach them? The Gospel writer tells us that he saw them, probably by moving close to them to see their condition. But they do not ask to be healed, they ask for mercy. They know that if he sees their physical condition, he will have pity on them. His fame as a compassionate healer has preceded him.

He does see them—not in the way we avert our eyes from the homeless and the unlovely, pretending not to see, but in a way that lets them know that he indeed has seen the sickness of their skin. After seeing them, he tells them to go show themselves to the priests; in other words, to obey the law of Moses—only a priest could pronounce them healed, as Leviticus shows in astonishing detail. Now, here comes the interesting part. Why show themselves as they are, without any effort at healing? Without any recorded words on healing? Despite all this absence of words or any obvious action, the 10 lepers obey and start south toward Jerusalem where the appropriate priest resides.

It is a fascinating scene—a call for mercy; a response that shows mercy; an assurance that comes without any questions or comments on the part of the healer and no specific requests on the part of the suppliants.

They do obey immediately and start on the long trek south. Were they talking among themselves? Were they wondering what would happen when they reached the priests? We don’t know. However, one of them suddenly becomes aware of the changes on his skin. He sees the ugly rash disappearing, he feels his hands regaining their wholeness, he probably drops the shawl covering his head and touches his face. He is whole! He is clean! He doesn’t discuss it with the others, he simply feels gratitude rushing through him like the overflowing of a spring of water. He turns around and runs back. He probably doesn’t even stop to look, to see what is happening to the others. He knows that what is happening to him is good, and the source of goodness is not ahead in Jerusalem, but behind him, with the man who responded to his cry for mercy. He runs.

His voice rises in unrestrained praise. We hear his exuberant words as he runs back, full of praise to God. Does his mind make the connection between God the Creator and the healer who met him and saw his misery? The Gospel writer doesn’t tell us but the action shows us the man’s feelings.

He knows he will find Jesus in the village because that is where he was heading when last seen. It is possible that Jesus hasn’t even had time to eat; he is probably still out in public, surrounded by people. The man sees Jesus and goes and throws himself at his savior’s feet. The writer says simply: “and he thanked him.” What a thanksgiving that must have been. Not only was the man whole again, he was now able to rejoin the community, not to be an outcast. As an afterthought, the evangelist adds, “And he was a Samaritan,” a double outcast. Just imagine, folks. Not one of our own from whom we expect good manners, but one of those outcasts, the Samaritans. He, of all people, had the good manners to return and thank Jesus!

Jesus notices the absence of the nine. Were they not also healed? he asks plaintively. It was left to this “foreigner” to come and show thankfulness.

It is possible that this is a story the evangelist tells to show that Jesus came also for the foreigners, for the outcasts, for the people of other nations besides those of Israel. It is possible that the evangelist wants to remind us that many times we ask God for mercy when things are not going well with us, but when we are given mercy, we forget that it happened because God bestowed it on us. It is possible.

But the story is simple and human, and it shows that Jesus was touched by the man’s gratitude and hurt by the others’ ingratitude. How easy it is for us to forget God. Have you noticed how people who have nothing to do with church or the faith blame God for misfortunes that befall them? Yet, when good things happen to them, they don’t give credit to their Creator. This story is very much the story of the human condition.

In the other lesson appointed for today Ruth, centuries before the time of Jesus, understood the meaning of gratitude also. She recognized that her mother-in-law and the rest of her family, now lost to death, had taught her something precious—the knowledge of the one God. Her loyalty to Naomi was so profound that even when urged by the older woman to do so, she refused to abandon her and, according to this charming Old Testament story, God rewarded Ruth for her gratitude to Naomi.

Saint Paul’s letters are filled with gratitude to God and to his brothers and sisters in the faith. He never fails to express his gratitude to the glorified Lord who appeared to him, changing him from a persecutor of Christ and his followers to the most passionate follower of Christ in the history of humanity.

That gratitude overflowed like a spring of good water that nourished the faith of all those who met Christ through Paul’s ministry and constant struggle.

Gratitude is good. What emanates from a grateful spirit is also good. Feeling grateful to God fills us with the need to praise God. That is why we sing hymns. When we cry out for mercy, God through Christ hears us. The response then is up to us.

Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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Christopher Sikkema