I’ve been thinking a lot about gratitude recently. It is a concept central to the biblical tradition but it’s not something we often connect to the Christian faith. In fact, it may be that we only think about gratitude one time a year, around Thanksgiving. Our worship is full of thanksgiving—indeed at the heart of the Eucharist is thanksgiving as we offer thanks to God for all that God has given us, and especially the gift of God’s son.
Gratitude is subversive. We live in an anxious age, as we worry not only about the future of our world and our nation, but we worry about our own futures as individuals and families; we worry about our safety and security. As our anxiety grows, we tend to turn inward and become self-protective, hoarding what we have and envying those who have more.
We may be parsimonious in our gratitude, viewing the gifts we give and receive only in terms of their value. Like Sheldon in the TV show Big Bang Theory, we may even dread giving gifts for fear that the gift we give may not be as valuable as the gift we receive, so we remain in debt to the giver. Or to use a phrase we’ve heard a good bit recently, we think of giving in terms of quid pro quo.
In our gospel reading, we see a story of healing that becomes a story of gratitude and faith.
On the surface, it’s rather a simple and straightforward story. Jesus cleanses ten lepers; he tells them to go to the priests to be certified as clean, and then to go back home. Only one of them returns to thank him, and it turns out to be a Samaritan who responds to Jesus’ acts with gratitude. On the surface, this story seems to be about etiquette, about giving thanks; a biblical example of the imperative to send thank-you cards. In fact, it’s much more than that. It’s a story that models the Christian life.
There are a number of very interesting things about this story. One is the context in which Luke places it. I’ve been stressing for these last months that we are in the middle of a section of Luke’s gospel that is shaped by Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. Way back in Luke 9:51, Luke tells us that “Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem.” We’re in chapter 17 now, and Luke begins this episode by reminding us that Jesus is still on his way to Jerusalem. It’s the first time, he mentions that fact since 9:51.
Even more interesting is the fact that this episode involves a Samaritan. At the outset of the journey, the first town Jesus and his disciples come to is a Samaritan village, which refuses to welcome them. The disciples want Jesus to call down fire from heaven to destroy it, but Jesus simply goes in a different direction.
There’s another mention of a Samaritan as Jesus makes his journey to Jerusalem—earlier in the Gospel he tells the story of the Good Samaritan as an example of what it means to love one’s neighbor.
Think about that story. A lawyer comes to Jesus and asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus asks him what scripture says and he responds, “Love of God and neighbor.” When the lawyer pushes Jesus, asking him, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus responds with the story of the Good Samaritan—an example of neighbor love. Perhaps our story serves as a bookend to that one. In this instance, the healed Samaritan is an exemplar of love of God
Jesus heals the ten lepers and then instructs them to go to the priests to be certified clean. This is was in perfect keeping with Jewish law as laid out in Leviticus. Nine obeyed him; one did not. The tenth came back, praising God with a loud voice, and thanking Jesus. Luke adds, as if in a marginal comment, “And he was a Samaritan.”
This story is not primarily about etiquette. It is about religious norms and values. The Samaritan was doubly unclean in the eyes of Jews. As a leper, he would have been excluded from the community, shunned. As a Samaritan, he would have been reviled for the religious traditions he followed. Although he was a Samaritan, reviled and regarded as ritually unclean, as a leper, it seems that he was part of that community of lepers who came together because of their shared plight. Now, as a healed leper among healed lepers, his otherness as a Samaritan would stand out.
What is puzzling is that his being a Samaritan takes on significance only after his leprosy is cleansed. Jesus told all ten to present themselves to the priests, what the law required. But of course, as a Samaritan, he would not have had that option. No certificate from any Jewish priest deeming him free of leprosy would make him a part of the Jewish community. Perhaps that is why he came back to Jesus. He realized he had been cleansed, and that was all that mattered.
The Samaritan turned back, he glorified God, fell on his knees and thanked Jesus. We might think such a response would be natural, but isn’t it the case that most of us would follow the rules laid out? We would do whatever it took to be restored to our families, our livelihoods, and our religious lives? It was only the Samaritan who responded differently. He acted as unexpectedly and extravagantly as Jesus himself did. He came back; and because of his response, he was rewarded extravagantly. The NRSV , “Get up and go on your way. Your faith has made you well.” In fact, a better translation would read, “your faith has saved you.”
The Samaritan realizes he’s healed, turns back, prostrates himself, and gives thanks to God. Those gestures are also of great significance for Luke’s gospel. It’s the same language Luke uses to describe the actions of the shepherds as they returned to their fields after having seen the birth of Jesus. It’s also the way Luke concludes the gospel. After the ascension, the disciples returned to Jerusalem in great joy and praised God in the temple.
When describing the Samaritan’s actions, Luke chooses a very interesting word. eucharistein. It’s translated as giving thanks, and it’s the word from which Eucharist comes. But it’s more than giving thanks—just as we do each Sunday in the Eucharist, it’s also about glorifying and praising God.
So this story is about us moving from need, to gratitude to faith. Like the lepers, we have all cried out in some way, “Jesus, Lord, have mercy on us!” Some of us have had our prayers answered. We have experienced healings. Others have cried out as faithfully and as desperately, but have not received healing.
Many of us right now may be struggling to be thankful in the midst personal or global crisis. We may be wondering whether we will have enough money for the rest of the month, wondering where our next meal is coming from, anxious for loved ones, or ourselves.
In the midst of all that, whatever struggles you might be having, we might be crying, “Jesus, Lord, have mercy on us!” But at the same time, is it still possible for us to offer thanks to God—thanks for life itself, thanks for the gifts that God has given you? And if you can give thanks, can you feel your heart open just a bit wider, more open to the world, to your fellow humans, to God? Practice gratitude, by offering God a simple, thank you, each day, throughout the day, and in time, you will come to experience so overwhelming a sense of gratitude and thanksgiving, that deepens your relationship to Jesus, and as it did for the leper, saves you.