“Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan.” Luke 17:15-16 NRSV
As children, we are taught that “please” and “thank you” are the “magic words” we are to use when wanting something or in response to receiving something. For some, this may come forth naturally without any prompting or perhaps an adult may have to inquire: “What do you say?” Such manners were commonplace years ago, but with the changing times seem to be fewer and farther between. It is as though people have come to “expect” things. They feel entitled to goods and services, and give little thought to expressing gratitude for what they receive. I would be lying if I suggested the struggle with gratitude is limited to those outside of the faith community. No, even as Christians, we have a way of forgetting to be thankful for what others do for and provide to us. This tendency is by no means limited to our relations with other human beings, but it can even happen in our relationship with God.
The passage that I shared at the beginning comes from a well-known miracle story within Luke’s Gospel. Jesus and the disciples found themselves on their way to Jerusalem and at the time were traveling along the border of Galilee and Samaria. It is safe to say they were too close for most Jews’ comfort by being in such close proximity to Samaritan territory. Jesus was inviting himself to have an encounter with a people who were utterly despised by the average Jews of his day. Most Jewish travelers would have distanced themselves so as to avoid all contact with such people, but not Jesus. Even with his focus set sternly upon what awaited him in Jerusalem, Jesus was still open to encounters with others, even those most detested by his own people.
When Jesus and the disciples entered an unnamed village along their route, they were confronted with ten lepers. Now the lepers maintained their “social distance” as prescribed by the Law, but called out to Jesus in order that he might have mercy upon their condition. Lepers were among the most ostracized within society as their “unclean” condition made them unfit for much of everyday life. They were forced to cloister together with fellow lepers separated from family and friends until such a time as they could prove themselves clean. The predicament of those ten lepers was dire to say the least and they knew Jesus to be their source of hope moving forward. Without even a touch, Jesus told the lepers to go and show themselves to the priests. This was an important aspect of their healing as the Law laid down certain requirements for lepers to be reinstated into ordinary life (Leviticus 13-14). Various rituals would be performed and the priests would basically provide the approval needed for the one who had been healed to resume life as normal.
In obedience to Jesus’ words, the ten went away. I imagine, overwhelmed by what had just occurred and knowing the hope which this brought for their future, they moved with great haste so as to receive the “official word” and be reassimilated into public life as quickly as possible. However, in the process of going away, one cleansed individual stopped, reversed his course, and returned to Jesus. Offering praises to God for the gift of clear skin, he fell before Jesus and expressed deep gratitude for what had just happened. Now, we must not be too harsh on the other nine who went away healed. After all, they were following Jesus’ instructions. But, for this one in particular, offering thanks was of greater importance than being first to the priests.
The miraculous encounter between Jesus and the lepers serves to remind us of how gratitude is taken for granted in our world. God blesses our lives beyond anything we can imagine or even deserve and we continue on our “merry way” without pausing to offer our thanks. It is not that we are necessarily ungrateful, but we do get in a hurry, become busy with our routine, or assume God knows we are appreciative. However, God longs to hear from God’s children. Just as a parent, friend, coworker, or any other individual would feel slighted by our lack of appreciation, we must consider God’s feelings as well. We so often enter into God’s presence with our needs and hurts, but how quick are we to return into that presence with our thanksgiving?
In the coming weeks (if not already), we will be bombarded with Hallmark Christmas films, shopping circulars, and holiday decorations galore. Perhaps you are already considering a menu for your Thanksgiving Day feast since many were cancelled in 2020. It is my hope and prayer that at some point in the busyness of the next two months, we will all take the time to be thankful for God’s goodness, love, and provision. Yes, we will take a few moments to “carve a turkey,” but we must also “carve out time” to be with God. Being thankful is a conscious decision we all can make if we choose to do so. I know circumstances related to COVID-19, politics, and social issues are frustrating right now. I understand that our families, incomes, etc. have been affected in various ways in the past year. However, God continues to be good to all of us. If you are reading this, you woke up this morning. If you have a roof over your head, you are not without a home. If you consumed a meal today, you are nourished. This may not be the case for all people in our community, but many people with fewer resources than we ourselves have a way of being more thankful. As the holidays approach, may an attitude of gratitude characterize our lives not only for this limited time of the year, but each and every day as well!
Giving Thanks Together,
The Reverend Kelley Smart