Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Grateful Leper

Luke 17:11-19
October 13, 2013
William G. Carter

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.

Somewhere between Samaria and Galilee, ten people were cured of a skin disease. They kept the Old Testament law by keeping their distance. They recognized Jesus was the Master of mercy. They did what he told them to do: “Go to the priest, just as the Old Testament says, and show him that you have already been cured.”

As they go to do this, they find out they are already cured. Only one of them comes back to say “thank you.” What a strange little detail!

In his little book, The Way of the Wolf, Martin Bell asks, “Where are the nine?” Just imagine, he says. You’ve been cured of a disease that segregates you. A dreaded skin disease separated the contaminated from the healthy. Suddenly the disease is gone. So what do you do? Where do you go?

·         Martin Bell imagines one leper was a mother. She ran back to hug one of her children.
·         Another was a literalist. If the Bible said “go see the priest,” he went right to his priest.
·         Another was offended. He expected he had to do something to earn the healing, and Jesus healed him before he could earn it. He was offended.
·         Another was so happy that he forgot to go back and say thanks. (1)  

Like Jesus, anybody can ask, “Where are the nine?” What I want to know is this: what was going on in the one?

Luke says he was a Samaritan. That is a second strange detail. Back then, everybody hated the Samaritans, which is precisely why Jesus made one of those Samaritans the hero of one of his stories, a story that asks, “Who is my neighbor?” Jews and Samaritans were like oil and water; they did not mix.

When Jesus set out for the final journey to Jerusalem, he sent an advance team into every village. A couple of them stopped in a Samaritan village, and when the townspeople heard Jesus was headed toward Jerusalem, they wanted nothing to do with him. Like oil and water.

Yet Jesus healed this one. He was one of the ten lepers. Jesus did not discriminate in his healing, especially when the illness itself had a discriminating effect. The Jewish Law was clear: if white spots develop on your skin, you are required to withdraw from civilization. If anybody comes near you, you were required to yell, “Unclean! Unclean!” to keep them away.

Here was this man, a leper. No family, no contact. His only community is with nine other people with the same disease, all of them Jews. Normally they would have maintained their racial boundaries, but the only remaining humanity they shared was in their illness.

I have seen that, perhaps you too. Go to the cancer survivor celebration, and these diverse people have something in common. Or parents who meet in the pediatrician’s office; if their kids suffer from the same kind of ear infection, they compare notes and trade cell phone numbers. The same illness can bring people together!

The ten lepers call out for help. When all of them are miraculously healed, it sounds like the old dividing lines return. Nine of them take off, presumably to go see a priest in Jerusalem, to have the healing certified and to be restored to their families. But the Samaritan doesn’t have the same priest; all he has is Jesus.

He turns back to say thanks. Jesus says, “Where are the nine?” I try to imagine what kind of look he had on his face. Was he disappointed that they didn’t come back? Was he bewildered that they didn’t appreciate the gift of getting their lives back? Was he smirking that those obedient Jews were in such a hurry to get to the priest that they severed whatever ties they had forged with their one-time neighbor? We don’t know.

What we do know is that gratitude is a spiritual problem. People who have good things given to them are reluctant to say thanks.

How many of you were forced to write thank you notes by your parents? It reminds me of the back page article that I once read the New Yorker some time back? A middle-aged man remembers Christmas and the days following. He recalls,

Every present under our Christmas tree was just the visible tip of an iceberg of obligation. My mother tracked each package as meticulously as a U.P.S. driver, and her master list haunted my siblings and me for the rest of winter vacation. Bells would be ringing, snow would be falling, our friends would be sliding down our street on brand-new Flexible Flyers - and my sister, my brother, and I would be bent over tear-spattered sheets of stationery, whimpering. (2)

Can you remember such a moment? Enforced Gratitude. It can kill anything that looks like gratitude. I heard about somebody who said to one of her relatives, “If you don't send me a thank you note after I send you a gift, you can't count on getting a gift from me next year." Perhaps she said it to encourage communication throughout the year. But all it did was stir up more resentment. If you are forced to say thank you, why bother saying thank you at all?

All of us know how it is. Gifts are often given with strings attached. My painful recollection is that book of poems by Edgar Lee Masters, the Spoon River Anthology. It's based in the imaginary town of Spoon River, Illinois. Masters goes into the graveyard to read the epitaphs. From the other side of the grave, everybody now tells the truth about their lives. One of those people is a woman named Constance Hately. She explains why two adopted nieces grew up to despise her. Listen:

You praise my self-sacrifice, Spoon River,
In rearing Irene and Mary,
Orphans of my older sister!
And you censure Irene and Mary
For their contempt for me!
But praise not my self-sacrifice,
And censure not their contempt;
I reared them, I cared for them, true enough! - -
But I poisoned my benefactions
With constant reminders of their dependence. (3)

All through their lives, under the guise of generosity, Constance said, "Girls, I took you in when your mother died, and I never want you to forget it. As long as you live beneath her roof, as long as you sit at my table, I want you to remember how much you depend on me." As the years passed, they grew to detest her.

It's nearly impossible to force anybody to feel grateful. Something has to happen inside them. Something more. Maybe that’s why Luke focuses his attention on the grateful Samaritan. He turns back toward Jesus. He praises God with a loud voice. He falls down in worship. He returns to Jesus and gives him eucharist. Or to keep it a verb, the healed man “eucharists” him.

Eucharist is the Greek verb for giving thanks. The root of the word is “charis,” which is the word for grace. Not only that, the prefix “eu” signifies “good.” I think I would like to translate “eucharist” as “grace made good.” Giving thanks is the spiritual response for any gift of God. And how could it be otherwise?

Grace means that God smiles upon us. God gives us gifts of life and faith and healing. God never stops giving good things to us and to the world. That is grace, reflected in God’s continuing generosity. And whenever grace sinks deeply into our lives, the evidence is in our gratitude. The greatest miracle of grace is for anybody to become grateful. This can be the work of God’s Spirit in our lives. As a wise person once said, “I have never known a person grateful who was at the same time small, or mean, or bitter, or greedy, or selfish, or took any pleasure in anybody’s pain. Never.” (4)

It works both ways. Require gratitude and it misfires. Insist on your own independence and gratitude never takes root. The spiritual mystery seems to work in the person who knows how to receive a gift. The way we receive a gift is the revelation of our character.

Somebody does something kind. He looks down at his shoes and murmurs, “You shouldn’t have.” Well, of course, he shouldn’t have, but he did. It’s a gift.

She opens the wrapping paper, smiles knowingly, and declares, “I was expecting this!” That suggests it was perceived as an entitlement. No wonder she forgets to say thank you.

The young lady is surrounded by packages with bright ribbons and bows, and exclaims, “For me?” No, these are for the poor folks in the slum, but we haven’t delivered them yet. She squeals, “for me, for me, for me…” because it is all about her. That is not gratitude.

Genuine gratitude is a spiritual miracle. I think that’s why Luke tells this story. By the time he puts this on paper, the Christ followers have spread into Samaria. There were Samaritans and Jews in the early church. And what they have in common is eucharist – thanks to God for sending Jesus to all of them. In death, he forgives them. In resurrection, he keeps returning to speak and heal.

It seems to me that the virtues of the Christian life are far more subtle than we realize. John Calvin said the chief characteristic of being Christian is not love, or humility, or joy. The chief virtue of the Christian life is gratitude. Calvin said gratitude is even more important than love. Gratitude is the fountain of all service and generosity. Gratitude knows we have been claimed, and rescued, given a new start by the redeeming grace of God in Jesus Christ. This is the knowledge of the heart. It saves us.  

Like the lady said to me: "Do you know what I came back to church? I needed to have Someone to thank." Call it eucharist, call it thanks or grace-made-good. I call it the heart of the matter.

Take a few moments today and think over your gift list. Who are the people who have shown you the graciousness of God? When was the last time you said thank you? What better day than the Sabbath, the day given to us for rest, a day to write notes and offer prayers of thanksgiving? God finds so many ways to give us so much, and our call is to say thank you.

You know, I believe Jesus was smiling when the grateful leper came back. Big smile, hearty laugh. The Lord enjoys the kind of faith that saves us – it is faith expressed in gratitude.  For as the mystic said so long ago, “If the only prayer you ever said was thank you, that would be enough.” (Meister Eckhart)

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

 (1) Martin Bell, The Way of the Wolf (New York: Ballantine, 1968) 39-42
(2)  David Owen, "No Thanks," The New Yorker 18 December 1995: 128.
(3) Edgar Lee Masters, Spoon River Anthology (New York: Signet Classic, 1992) 10.
(4)  Fred Craddock, “A Note of Thanks,” The Collected Sermons of Fred B. Craddock (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 256.

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