Sunday, October 13, 2019

Ten Lepers

Commenting on this morning’s Gospel, N.T. Wright poses an intriguing question. “Which is more surprising: the fact that one leper came back, shouted for joy, fell down at Jesus’ feet and thanked him? Or the fact that the nine others who were cleansed on their way to see the priests didn’t?” Typically, throughout his Gospel Luke focuses on Jesus’ attitude toward the outsider, the foreigner—in this case, a Samaritan. The implication is that the Samaritan had less reason to return to Jesus than did the other nine. On the other hand, perhaps the nine lepers who were Jewish were understandably afraid to go back and identify themselves with Jesus, who by now was a marked man. Or perhaps, having realized they had been healed, they were so eager to get back to their families from whom they had been isolated all the time the disease had affected them that they simply didn’t think to go back and look for Jesus. Luke, in any case, implies that they were less grateful. With disappointment Jesus asks: “Ten were cleansed, were they not? Where are the other nine? Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God?”

Clearly, the miraculous cure from leprosy is only half the story here, for Jesus then says to the one who returned to give thanks, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has saved you.” His words suggest that the Samaritan received more than the physical healing that all ten lepers received. As the biblical commentator Pablo Gadenz points out, “the word for ‘get up’ is a word early Christians would have recognized as having to do with ‘resurrection.’ Like the prodigal son, this man ‘was dead, and is alive again.’ New life, the life which Israel was longing for as part of the age to come, had arrived in his village that day and had evoked a faith in him he didn’t know he had. Once again, we see that faith and healing go hand in hand. But it is grateful faith in the person of Jesus that leads to salvation.

What about us who fail to thank God “always and for everything,” as St. Paul exhorts in Ephesians? Albert Schweitzer wrote in his Reverence for Life: “The greatest thing is to give thanks for everything. Whoever has learned this knows what it means to live…They have penetrated the whole mystery of life: giving thanks for everything.” Ingratitude is of a corresponding magnitude. The Russian Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann identified ingratitude as the sin of the fall: humanity’s discontent with all that God freely gives. Other thinkers through the ages have ranked ingratitude among the greatest sins, as a repudiation of the good, a form of rejection that strikes at the heart of community, relationship and continuity. We can conclude no one can understand life who is ungrateful for it; no one can totally misunderstand life who is grateful.

We know that God is the giver of all good things, and that we have nothing that we have not received—all good gifts are from his generosity. Now, there is an old spiritual discipline of listing one’s blessings, naming them before God, and giving thanks. This is exactly what the Canadian writer Ann Voskamp endeavors to do in her bestseller book One Thousand Gifts. She claims that thanksgiving—eucharist—is the central symbol of Christianity, the essence of what it means to live the Christ-life.

She marvels in her poetic style:
Doesn’t Christ, at His death-meal, set the entirety of our everyday bread and drink lives into the framework of eucharistēo? . . . Eucharistēo—thanksgiving—always precedes the miracle. Think how Jesus once took the bread and gave thanks, and then the miracle of the multiplying of the loaves and fishes. How he now took the bread and gave thanks, and then the miracle of enduring the cross for the joy set before Him. How Jesus stood outside Lazarus’s tomb, the tears streaming down His face, and He looked up and prayed, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me”—and then the miracle of a dead man rising! Thanksgiving raises the dead!

I would suggest that the Good News of today’s Gospel is that Jesus counts thanksgiving as integral to a faith that saves. In other words, we only enter into the fullness of life if our faith gives thanks. For how else do we accept His free gift of salvation if not with thanksgiving? Thanksgiving is the evidence of our acceptance of whatever He gives. Thanksgiving is the manifestation of our Yes! to his grace. Thanksgiving is therefore inherent to a true salvation experience, as we see in the case of the Samaritan leper. What we do at every Eucharist is to remember with thanks, and it is precisely this that is held up to us this morning as the foremost quality of a believing disciple.

Of course, it is not easy in the midst of terrible, horrific circumstances to believe that we have every reason to “always and everywhere give thanks.” But even then we may experience a stark moment of awe in which we realize that the simple fact that we are is an abiding gift of God to us. Perhaps this is what happened to the Samaritan leper in a particularly poignant way when he suddenly realized he was healed. So for us as well: to receive ourselves constantly from the hand of God and to thank him for this isn’t circumstance-based but belongs to our essential being, even if we are rarely conscious of it. But the moment we intentionally “return” to give thanks to the one who gives and renews our life day after day, this moment of gratitude always sets us right. In a moment of simple gratitude everything between God and ourselves will come to life, and things will be right. Perhaps it is gratitude more than anything that allows us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world.

I’d like to conclude with a good word from the 14th century English mystic Julian of Norwich:
The highest form of prayer is to the goodness of God…. God only desires that our soul cling to him with all its strength; in particular, that it clings to his goodness. For of all the things our minds can think about God, it is thinking upon his goodness that pleases him most and brings the most profit to our soul.

To “think upon His goodness” is to “give thanks” to Him. Someday the Lord will show us how He received our gift of thanks, and that will be a part of our blessedness!
Father Dominic's Homily for the Twenty-Eighth Sunday.