Like many of you, I enjoy traveling. It is always nice to arrive at your destination, especially after a long trip, but it is funny how some of the best stories happen along the way. When we travel we can come across surprising, unexpected things. Sometimes the most interesting stuff happens on the trip.
Our text today is a travel story. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, traveling through a border area between Samaria and Galilee. For a variety of cultural and religious and historic reasons, the Galileans, who were Jews, and the Samaritans really didn’t want anything to do with the other, which made life interesting. Jesus is traveling through this border area and he enters a village. This is not his destination; this is just a rest stop on the trip. But he enters this village and is immediately approached by ten lepers. The scripture says that “they kept their distance.”
Well, they were supposed to keep their distance. This was by tradition, as they could make others ritually unclean. Or even worse, they could spread the disease. Leprosy was a terrible disease. At a safe distance, they cried out to Jesus, that he might have mercy on them. We can surmise that perhaps they were asking for a donation – this was the only way they had to earn an income. But Jesus has something bigger than a cash donation in mind. He simply tells them to go and show themselves to the priest, which is the instruction given in the law for those who have been healed of leprosy. They set off on their merry way, and lo and behold, they are healed.
It’s already an amazing story, but this is where it becomes really interesting. One of the ten lepers turns around and goes back to thank Jesus. One out of ten. Now you would think that would be the least a person could do. I mean, if thanks are ever in order, this was the occasion. But only one returned to thank Jesus.
So this one person returns and this time, he did not keep his distance. He didn’t have to keep his distance. He throws himself at Jesus’ feet and thanks him.
Jesus then asks a very good question. There were ten who had been healed, but only one returned to give thanks. Jesus asks, “Where are the nine?”
A good question. Where were they? Why didn’t they return to say thank you?
We don’t know the answer to that question. But we can speculate. Perhaps one did not feel great gratitude because he had a sense of entitlement. Healing was something that he felt like he deserved, he had it coming his way.
Unlike the Samaritan who returned to express gratitude, this one considered himself one of God’s chosen ones and as such he felt a right to expect that this Jewish teacher named Jesus would do for him what he could. He deserved it.
Maybe there were a couple of those nine who, after being healed, weren’t entirely sure that that is what they really wanted. They had been lepers for so long that it had become a part of their identity. It had become, if not exactly comfortable, at least familiar. They knew what to expect and how to behave and how to relate. A predictable life of leprosy in some ways might be easier than a whole new life.
I mean, everything would change – their living situation, their family relationships, their livelihood. They were contemplating these matters, trying to decide if this was a good thing or not, and they did not return to say thank you.
One was so self-absorbed, it didn’t occur to him to thank Jesus. He wasn’t in the habit of thinking about other people. It didn’t even occur to him that Jesus had anything to do with it. He just went along with the others, found himself healed, and was happy about it. It was all about him, and he was delighted by his change in fortune. Assking who had helped bring this about wasn’t an important matter. It wasn’t really on his radar.
For one of the nine, there was a different reason. He had completely lost the ability to say thank you. For years, he had been forced to beg for money or food and said thank you, at first sincerely and then somewhat grudgingly, and then without any feeling at all. So many had given him just a trifle, some small thing, and expected his tremendous gratitude. It got to the point where he just couldn’t say it any more. He could not say thank you.
There may have been one of the nine who was thrilled initially - who was momentarily thankful - but before he could return to say thanks, he remembered what a terrible lot he still faced. He was very poor and it was doubtful whether he could get his job back. His disease had cut him off from old friends and connections. He had been a victim for a long time, and now that he was healed of leprosy, he simply went right to the next problem. He didn’t return to say thanks because he was still overcome with feeling sorry for himself.
One of the nine did not return to give thanks because he had never really learned to say thank you in the first place. He had not seen it demonstrated. The people in his life had never expressed thankfulness. His parents had not taught him to say thank you. It was not a part of his history. Never having seen it modeled, he himself just simply was not a thankful sort of person.
One, perhaps, was simply too busy. He was hurrying to see the priest and get a clean bill of health, and he could not wait to get back to his family. It wasn’t that he was ungrateful; he just didn’t have time to say thank you. There were important things to do. He was busy.
And the last of the nine, well, it was a bit embarrassing for him, but he just plain forgot. He should have gone back to say thank you, but he was so caught up in what was happening that he simply forgot to say thank you to Jesus.
They had their reasons, no doubt. And some of these reasons were perhaps understandable, valid even. Except that, we need to remember what it was that they had reason to be thankful for.
This was not like being thankful for a small favor, like motioning for the other car to go first at an intersection. This was not like saying thank you for a small gift, like a pair of socks from Aunt Jane and Uncle Harold at Christmas.
These ten people had been given nothing less than a new life. Leprosy was a terrible disease. Although we may think of leprosy as a skin disease, it was really a nerve disease. With leprosy, a person would lose feeling in hands and toes. Without the sensation of pain, a person could be injured and not know it. The disease progressed and moved along limbs. It was a horrible disease. Those who had leprosy were social outcasts who had to leave their families and go live with other lepers. They gave up jobs, friends, livelihoods. The fact that both Jewish and Samaritan lepers were in this group of ten attest to how awful the disease was. Their shared pain and hardship brought them together and was even greater than the animosity Jews and Samaritans generally felt for one another.
If one were healed of leprosy, I cannot imagine being anything but extremely grateful.
Imagine ten patients in a cancer ward who are suddenly, miraculously made well. I cannot imagine them not being grateful. Imagine ten AIDS patients, who suddenly are healed, with no trace of disease. They would without a doubt return to say thank you – we cannot imagine otherwise.
So what is it with these nine lepers? What is going on here?
Well it seems that there are two significant points to be made in this story. First of all is our need for thankfulness. We have failed to feel gratitude for the very same reasons that may have kept the nine from giving thanks. We have felt a sense of entitlement and failed to be thankful. We have questioned whether we really want the wonderful gifts we are given. We have been too self-absorbed to think of thanking another.
Some may find it difficult to say thank you for anything. We have focused on our hurts and pains and needs rather than our blessings and failed to be grateful. We have not learned the attitude of thanksgiving, we have not learned to look around and be grateful. Or we have been too busy, too distracted, to say thank you. Or sometimes, we just plain forget to say thanks.
George Herbert wrote, “Thou hast given so much to me. Give one thing more: a thankful heart.”
This story has a word for us about gratitude. But there is more.
It is not coincidental that the one who returned was not a Jew, but a Samaritan. And while the nine were healed, this one was transformed. He was completely changed. The scripture says that when first approaching Jesus, all ten “kept their distance,” but now he falls at Jesus’ feet – he draws near to Jesus. Not only was his body made whole, his while life was changed forever.
But why the Samaritan? Why was his life changed in a way that the others were not?
Fred Craddock puts it this way:
It is so often the outsider, the stranger, the visitor who sees and appreciates and responds with gratitude for countless gifts that we have come to take for granted. The visitor in my home talks with and enjoys the children I hardly noticed between coming home and reading the evening paper. The visitor thanks my wife for the meal I have eaten 1000 times in silence. It is so often the stranger who notices and expresses appreciation for what familiarity has blinded us to. This is the truth that hurts.The point is not to simply feel shame for our lack of gratitude. The purpose of this story is not just to make us feel bad about ourselves. The word for us is that we may need to learn from outsiders, like the Samaritan, how to see with grateful eyes.
But it is also a truth that can heal. He is not just someone who shows us up for the ingrates we are. He is one sent by God to give us new eyes and ears. And hearts.
Do you want to know how to be grateful for our country? Talk to an immigrant who has spent his life savings and perhaps even risked his life, and is willing to work at the most menial of jobs just to stay here. Talk to the person who has come from another country and who gets there early to wave a flag at the 4th of July parade while others are on the lake or the golf course.
Ask immigrant youth who are on honor rolls in schools across the nation, “Why do you take education so seriously? Why do you study so hard?”
Newcomers can help us see everything in a new way. Children are new enough to this world that they have a sense of delight and wonder that some of us who have been around awhile desperately need. Lay on your back on the lawn with a 5 year old and ask her what she sees in the sky, or watch her play with a kitten. You will learn something.
In a sermon about the Prodigal Son, Helmut Thielicke imagines that once, when he was young, he invites a less-well-to-do playmate over to play. And the playmate is astounded not only by the plenty there – by all this kid has - but by the father's love for his son. “I never even knew my father,” he says. And for a short time, the prodigal-to-be sees his father and his situation in a new light -- through the eyes of his friend. For a short time, he is grateful. But it does not last.
Often it is that way with us. Our gratitude fades, unless it is constantly renewed. That's why God is always sending us children, and visitors and outsiders and newcomers – folks who can see what we have become blind to.
It happens. The rookie major league ballplayer comes in wide-eyed. He can’t believe the luxurious locker room, the sumptuous meals, the comfortable, spacious jet airplanes that beat the heck out of bus rides to Toledo. But over time, things change. The cushy accommodations are appreciated no more than a Motel 6. The notion of taking a commercial flight feels about like riding in the back of a 15-passenger van. “I can’t believe I get paid for playing a game” becomes “I’m insulted by your offer of a stinkin’ $5 million a year.” The sense of wonder and gratitude fades.
You want to know something? It can happen in the Church. Often those who are new to faith in Christ have a spirit and enthusiasm and commitment that has somehow waned in those of us who have been longtime Christians. Those who are new in the faith often have a joy of salvation and joy in God’s presence that we need to have rekindled in our own hearts.
It can happen in our own congregation. Sometimes those new to our church can see gifts we cannot see and appreciate blessings that we don’t notice anymore. Churches tend to feel like we need new people in order to survive. If you just look at things demographically, that is certainly true. People move away, congregations get older, we need new folks to survive. But this is even truer than we realize. If no one ever aged or no one ever moved away, it would still be true. We need newcomers to help keep us alive, because they can help give us a sense of purpose and enthusiasm. They can help us to see those things we have become blind to. They can help us to feel gratitude.
Do you want to be more grateful? Find yourself a child. Find yourself a newcomer. Find yourself a rookie, a stranger, an outsider. And ask them to tell you what they see. Amen.
(I drew inspiration from Martin Bell's story, "Where Are The Nine," in The Way of the Wolf)