July 19 2019 ..
As Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, he passes through a village near the border of Galilee and Samaria. The Jews and the Samaritans were age-old enemies, not unlike Jews and Palestinian Arabs.
On the outskirts of the village he meets 10 lepers. They are on the edge of the village because Jewish law proscribed that lepers be set apart from healthy people, and that they should identify themselves by wearing torn clothing, by having unkempt hair, and by crying out, “Unclean, unclean.” (Lev. 13:45-46) Leprosy was the most dreaded disease in the ancient world. Like Aids, it had a physical component and a social component. Their flesh was eaten away by this hideous disease, and their spirits eroded by being social outcasts.
Jesus as always, does the daring and unexpected, and breaks with social convention. Rather than rejecting them, he meets them at the point of their need. When they cry out to him for mercy, he tells them, “Go and show yourselves to the priest.”
The priests in their role were first century health officers, and they were the only ones legally able to certify a clean bill of health.
The lepers’ plea is well rewarded, for Luke reports that, “As they went they were healed.”
But only one returns to Jesus to give thanks. He falls on his face before Jesus, sobbing and laughing, saying over and over again, “Thank you, Lord, thank you Lord, thank you, Lord.”
And Luke tells us, and he saves this line until the end of the story so as not to give away the point early on, that this leper was a Samaritan. Not a Jew, not one of God’s chosen. A Samaritan, a group of people vilified by the Jews. Being a Samaritan AND a leper gave one a double whammy. Luke seems to be saying, “The strangest people, the people you would least expect,responded to Jesus.”
Well, what do we make of this story? On the face of it, it’s the classic example of the sin of ingratitude. “Were not ten cleansed, where are the nine?” Jesus is genuinely surprised that only one leper has returned to thank him.
Only one comes back. Where are the nine? Not a very flattering percentage for humankind. One in ten. One in ten to give thanks for having health given back, life given back, a future given back. Where are the nine?
If we are to take Jesus’ question literally rather than rhetorically, we might speculate a bit as to where they actually were. Since lepers were cast off from society, that meant that they were physically separated from their village, from the temple, from their friends and family. They were forced to walk the streets and beg for charity.
All ten obey Jesus’ command and go off to see the priests. And wonder of wonders, as they go, all are healed. Try to feel your way into their ecstasy. Skin that had been peeling and scaling away gradually becoming pink and healthy. Fingers that had become stumps restored. They are deliriously happy.
Where are the nine? One heads off to the village pub to celebrate with his friends. One races home for a family reunion. It had been years since he has put his arms around his mother and kissed her. Another goes on to see whether the girl to whom he was engaged before those tell-tale spots appeared has waited for him. Still another, tired of being a beggar, sallies forth to search for real work.
Where are the nine? They are getting on with their lives. They do not repudiate Jesus. They do not reject Jesus. They merely ignore him and ultimately lose sight of him in their new-found ecstasy.
I have no doubt that each of the lepers felt overwhelming gratitude at first for the cure. If you have cancer, and it goes into a long remission, if you have an alcoholic loved-one, and she becomes sober you feel a bone-deep gratitude.
So the ten lepers must have felt tremendously grateful at first. At first. At first. But as time passed, they forget the source of their gratitude.
It was after nine in the evening when I stopped at Providence Hospital in Portland to visit a man who early the next morning would undergo major surgery. As I had gotten to know this man, I understood why someone termed the seven major sins are called the seven “deadly” sins, for sin had ravaged his physical health and his emotional health.
“Knowing you will be executed at sunrise,” Samuel Johnson says, “concentrates the attention wonderfully.” And knowing you are undergoing life-threatening surgery performs the same function. So this man used my visit as a confessional. If he survived the surgery he would be a changed man. He had neglected his family. He prayed for enough time in the future to make things up to his wife and children. He had not practiced his faith. In the future he would more time to his church. The bad habits that had led him into the hospital would be overcome. He was so very sincere that night in wanting to repent, to turn his life around for good and for God.
The surgery was a success. He was enormously grateful as he convalesced in the hospital and realized that he probably had a normal life span ahead.
He left the hospital. He came to church regularly, then sporadically, then not at all. A year after he had been released from the hospital I learned that very little had changed in his life. But if you asked him, he would say, “Yes, it’s a miracle I’m alive. I’m so thankful to God.” But there were no tangible changes to demonstrate that he had his life given back to him by God. Where are the nine a year after Jesus had cleansed them? They are going about their lives as if their health was an entitlement. Like many of us, when we they got what they wanted, they never come back to the source to say, “Thanks.”
Years ago an excursion boat was wrecked in a storm on Lake Michigan, just off the shoreline of Evanston. The students of Northwestern University came to the rescue. One student, Edward Spencer, saved 17 people from the sinking ship. He was carried back to his room, past exhaustion, uttering over and over gain, “Did I do my best? Do you think I did my best?”
Years later a noted speaker was telling that incident at a meeting in Los Angeles. Someone called out that Edward Spencer was in the audience. The speaker invited Spencer to the platform; an old man with white hair. Spencer was asked if he remembered anything in particular about the rescue. Spencer replied, “Only this, sir. Of the 17 people I save, not one of them ever thanked me.”
Granted, most of us feel gratitude for many things. For health, for family, for our church, for being able to live in this exquisitely beautiful community and this wonderful country. The feeling of gratitude, however, means nothing, as we see in this story, without the expresssion of gratitude.
The reason so many church people dread stewardship season, I think, is that the church has failed to teach what stewardship really means. I lay the blame at the feet of Christian ministers as much as anyone else. For when you think back to all the stewardship campaigns you’ve been involved in, what has been the message? It’s usually the same and it follows one of two lines. One approach is that our church needs the money and is deserving of your support. That’s the approach all charities use. The symphony needs your money and deserves your support. The hospital needs your money and deserves your support. Your college needs your money, and deserves your support.
And all of that is true. Churches, the arts, institutions of healing and education in this society do need our money and do deserve our support. But that is not the basis of Christian stewardship, and we have done a disservice when we use this as the main approach to giving.
The second approach is guilt. Churches find subtle ways to play the Jewish mother, and to motivate us to give through guilt.
If I read the Bible correctly, neither of these angles is the Christian approach to stewardship.
The Christian approach is that we give because God first gave to us.
We give in grateful response to God’s lavish blessings.
We give freely and happily not because our church needs the money, but because we need to give to express our thanksgiving.
We give not because it is our duty, but our opportunity. After all, duty calls us, only when gratitude fails to prompt.
I was in the home of a lovely woman who had been a member of my church for many years. I was there to tell the story of our fall stewardship campaign. She was most pleased to hear about what our church is trying to do. She said she said she would support the campaign to the best of her ability, in light of other charitable commitments she currently has. And as she talked about some of the things she supports, there came a twinkle in her eye. “I get such joy out of giving.”
Think about the people you know. Now, from all those people, think of just one person, just one person you truly admire, your hero, or heroine.
Think about what makes them special, what you admire about them.
I realized the people I most respect, who have most influenced my life are people who are filled with gratitude. They are people who express their appreciation about life in so many ways. They are people who are constantly saying, “It was so kind of you to do that.” “I want you to know that I appreciate what you did.” “It is so good to see you.”
The people I most respect are generous people. They give a lot of their time and money to other causes, with an insouciance about their own personal welfare.
The people I most respect are people you can always count on to bake some extra cookies for a school fund-raiser, to volunteer on a task force at the community center, to stuff backpacks for a weekend meal for a high schooler.
They are the people whose gratitude for life’s blessings spill over in their support of many worthy causes, their church and other charities.
They are positive people. They are happy people. And no wonder, for praise is therapy, and gratitude is medicine for our souls.
Where are the nine? I don’t think the nine were bad people. I suspect that they made many positive contributions in their lifetime once Jesus restored them to health.
But something was missing in their lives, and for the Gospel of Luke, this something is salvation. When the one leper returns to Jesus to give thanks, Jesus says, “Arise and go, your faith has made you well. A better translation is, “Your faith has saved you.”
All ten lepers were healed. They shared that in common. But only one returns to the Source of the Healing. Only one realizes that all healing comes from the Most High. Only one understands Who it was who healed him. The leper from Samaria became a follower of Jesus.
Let me bring down the curtains today with a quote from Bruce Larson, pastor of the Univesity Presbyterian Church in Seattle. “Ten were healed, but only one was made well, and that’s far more important than being healed. The point here, I think, is that unless gratitude is part of our nature, we can’t be whole people.”