By Ellen Sims
Text: Luke 17: 11-19
I was the kind of mother who wanted our daughter to learn early to say “please” and “thank you.” Before leaving our child at, say, a friend’s birthday party, I would start my usual reminder: “Now Georgia, remember . . . “–until she’d interrupt me with: “I know, Mommy. I know. I’ll remember to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’.”
I recognize now I might have been teaching etiquette rather than gratitude. There’s a difference. Gratitude isn’t a formula. Gratitude isn’t coerced. It isn’t perfunctory. Gratitude isn’t about gaining social approval and seeming nice.
Nor is “thank you” a magic phrase that gets you into God’s good graces. We don’t have to thank God in order to win God’s favor. Instead, as I read the story of Jesus healing the ten men with leprosy, gratitude is a spiritual practice that is good for us. It is healing.
I’ll make 3 brief observations about this familiar story:
1. In the first sentence, (v. 11), Jesus is walking between two territories whose people distrust and despise one another. In between Samaria and Galilee, he’s hailed by ten men labeled lepers. The refugees of their day, lepers were feared and so cast out by their community but unwelcomed by any other. Fear prevents one from being gracious to another who might respond in gratitude. Jesus, however, overlooks stigma and overcomes fear to offer mercy. The healing of hatred can happen that way.
2. Gratitude is a spiritual gift for both receiver and giver. It impacts the one who says thanks and the one who receives thanks. We’re told that all ten men stigmatized by leprosy were “made clean.” In the biblical world, leprosy described a whole assortment of skin conditions that physically marked people as ritually unclean and required them to live apart from others. Jesus did not wave a magic wand to make them instantaneously clean. The story says that “as they went, they were made clean.” Restoration to the community is a process. In this case it included presenting themselves to a priest who could declare them “clean.” And on the Sunday after Transgender Day of Remembrance, I think of the ways religious leaders today need to look at people whom others have stigmatized, and see them as clean, and declare them as such, and incorporate them into the community.
3. Finally, the one man who returns to thank Jesus is the one Samaritan in the group, an enemy of the Jews, the last person Jesus would have expected to have been grateful. Wondering aloud to his disciples, Jesus says, “My goodness. You mean the only guy who came back to say thanks was this Muslim—I mean—this Samaritan?” And he tells this man of a different religion, “Your faith has made you well.” YOUR faith. Which is not my faith. Earlier the text says all ten were made clean. But only one is made “well.” Because the Samaritan is genuinely grateful, something heals within him. Surely he must have felt bitter—at God, at those in his community. But his faith has made him well. His hope allows him to move forward into a new future. His thankfulness overtakes other feelings of hurt and victimhood and self-loathing and anger. So he could appreciate the goodness. Because he gave thanks, sincere thanks, he was healed at a much deeper level.
Research shows that gratitude is a choice we can make. And there’s a correlation between gratitude and good mental and physical health. For instance, “one powerful effect of gratitude is that it can boost serotonin” in your body. A superficial “thank you” does not cure cancer. But when we can pay attention to our lives in ways that help us notice the good, we are on the road to being deeply healed.
The meal we share each week and will share now is called by some the Eucharist—which means thanksgiving. Although we are remembering Jesus’s death at this meal, we nevertheless give thanks. We don’t celebrate death. We are grateful that death does not have the last word. The Christian mystery is that life emerges out of death. That the Christ lives on—right here—among those who follow Jesus in this meal and in his ways.