Today’s story is a very simple one: Jesus is travelling along the border between Samaria and Galilee when he encounters ten lepers on the outskirts of a village.
It is an appropriate place to find them – on the border, in no-man’s land. Unclean, ugly, and infectious as they are, they are unwelcome in the places where normal, healthy people like you and I live.
So there they stand – on the border, on the outskirts, waiting for the man who they know to perform miracles to heal, not only this awful skin disease, but also the social stigma, the pain of being cut off from family and friends, dignity and worth.
And, indeed, as they call out to Jesus, he has pity on them and sends them to the priests – for the priests are the only ones who can proclaim that they are clean and may return from the exile of their illness to the homes and places where they once lived and loved and were loved.
It is clear from the passage that even though Jesus had mercy on them, he was expecting some sort of faith response from them for in verse 14 we read that as they went, they were cleansed. In other words, Jesus didn’t simply hear their cries and heal them and send them on their way; it was only as they set of in the faith and expectation that a miracle would occur that, indeed, their healing took place.
What is so fascinating in the story though, is that as they walked and witnessed the miracle happening, nine of them continued heading in the direction of home and only one of them took the time to turn back and offer a prayer of thanksgiving to the One who had made him whole.
Like I said, a simple story but in it we find three profound truths about cultivating a grateful spirit so necessary to seeing the abundance of God in our daily lives – in both the good times and the bad.
The first truth is that the greatest enemy of gratitude is entitlement.
Have you ever wondered why of the ten that were healed, only one came back? Or is it, perhaps, not even a question that we consider worth asking in a world where “please” and “thank you” and other common courtesies no longer seem to apply? Is there not even a part deep within ourselves which says that Jesus was lucky that even one bothered to turn around?
I believe that woven into the very fabric of our society and ingrained into us from our earliest days, is a spirit of entitlement that keeps us from experiencing the gifts and the blessings of our present moment. With the advent of human rights has come the expectation, the demand, that we are treated with dignity and respect simply because we are human; that we are cared for and protected, clothed and fed, housed and sheltered, employed and educated, heard and healed.
And while I believe that our human rights are fundamental to the creation of a just and life-giving society and based on the dignity and worth that is inherent in every person, I also think that we have forgotten the origin of such rights, the Maker of such virtue and value: the Triune God who created the world and everything in it with the intention that we live in joy and harmony with one another.
We have robbed ourselves of the preciousness of each gift as we have written it into a right, a rule – rights and rules, I might add, that we are prepared to stand up for when it comes to ourselves but keep quiet about as we violate and ignore them as they apply to the circumstances of the “Other” – the leper, the beggar, the outcast, the exile, the foreigner, the inhabitants of no man’s land.
Because I have the right to a house, and I have worked hard for it, I have no reason to be grateful; to see it as the blessing and the privilege that it is. Because I have the right to an education, regardless of how hard I am prepared to work, I have no reason to be grateful, to see it as the blessing and the privilege that it is. Because I have the right to freedom, and my parents or my grandparents or my great-grandparents suffered terribly to secure it, I have no reason to be grateful, to see it as the blessing and the privilege that it is.
Just like, because Jesus had been performing miraculous healings all over Samaria that nine out of ten lepers felt so entitled to his pity and his power, we have become so oblivious to the blessings that each day brings that we simply go about with our business without taking time to acknowledge the things that we should be grateful for.
These so called rights to which we are entitled have robbed us of the wonder and the miracle and the presence of God with us in each breath that we draw into our lungs, in the God-given image of the face in the mirror and the face of a stranger, of the gifts of health and loved ones and the ability to walk and the opportunities to sing and the feeling of a full stomach and even the privilege of a bad day at work when so many are out of work.
These are precious gifts, abundant blessings, sacred privileges which require a response far more than, “I earned it. I deserve it. It’s my right.” Or “It’s the least that God can do for me.”
As Michael Josephson said, “The world has enough beautiful mountains and meadows, spectacular skies and serene lakes. It has enough lush forests, flowered fields and sandy beaches. It has plenty of stars and the promise of a new sunrise and sunset every day. What the world needs more of is people to appreciate and enjoy it.”
There is much that we can learn about appreciating these and every other gift in the actions of the one remaining leper who, open realising the magnitude of the gift God had given him, responded with heartfelt gratitude.
His actions point us to the second truth of the passage – that true gratitude always finds expression.
And I’m not talking about lip service or a short “thank you” as we say our bedtime prayers. The reaction that God desires, the expression that God deserves is far greater than that!
So let’s look a little closer at the grateful leper.
He was on his way to see the priests, as Jesus had commanded, travelling not with friends really but with people whose similar life circumstances had made them his companions. As he walked, he witnessed the miracle of healing taking place and his heart was stirred with such gratitude that he:
- stopped travelling in the direction in which he was headed,
- turned around and travelled back to the One who had healed him, alone for none of his companions would accompany him now that they were well,
- praised God in a loud voice, shouting his gratitude and joy,
- and then threw himself at Jesus’s feet offering thanksgiving.
You see friends, when we are truly touched by God’s goodness, when we catch a glimpse of God’s real and tangible presence at work in our lives, we cannot carry on with business as usual.
True gratitude breaks through the routine of our day and the demands of the hour. It fills us with such uncontainable joy that we have to stop what we are doing and seek out the Source of such blessing regardless of the judgment or censure or disbelief of others. It moves us to a place of such emotion that we want to shout from the mountaintops “How great and powerful and majestic and wonderful and loving and merciful and good is my God!”
True gratitude brings us to a place of humility and surrender, where we fall on our knees in worship and adoration recognising the sovereignty and power of God in our lives.
There is nothing polite or superficial or restrained in the leper’s response – a response which is affirmed and appreciated by God. It is spontaneous and heartfelt. It is loud and unashamed. It stands out from the usual practices and the conventional crowd. It is a testimony to what God is doing and a trusting surrender to what God still has to do.
Are these the characteristics of our worship and our giving? Is this the nature of our response when God breaks into our day in a surprising way? Or are we so striving to be acceptable, conventional, respectable that we take blessing after blessing without allowing our gratitude, our joy, our blessedness to move us nearer to God or interrupt our business?
What is so wonderful, so amazing, so surprising about our God is that even when we take God’s goodness forgranted, even when we fail to allow our gratitude to find authentic, whole-hearted expression, God continues to bless us.
Notice how, in the passage, the nine lepers who are not moved to a place of gratitude or surrender receive still the gift of healing. At no point does Jesus curse them or take the gift he has given away. But to the one who returns, an even greater gift is given.
And this brings us to the final, and most surprising truth of this passage: that gratitude is a gift for transformation.
I want us to wrap our heads carefully around this because it is one of those truths that can shift our entire perspective on life, on God, on how we worship, on the attitude with which we can into this place.
I’ve said already that God desires a response of true gratitude to God’s good gifts. But God does not desire that response because God needs a pat on the shoulder; a little recognition or affirmation for what God has done. Do you remember how, when the Pharisees were telling Jesus to rebuke his disciples from singing “Hosanna” as he rode into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, Jesus replied, “if these become silent, the stones will cry out?”
God does not need our thanks or praise – for the whole creation sings God’s praises, joined by the heavenly host around God’s throne. Instead, God desires that we move from a spirit of entitlement to a spirit of gratitude so that God can gift us further with greater blessings.
Let’s think back to the lepers. Their suffering took place on two levels – the external, obvious affliction of their skin disease, and the deeper, internal suffering of their alienation and exclusion. All ten of them, in asking for pity from Jesus, received physical healing, a cleansing that would make them presentable to the priests and able to return to the lives from which they had come.
But the nine who immediately went back to those lives without taking time to express their gratitude and appreciation missed out on a beautiful moment which would have erased some of the scars and the insecurities of their banishment and exile.
To the one who returned, Jesus says, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner? Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”
It is a powerful affirmation of the man’s uniqueness that draws an outsider, a foreigner, into the kingdom of God. He is not just healed; because of his faith, because of his gratitude finding expression, he is made whole – inside and out.
It is a promise of God’s abiding presence and company as he returns to loved ones left behind; a reassurance that all will be well, that all things are possible in and with God; it is an invitation to a deepening intimacy and transformation that is soul-deep rather than skin-deep.
So gratitude is not a gift we give God; it is a gift God gives to us for our wellness, our wholeness, our complete healing.
Even in secular fields, substantial research is being done on gratitude and findings show that those who live with a heightened awareness of their blessedness, who go out of their way to offer gratitude and thanksgiving, are healthier, happier, less envious, more resilient to the difficulties in life, kinder, more optimistic, less self-centred, less materialistic, more productive, and more creative. They show improved sleep, increased energy, get more exercise, increase in a sense of self-worth, maintain more intimate and happier relationships, and even live longer.
I’m not saying let’s express gratitude to God because it’s good for us and we’ll get back more than we give; such bartering and game-playing is a shaky foundation for the loving, intimate relationship for which we are made. What I hope we will take away with us from this story is a sense of wonder and a deep desire to worship a God so gracious, so generous, that even the ways in which we can give expression to our thanksgiving become the means through which God blesses us more and more.
May we give up the sense of entitlement that deprives us of seeing all the good gifts of God in our lives.
And when we recognise the blessings may we respond with true gratitude instead of depriving ourselves of deeper intimacy with God by carrying on with the business of our day.
And may that gratitude transform us from the inside out into people who live and love and think and thank and serve and give in the strength and grace of the One who loves us most.