Sunday, Oct 10th, 2010
Trinity Anglican Church, Bradford, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Luke 17:11-19
"Were not ten made clean?" (Luke 17:17)
There are certain seasons in our lives when it may seem that we have very little for which to give thanks. Those of us in the so-called “caring professions” know only too well that many people are in the midst of making very difficult journeys. One does not need to be a priest, or a physician, or a counselor to witness the pain that many people are experiencing. How many of us have watched marriages dissolve, or been with loved ones when they receive unwanted news of a chronic or terminal illness? Indeed, there are many amongst us who are experiencing such painful journeys, themselves. Thus, it can seem somewhat forced, or even trite, when we gather together on this particular Sunday of the year and offer thanks for all the goodness in our lives. There are seasons in our lives when we wonder what we have to give thanks for. Whenever we gather as families and friends and make merry at times of festive celebration, there will always be those who feel as though they are on the outside, not able to make merry, for the weight of the world is literally on their shoulders. We ought always to be sensitive to such a reality.
While there are times when we feel we have so little to be thankful for, there are also times when we have much to celebrate. Yet, sometimes that spirit of thanksgiving is overwhelmed by the frenzy that is brought about the thing that is the cause for celebration. I think back, for instance, to the births and infancy of our children. One cannot imagine a more wonderful gift, and yet one cannot imagine a more exhausting and frenzied time of life. It is difficult to pause and give thanks when the blessing becomes an all-consuming responsibility. I think also of someone who was without a job for many months and then finds new employment, only to be overwhelmed with the workload, and the stress of allocating the new income to pay down accumulated debt. Sometimes the joyous things in life can distract us from taking the time to offer a word of thanks.
On the way to Jerusalem, ten lepers approach Jesus, calling out to him, but keeping their distance. Now, the leper of Jesus’ time was an outcast, ritually unclean, and was required to announce his or her presence in a loud voice in order that others might not be rendered ritually impure by coming into contact with them. This is why these particular people call out to Jesus from a distance to have mercy upon them. In this particular case (unlike many of his other healings) Jesus does not touch them, or even proclaim them cured, he simply tells them to go and present themselves to the priests, those who can judge the purity or impurity of any given person. To their great surprise, in hearing this simple instruction, they have been made clean. One of the ten, a Samaritan, thus doubly outcast as he was from a derided race of people, returned to Jesus, knelt down and thanked him; and what of the other nine? Jesus ponders this question with the one that remained; were not ten made well? Why has only one given thanks?
Why did the Samaritan, alone, offer thanks?
Jesus’ words have often been taken as a condemnation of the other nine, but I wonder if this is really the case? Perhaps Jesus has recognized, posing a rhetorical question, that it is not always easy to give thanks. Consider for a moment, the plight of these ten individuals: they had been ostracized and cast out from their society, unable to participate in public life and unable to participate in religious observance at the Jerusalem Temple. They called out for mercy, and they received mercy. Jesus healed them. The healing they truly sought, though, was not simply the restoration of failing bodies, but a kind of social healing, a restoration and reintegration into their society and their religion. Having tasted that possibility, would you or I not do as they did and rush to participate and be a part of the thing from which they had so long been excluded. They sought healing and restoration, and their enthusiasm for what they received was a sort of lived out thanksgiving.
We must probe more deeply, though. Was thanksgiving even required of them? After all, they did exactly what Jesus told them to do – go and show yourselves to the priests. They did not look back, but did what they were told. Is it not somewhat unfair then for Jesus to criticize them for not coming back to offer a word of thanks?
The nine are not unlike most of us, who when having the tide go our way for a change, take full advantage of our good luck and plunge headlong into the stuff of life. I am sure they had thankful hearts because they went forth so enthusiastically.
What that one person in ten realized, though, was that the giver and the gift were one and the same. What that one leper realized was that what Jesus had given him was the opportunity to connect, to no longer be alone or isolated. The other nine plunged headlong into the world, but the last one plunged headlong into God. He realized that he did not need to run off to see the priests to cross the boundary from clean to unclean, from outcast to friend, the opportunity was standing before him. He approached Jesus, knelt down and worshiped him. The boundary that seemed impossible to cross was crossed. The divisions were healed. As he made contact with Jesus, this man was reconciled with God and with his society.
Sometimes, the thankfulness of an entire community is carried in the prayers of a single person.
Illness, broken relationships, bereavement, losses of all kinds, estrangement from friends, all have the potential to isolate us from each other, and in doing so lead us to believe that we are isolated from God. But as much as we may feel this to be true, it is not the case. In isolating us from each other, these pieces of brokenness and loss would have us believe that we are alone and without aid or succour. But this is emphatically not true. God is with us always, and God is always stretching out his healing hand to us in Jesus Christ. And while the body may give way, and while others around us may fall away, God is ever and always enveloping us in love, proclaiming to us that we are not alone, or isolated or without hope. Even more, God is always working to restore us amidst our brokenness to community and to those around us.
Claiming the blessing is often thanksgiving enough. Jesus didn’t recall the other nine and take their healing back. That they were restored to health and wholeness in the community was enough. They could be forgiven for forgetting the formal “thank-you.” Yet, once in a while, when we recognize the blessing, something stirs within us to turn around and glance back, and if we take that moment to do so, we will see a smiling Jesus, delighting in the work of healing, restoration and reconciliation. And seeing the joy on his face, the divine gift of thanksgiving stirs in our hearts, and forms on our lips, and then what could dare stop us from falling down and giving thanks and praise to God?
c. 2010, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves