Giving Thanks

Luke 17:11-19

Preached October 16, 2022, at Westminster Presbyterian, Westminster, SC

Back in the spring of 2018 a group of sociologists reported the results of a study they had conducted on gratitude.  The authors of the study were curious about how often people expressed gratitude when someone provided them with a product or service.  What they found was that only one in seven people – roughly 14 percent – said thank you when someone did something for them.

The authors were quick to point out that not saying thank you did not mean that people didn’t feel thankful – they just didn’t express their thanks in words.[1]

In our reading from Luke this morning, Jesus was traveling through the countryside between Samaria and Galilee when he met ten lepers.  Even as they called out to Jesus, they kept their distance.  They were very conscious of their place in the world.  Their illness separated them from normal people, removed from society and from their families.  They had been relegated to begging for alms, required to stay at some remove to avoid polluting other people, shouting out their outsider status with their torn clothing and disheveled hair and cries of “Unclean!  Unclean!”  They lived on the margins, not really in the village, not really in the countryside around it.  They belonged nowhere.  Nobody wanted them around.

But seeing Jesus, they called out to him.  “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”

Have mercy on us.  Have mercy on our outsider status.  Have mercy on our lives as unclean people living on the margins of society.  Have mercy on us, barred even from worshiping with others.  Have mercy on our pitiful, rotten state.  Show us pity, Jesus.  Shower us with compassion, Master.  Feel sympathy for us and do something for us, Jesus.  Make us clean again.

Jesus stood on the margins with them.  Neither inside the village nor really outside of it, Jesus stood with them and saw their diseased skin, the lesions that covered them, the patches of skin that were white like flakes of snow.  He responded without any discussion or action on the part of the lepers.  He didn’t question them about their lifestyle, to see if they were good enough to be cleansed.  He didn’t chastise them or call them sinful, labeling them as the world labeled them.  He didn’t ask them to do anything to earn his mercy.  He simply told them to go and show themselves to the priests.

And they went.

Still leprous, still unclean, they acted on faith and headed off for the nearest priest, who could declare their disease cured.  And as they went, they were made clean.  Even as they walked, the whitish spots faded like melting snow.  These ten who had been unclean now were clean.

Nine of them continued on their way.  Like a convict finally released on parole after years of separation from all he holds dear, like a person suffering from tuberculosis released from the quarantine ward, they were no doubt anxious to hear the priest’s words of blessing and be set free to return to their families.  Nine of them.  But one – not only a leper, but a Samaritan, a foreigner – turned back.  The one went back to Jesus and, throwing himself at Jesus’ feet, he thanked him.

Jesus healed ten lepers that day, but only one of them was really made whole.  “Only one decided he didn’t want to fade into the landscape.”[2]  Only one remembered his outsider status and returned to the one who had made him whole.  Only one embodied “a faith that lays hold of God, that cannot and will not remain silent in response to what God has done in his life, that publicly, spontaneously, and joyfully directs its thanksgiving to God.”[3]

Jesus seemed disappointed in the poor response to his healing grace.  “Were not ten made clean?  But the other nine, where are they?  Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”  Only a 10 percent response rate.  Not very good.

The authors of the gratitude study might have pointed out to Jesus, just because the other nine didn’t say thank you, that didn’t mean they weren’t grateful.  They might have noted that most people, even when they feel grateful, don’t say anything.  All things considered, you know they had to be grateful.

As they got their certificates of health from the priest and made their sacrifices, as they walked into their homes and hugged their children and placed a hand on their wife’s cheek, as they settled in front of the fire after dinner and reflected on their deep joy in being home again, they most certainly felt a deep and abiding sense of gratitude.

But they didn’t say it.

Only one of them said it.

Jesus celebrated the one leper because he exemplifies a life of gratitude.  Instead of continuing on his way, he turned away from those with whom he had found community in his illness because his thankfulness would not allow him to continue life as usual.  All ten were healed.  But this one, he would have something extra, something special.  “Get up and go on your way,” Jesus told him.  “Your faith has made you well.”

Let’s not get confused here.  All ten lepers found their spots erased and their disease cured.  But the one who expressed gratitude to Jesus for this miracle in his life also was made well.  A better translation would be, he was saved.  He responded publicly, spontaneously, joyfully – a believer’s response to Jesus’ work.  His faith saved him because it turned him around.  It reoriented him toward God.[4]

Why does Luke tell this story? He is the only one of the gospel writers to share it. Why did he deem it important? Praising/thanking/blessing/glorifying God is a recurring theme in Luke’s writings. It seems Luke recounts this story to emphasize the proper response to any act of grace: thanks and praise to God.[5]

Practicing gratitude changes individual lives – it changed the Samaritan forever.  “It also changes the character of a congregation,” writes Kimberly Bracken Long, former professor at Columbia Theological Seminary.  She continues:

When Christians practice gratitude, they come to worship not just to “get something out of it,” but to give thanks and praise to God.  Stewardship is transformed from fundraising to the glad gratitude of joyful givers.  The mission of the church changes from ethical duty to the work of grateful hands and hearts.  Prayer includes not only our intercessions and supplications, but also our thanksgivings at the table. … it is a description of a life of blessing for the church: as we go on our way, we rejoice and give thanks; for in giving thanks in all things, we find that God, indeed, is in all things.[6]

Our communion liturgy captures this life of thankfulness and praise in the opening words of the prayer of great thanksgiving:

The Lord be with you.
And also with you.
Lift up your hearts.
We lift them to the Lord.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right to give our thanks and praise.

“It is truly right and our greatest joy to give you thanks and praise, and to worship you in every place where your glory abides,” we continue.  As theologian Karl Barth wrote, “What else  can we say to what God gives us but stammer praise?”[7]

Gratitude changes people, and it changes communities.  What if 100 percent of the church’s people beat that 14 percent statistic and said thank you 100 percent of the time?  What would happen in us, in this community, in all our churches?  How might our lives be different if we were focused on thanking God for what we have, rather than wondering what we can get?

All thanks and praise be yours, O God, this day and forevermore.  Amen.

[1] Floyd et. al., “Universals and Cultural Diversity in the Expression of Gratitude,” Royal Society Open Science, Vol. 3, Issue 3, 1 May 2018

[2] Richard B. Vinson, Luke, 548-549

[3] Margit Ernst-Habib, Feasting on the Word C/4, 166

[4] Habib, 168

[5] Oliver Larry Yarbrough, Feasting on the Word C/4, 169

[6] Kimberly Bracken Long, Feasting on the Word C/4, 168

[7] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/3, 564


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