Connections 10.13.2019: Gratitude

Luke 17:11-21

My daughter’s friend Sophia celebrates a birthday this week, one of the first among their group to turn 15. Samantha spent the last several days trying to choose the best gift for her friend. She wanted something personal that she knew Sophia would love. Yesterday afternoon, I took her to a pop culture shop, and she was thrilled to find a T-shirt for Sophia that features the latest album by a singer they like. She was even more excited when the purchase came with a free poster of the album cover. Samantha is looking forward to taking the gift to school tomorrow on Sophia’s birthday. She can’t wait to see her friend’s reaction.

We all want to know that our thoughtful gifts, actions, and words mean something to the people who receive them. This is why the art of writing a thank-you note is still so important. It fills us with satisfaction to know that we have brought joy to someone else, so we want them to say thanks.

But what if we’re not there to see them open the gift? What if we can’t see the fruit of our good actions? What if we don’t ever hear “thank you” from them? We may feel unappreciated and wonder if our offering was even worth it.

I don’t think Jesus needs validation the way that we do, but he clearly delights in those who show gratitude to him. In our lesson from Luke, everyone who is healed from leprosy feels joy and relief. There is no doubt that all of them are thankful for their healing. Only one person, though, actually comes back to thank the healer. Jesus asks where the others have gone and why they haven’t returned to offer thanks as well. Then he commends the man who has showed humble gratitude, telling him his “faith” has made him well.

Sometimes we may feel that we deserve something from God. We say our prayer requests with a sense of entitlement and expectation. When we have that kind of self-righteous attitude, it’s hard to express gratitude for answered prayer. Why should we say thanks for something that was rightfully ours to begin with?

But the truth is that we don’t deserve anything from God. When we pray, we should come to God with a sense of humility and reverence. And when our requests are granted—in whatever way God chooses to grant them—we should return to God with gratitude. What if God doesn’t grant our request? Even then, we can be certain that God is still with us and loves us, and that too is worthy of our gratitude.

Discussion

• How often do you say thanks or send thank-you notes when people do something thoughtful for you? Why do you think it’s important to do this?

• When have people thanked you for something thoughtful you did for them? What did their gratitude mean to you?

• When has God answered your prayers? How did you respond?

• Why do you think Jesus wanted the healed men to come back and thank him?

• How can you grow to be a more grateful person, and how might this change your perspective on life—even when your prayers aren’t answered the way you want them to be?

Reference Shelf

Many English versions translate v. 11 to read something like “While he was on his way to Jerusalem, he passed through the region between Samaria and Galilee.” Look at a map of Palestine in Jesus’ day, and you will notice that there is no territory between Samaria and Galilee. If you go south from Galilee, you enter Samaria, but according to Josephus, most Jews took a longer route down the east side of the Jordan, avoiding Samaria altogether. Some commentators suggest that Luke intends something like “he passed along the border between Samaria and Galilee,” which would mean that he was going east, to skirt Samaria, in order to take the road most pilgrims took. Others just remark that Luke had no maps or vacation guides to sunny Galilee and so had only a dim notion of the roads Jesus would have walked.

In any case, this verse tells us that in Luke’s mind, Jesus has been in Galilee since the rebuff at 9:53. Perhaps the Israelites-in-the-wilderness comparison is apt: having been turned back from his road once, he is now approaching the border for a second time, facing up to the giants that blocked his path before. If the “border” explanation of v. 11 is correct, we can also know that in Luke’s mind, Jesus no longer intends to go straight through Samaria, but is, like any normal Jewish traveler, trying to stay out of unfriendly territory.

Whether intentionally, because he knows more than some commentators suspect, or accidentally, because he is foggy on his geopolitical details, Luke puts Jesus into a liminal space, a twilight zone, a space where the boundaries are fuzzy. Green astutely observes that when Jesus enters the village in v. 12, the reader cannot know whether it was Jewish or Samaritan, and so cannot know, until v. 16, that the group of ten lepers included both nationalities. Verse 12 also says that the lepers stood at a distance from Jesus—lepers were required to stay outside an inhabited space—so that we need to imagine Jesus, like the father in the parable of the prodigal son, standing at the edge of the village to talk to them. So in multiple ways, he is on the borderline, somewhere between Galilee and Samaria, somewhere between in and out of an unidentified village.

Leprosy is described in Leviticus 13 in some detail, so that the priests can correctly identify it: a white rash or swelling or boil that spreads, especially if it turns the body hair white, with or without itching. Leviticus does not attempt to address the cause of the disease; although there are instances of leprosy being a curse or a punishment (most famously, Miriam [Num 12:10] and Gehazi, Elisha’s servant [2 Kgs 5:27]), Leviticus does not assume that all lepers are sinners cursed by God. Modern commentators agree that the levitical symptoms could arise from various sorts of causes, many of them not life-threatening. Thus the main problem with the disease was not its virulence—eczema is not contagious or deadly—but that it made the sufferer unclean to a degree beyond normal uncleanness. Many things ordinary to life made men and women unclean: childbirth, menstruation, and ejaculation of semen, for instance. To be clean again, the condition had to be over, and then the person had to immerse in (ritually) clean water and wait for the sun to set; in other words, cleansing could be done in a day, by the person alone, and with no cost. The cleansing process for a newly healed leper, by contrast, took at least a week from being declared cured to being declared clean. The process also required at least two doves, the local priest, and, at the end, a trip to Jerusalem for a sacrifice at the temple (Lev 14:1-32). For whatever reason, the Law considered leprosy to be a more difficult sort of uncleanness to eradicate, and so for that cause, it had to be quarantined, lest it pollute everyone. Lepers were instructed to “wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be disheveled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean.’ He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean. He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp” (Lev 13:45-46).

Luke’s ten lepers were living outside the village, as required, but when they saw Jesus about to enter it, they called out, “Jesus, master, have mercy on us” (v. 13). They keep their distance as the Law required, but they do not warn him away; instead, they seem to be asking for some kind of help. Many suggest that they are asking for alms, but more likely they are asking for relief; Dives asks Abraham for mercy not too many verses earlier (16:24), and a blind man will ask for healing using this sort of address a chapter later (18:38-39). The word translated “master” is an ordinary Greek word (i), but not the normal word for “Lord” (kyrios), and Luke is the only Gospel writer to have people address Jesus that way. The only other place where despota appears in Luke’s writings is at Acts 4:24, where it is the initial address (to God? to Jesus? one can’t tell) in the prayer of the early church for boldness. In the mouths of these lepers, it connotes respect but not discipleship.

Verse 14 pictures Jesus turning around at the sound of their voices, and upon seeing them, ordering them to go show themselves to the priests. Readers will recall from earlier discussions that in Judaism, priest was a hereditary office, and that there were thousands of priests but only one temple. Most priests lived in towns scattered throughout Palestine, and went to do their one-week stretches in Jerusalem twice annually. The inspection and the initial part of the cleansing ritual could be done anywhere, so Jesus was sending them to find the priest wherever their homes were and start the procedure for reentering society from no-man’s land. Off they go, and as they go, they discover that the leprosy is gone—they are cured of their disease.

OK, freeze the frame for a minute. Up to this point, this is a great story about how ministry feels sometimes, both to the minister and to those to whom we minister. Jesus and the lepers all appear to be in the middle of nowhere. Nine chapters before, Jesus had a clear and definite mission statement, but if his goal was to get somewhere, he has literally gotten nowhere instead. And in this limbo place, not just one, but ten people come to him for help in getting back in touch with life, family, and faith. Ministry often feels like this. “Why are you asking me?” you’ll want to say; “can’t you see that I’m hurting, too?” But that will be precisely why they are asking, because you are in the borderlands with them; they’re asking you, because you can see them and they can see you. Chances are, you’ll have some of your most profound experiences of ministry in those in-between times when you feel most at sea, if you will have the courage to stay there with them and invite them to experience the presence of God.

Great image, isn’t it? But then the story moves on. The gang of ten lepers discovers, as they go, that they aren’t lepers anymore; they’ve been healed of their disease. Nine of them keep on going to find a priest—that’s the first step in getting back into their lives, because the priest has to give them a head-to-toe physical and make sure all traces of the rash are gone. But one of them turns back, praising God, returns to where Jesus is still standing, and begins to prostrate himself at Jesus’ feet, thanking him. And he was a Samaritan, adds Luke.

The Samaritan, the commentators remind us, offers an echo of the biblical story of Naaman the leper. Jesus cited him in his sermon at Nazareth: many lepers lived in Israel in Elisha’s day, but only Naaman the Syrian was cleansed. Naaman was a general in the Syrian army, and was indignant when Elisha told him to dip himself seven times in the Jordan. But his servant talked him into it, and he was cleansed. Naaman returned to Elisha to confess that Israel’s God was the only God, and to try to give Elisha a gift. Luke’s Samaritan is nobody in particular, is healed without any apparent action on Jesus’ part, but does come back to praise God and to thank Jesus. This makes the Samaritans, as a group, 2 for 3 in Luke: they refuse to host Jesus (9:53), but the fictional Good Samaritan is exemplary, as is this former leper.

We start with ten lepers, right? They were living in never-neverland, in between Galilee and Samaria. Then they were healed, and when that happened, they ceased being lepers and became—what? Well, one became a Samaritan, but we don’t really know about the others. Maybe we’re supposed to think that the other nine lepers became Galileans, and went off to find a Jewish priest, but in truth, they just disappear. They melt back into the world Jesus left when he came into this liminal region, and we can’t see them and they can’t see Jesus. But the one guy—the foreigner—was an outsider even before he was a leper. When his leprosy disappears, he discovers that he’s still a foreigner, and so he leaves the nine behind and instead of rejoining society, he comes to praise God, to offer himself as Jesus’ servant, and to give thanks—literally, to make Eucharist. Ten were healed, as Jesus notes, but only one was really made whole; ten were cleansed, able again to enter ordinary life, but only one decided that he didn’t want to fade back into the landscape. Only one, in spite of the fact that he was an outsider, or perhaps because he was an outsider, comes back to stand with Jesus in this borderland. Just as the Good Samaritan is a Christ figure, so the Samaritan leper is a church figure, embodying the essential elements of Christian worship.

That, too, is ministry. You help far more people than you see transformed, and sometimes gripe, as Jesus does, about the ingratitude and the recalcitrance and the butt-headedness of the nine. “They’ll never learn,” you think, when people you’ve pulled from the rapids walk back down to the river and start horsing around on the rocks. “I don’t know why I bother,” you say, when the person you’ve spent hours and hours counseling leaves your congregation for another one where they “really preach the word.” I don’t know how to make those moments feel any better, and I’m rather glad that Jesus says aloud what I thought every time I poured myself into something that most of the flock ignored: “Is this it? Where are the rest of you?”

“Where are the nine?” asks Jesus; is he addressing the disciples, invisible in this episode but mentioned in episodes preceding (17:5-10) and following (17:22-37)? If he is, he draws a circle around himself and the Twelve that omits “this foreigner,” and he sounds disappointed at such a pitiful response to his miracle. The first part of v. 19, “then he said to him,” probably means that Luke did not imagine that vv. 17 and 18 were directed to the Samaritan. Green’s suggestion, that Luke has constructed the episode in such a way that Jesus seems to be speaking directly to the reader, makes better sense.7 Most of Luke’s readers would have been “foreigners” from Jesus’ point of view; Jesus’ comment, spoken to the reader, is exemplary of the sort of devotion God expects, but does not always receive, from God’s people.

The final line is a familiar one in the Gospels. “Your faith has saved you” is often the conclusion to a miracle story, where “saved you” can mean “healed you” as well as “brought you God’s deliverance.” Here, since all ten were physically healed, the Samaritan’s faith is being recognized for connecting him with the full mercy of God. His faith not only took him on the road toward the priest, where he was healed, but brought him back to the feet of Jesus. By staying in the liminal space with Jesus, on the border, outside the village, unnamed and unlocated, by choosing Jesus over reconstitution

into his old life, the Samaritan had his faith affirmed and his deeds praised. By linking himself to Jesus, he becomes the canon by which the others are judged, rather than being the eternal “other.”

Don’t despair. Don’t give up, even when you think you’re lost. Don’t give up, even when you don’t imagine you have one more wise word or one patient response in you. Don’t give up, even if 90 percent of the people you help fade away without a word of thanks. God is at work in the world, even, or maybe especially, in the unmapped places where people feel most estranged from what’s holy. If you have the courage to stand in there in limbo with them, to stand where they can see you and you can see them, then you can be a part of amazing things. That’s good news; that’s the gospel, brothers and sisters.

Richard B. Vinson, Luke, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2008) 543–50.

Kelley Land, a graduate of Mercer University, has been an assistant editor of Smyth & Helwys curriculum and books since 2001. She is also the office administrator for Jay’s HOPE, a nonprofit serving families of children with cancer. Kelley enjoys spending time with her daughters, Samantha (14) and Natalie (12), and her husband John. Occasionally, she appears onstage in community theater productions and can sometimes be found playing board games with a group of rowdy friends. She loves Marvel movies and Doctor Who, and she’s still trying to write a young adult novel that her girls will enjoy.

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