Luke 17:11-19 – Parable of the Ten Lepers
You already know how this sermon will end. It must end extolling the virtue of gratitude. No matter what interesting stories, or social research, or exegesis of the biblical setting or Greek word translations, the point is – gratitude is essential to faith.
Gratitude is currently having a moment of popularity. New social research proves the benefits of gratitude.
Scientists performed an experiment in which they asked one group of people to write down the things that they were grateful for on a weekly basis, while the other group recorded hassles or neutral life events. The folks who kept gratitude journals exercised more regularly, reported fewer physical symptoms, felt better about their lives as a whole, and were generally more optimistic about the upcoming week—compared to their negatively focused counterparts.
Other research shows one act of gratitude can boost your happiness by 10 percent and reduce symptoms of depression by 35 percent. (I’m not sure how you measure this. How do you know if you are 10 percent happier?) Saying “thank you” boosts business relationships and improves employee self-confidence. Gratitude towards your romantic partner may be the defining element of the longevity of the relationship. It sounds like gratitude helps almost as many things as medical marijuana. Who knew that we could improve so much simply by saying “I’m blessed,” “Thank you” and smoking a little pot.
I’m all in on the necessity of gratitude. But is something missing in the data. As you talk to people during the week, how much gratitude do you hear? What is the ratio of gratitude vs. complaining and negativity? In Jesus’s encounter with a group of 10 lepers, all of them receive the blessing of being made clean of leprosy, but only one returns to express praise and thanksgiving. Only one out of 10. How would the meaning of the parable shift if 9 out of 10 people expressed gratitude? What if it was 50/50? The power of the story is the gratitude of just one person. You would think someone cleansed of leprosy would be the most grateful person on the planet. This means you no longer have to live separated in a colony of outcastes, experiencing the trails, discomforts and pains of having a chronic disease. They just won the health care lottery. Clearly gratitude is not an emotion which is directly dependent on the amount of what you receive.
Heartfelt and sincere thanks are not the norm. If gratitude is so beneficial, why are we not in a perpetual state of thanksgiving? What is it about the human spirit that cuts us off from this life affirming practice?
Let’s turn to the text. The setting matters. Jesus encounters these ten people with leprosy, while traveling on the border of Galilee and Samaria. We know from other stories like the Good Samaritan, that Jews considered Samaritans to be “the other,” the enemy. Samaria is the territory of the ten tribes who broke from Jerusalem nine centuries before Jesus, and created a separate Northern Kingdom. This little unnamed village is on the border. It is stuck between the human tectonic plates of different cultures, religious views and histories.
When Jeanne and I drive to Virginia to see her parents, we cross the border just south of Pokomoke City, MD. There is a gas station at the border with a huge Confederate Flag and sign that says “Welcome to Dixieland.” Underneath there are signs for fireworks, firearms, tax free tobacco and liquor. I feel the crossing in the pit of my stomach. My ancestors who fought in the Civil War speak to me. “Beware! Don’t buy gas here.”
Border towns are always flashpoints. Think Belfast, Sarajevo, El Paso, Tijuana, Kashmere between India and Pakistan, the de-militarized zone between North and South Korea. Jesus is passing through this little, nameless village on the border of centuries of animosity and prejudice. Today it would be the border between Israel and the Palestinian West Bank. Hatred lasts a long time. It is only a good place to live if you are an outcaste and don’t want to be bothered-the perfect place for a leper.
They call out to Jesus, “Have mercy on us!” Jesus asks nothing of them, doesn’t question their worthiness, he may not even be able to tell if they are a Jew or Samaritan or Norwegian under their rags and bandages. He simply says, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” We can read in Leviticus 13, priests had the duty to examine skin conditions to determine if they were contagious, diagnosing people as “clean or unclean.” There are biblical responsibilities I’m glad not to have. Thank God I don’t have to look at all your rashes. We now have dermatologists. But in Jesus’s day you had to go to the priest, who would pronounce you clean, and you could re-enter society.
Luke says, “And as they went, they were made clean.” Some people are quite vocal lavish in their praise after being healed. But here we are at the border, and all is quiet on the western front. There is hardly a ripple about Jesus cleansing ten people of leprosy, too much misery for this miracle to get 60 seconds of fame.
What about the nine who did not come back? Jesus says, “Where are they?” Jesus does not condemn or take back his work because of their ingratitude. He did not heal them because they were more faithful or gracious or deserving. They were in front of him and they asked. But why didn’t they have gratitude? Shouldn’t they be elated and ready to follow Jesus anywhere?
We can stir some empathy if we have ever felt marginalized, ranging from just not being cool, to people being suspicious of us because of the color of our skin, or our accent, or being condemned because you are gay. I can’t fully stretch to imagine being a leper, to keep a distance from other people because I’m contagious. What is like to have people run from you when they see your skin? To see the look of horror or pity on their face when they look at you? I would internalize a very low sense of self. I’m ugly, I’m a monster, I’m unlovable, I have no value.
How would I react to no longer having leprosy? My skin might be restored, but what about my emotions, my self-worth, my value? Would I ever really recover? What does a healed leper do? Did the nine have a life to go back to, someone who loved them, or a job? It’s really lovely Jesus healed them, but what about first month’s rent?
When I was a social worker, ingratitude was frustrating. Our staff would move heaven and earth to get someone an apartment or a benefit restored. Then their client would complain. During our weekly case review meetings, we would say, “That person needs to get some gratitude.” Over time I saw that people with gratitude did tend to do better. They were more likely to stay sober, keep their apartment or get a job. Gratitude seemed to propel them with more positive energy. But this is not an excuse to condemn people for not showing more gratitude. I’ve learned to pay attention to how hard it is to recover a sense of meaning and self-value. It’s hard for me and I’ve never had leprosy or lived on the street.
Do I show adequate gratitude to God for the opportunities I have received? For being healthy now despite five surgeries and a chronic illness? For Jeanne and our kids who love me? Or the privilege of serving this church as pastor? I should be so grateful and meet each day with joy. But I don’t. My mind gets filled with anger at the corruption and callousness in the White House. Or with worries about paying the bills each month. Or with feelings of scarcity around time and money, frustrations with petty people. It’s easy to see myself as one of the nine lepers who took the blessing but did not express gratitude.
This makes the one man who did come back so remarkable. I’m sure he had worries. He was uncertain as to what would happen next. Where was he going to go? But in that moment, he was grateful and went back to Jesus anyway.
Jesus then says, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” Wasn’t he already cleansed of leprosy? Why does Jesus now say his faith made him well? Being cleansed of leprosy is not the same thing as really being well. The disease might be gone, but you are not well until you are made whole. Being well is not skin deep, it is soul deep.
Gratitude is the capacity to see the blessing, to experience the gift, and let it sink into our souls and make us whole. Gratitude is not an emotion, is not something we feel more if we get more. What it really takes to be grateful is to acknowledge the source of life that is outside of us. It takes knowing that I could not have done this myself, I needed someone else. I did not get where I am because I am smarter, more good looking or worked harder or I’m more deserving. I received a gift. I did not birth myself, perform my own surgery, teach myself, or invent my own wheel. Life is a gift that flows around us. Gratitude is a practice, a way of seeing, and acting. It occurs when we recognize our inter-relatedness and we joyfully share with the living source. “I am more well because of you.” Perhaps that is why it is so hard.
So, by all means start a gratitude journal and write down your blessings every day. But it won’t really sink in if you are doing it in self-interest. If you really want to experience gratitude, you have to notice and express thanks, even in the tumult. Thank your neighbor, thank your teacher, the person who challenges you, the person who works for justice. This is where we truly meet the living, loving God. Here at these borders, the tectonic place between our self and others, the places of fear and anxiety. The place where the other meets us and makes us whole.
Where does your journey of gratitude need to begin?