By this time in Jesus’ ministry, the time of his final journey to Jerusalem, he was well-known as a teacher and a healer throughout the countryside around Jerusalem and Galilee. By this time, it would come as no surprise when he was recognized and approached by those wanting help. In this story, the ones wanting help are ten people suffering from a bad skin disease, ten whom we have come to know as “lepers.” Lepers, as you may know, may have been the most feared and rejected members of Middle Eastern society. Some people thought their disease was a punishment sent by God because they were bad people; others thought the condition was terribly contagious. It turns out both were wrong. Whatever the reason, they were outcasts, “untouchables,” given up as permanently lost and virtually dead. If we were to describe them in the “Upstairs Downstairs” terms of last month’s sermon, we would have to put them in the lowest basement.
In spite of the way in which the rest of society regarded them – or maybe because of it – Jesus’ reaction was automatic. In one sentence they ask for help; in the next he gives it, no questions asked. “Jesus, Master, take pity on us”; “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” Jesus’ instructions are a direct quote from Leviticus 13:49, in which the people are instructed to show that which used to be unclean to the priests, to have it declared clean: in effect, Jesus is saying, “Go have yourselves declared clean, because you are healed.” The lepers would understand this; they would know what the instructions meant. It’s probably the reason they leave immediately, with no questions or no discussion – if the master said, “Go be approved by the priests,” it was the same thing as saying, “You are now clean.”
It was an impressive miracle. One of the stories Israel knew best from its history was Elisha’s curing of one leper, named Naaman, through a process of ritual bathing; we have the story in II Kings 5. Now here is Jesus healing not one but ten lepers, and with no special ritual, no cleansing water, no touching – just by speaking, just by pronouncing them clean. It is an impressive story.
But it turns out not to be just an impressive healing story. It goes on from there; the healing is just the beginning, just an introduction to the main point of the story. The main point begins not at the culmination of the healing, when the ten go off to be found clean, but when one actually turns back from that trip: “Finding himself cured, one of them turned back praising God at the top of his voice and threw himself prostrate at the feet of Jesus and thanked him. The man was a Samaritan.” Punch line number one: one turned back and thanked Jesus. Punch line number two: the man was a Samaritan. A Samaritan?
We know something about Samaritans too, don’t we? If a leper was a lowest-basement sort of person to the Jews, a Samaritan leper must be down in some sub-dungeon. He would be seen not as just sick, but immoral, rude, hick, impolite – you name the flaw, it was attributed to Samaritans. It would be thought that there wasn’t even a word for “Thank you” in the Samaritan language, they were so rude. It was inconceivable to the Jews that the Samaritan would use it in addressing a Jew. Even worse, he was the only one – the nine who weren’t Samaritans kept going. Only one gave thanks, and that one a foreigner. It’s like Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan: it’s not one’s nationality that makes one special; it’s what one believes and does.
What the Samaritan did was to turn back, praise God, and give thanks. It’s obviously the correct response – Jesus says so, Luke says so, and we almost instinctively know it: it is right to give thanks. What Jesus doesn’t say here, though, what Luke doesn’t say, what isn’t clear to us, is: Why is it so important to give thanks, especially to give thanks to God?
Think about it: what’s the big deal? We’re talking about God here – all-powerful, all-knowing, self-confident, not egocentric.
- Take “all-powerful” first – God does what God wants, needing no help, needing no approval from us, needing no positive reinforcement from puny human beings. What could God possibly gain from having us give the credit to God?
- Second, God is all-knowing. God knows the attitudes of our hearts – if we say “thank you” without meaning it, God knows that; if we are grateful and mean to say “thank you” but just forget, God knows that too. What does God get out of hearing us say it then?
- Third, God doesn’t have the fragile human ego that needs to be stroked; God doesn’t need to be reassured by us, and God doesn’t get thrills out of prancing before a standing ovation like some sort of cosmic Mick Jagger.
God doesn’t need anything from us, and our giving thanks doesn’t do anything for God, so what’s the fuss here? Why is it important to give thanks? If it doesn’t affect God’s ego or God’s strength, why? What does it do for God?
It’s undeniable that we have this pattern of giving thanks throughout the Bible. In what may be the oldest passage in the Bible, Miriam sings praises to God for leading the Israelites through the Red Sea: “I shall sing to the Lord for he has covered himself in glory; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.” When giving the Law, Moses commands the people to give credit and honor and glory to God. The Psalms are full of examples like Psalm 107, today’s first Scripture lesson. “Give thanks to the Lord, for the Lord is good.” And now Jesus and Luke give us the same message: it is important to give thanks to God. Sure, the miracle was great, but the point of the story is: Give thanks to God.
But why? We’re western-world scientific-thinking practical-minded Americans, right? We like to know cause and effect. We want to know exactly how Step A will lead to Step B will lead to Step C before we start a process. Does it make sense? Does it follow? Before I take the first step, can I know it will lead to the result I want? So we ask ourselves again – what’s the big deal? Why give thanks? What could our measly little gratitude possibly do for God? Why is it so important?
Now we need to be careful here, not to overstate the importance; giving thanks isn’t the only thing that counts here. The story does not suggest that the nine who didn’t give thanks had their healing revoked, that they suddenly contracted leprosy again. The healing, a gift from Jesus, stayed with them regardless of whether they gave thanks or not, just as a gift we give stays with the person whether we get a thank you note from them or not. God’s grace works whether or not we’re appropriately grateful; it does not depend on our response. But in addition to the Biblical message of God’s grace being a gift with no strings attached, we do get this second message about the importance of giving thanks. So we ask why – what does that do for God?
Well I, like a lot of you, have gone to school for quite a few years of my life, and one thing that school does for us is give us a little experience trying to answer hard questions, right? And I can respond to this hard question the same way that students for years have been dealing with hard questions, with questions they can’t answer easily. The secret, when facing a hard question is: You change the question. If they ask you something you don’t know, write an essay on something you do know – it beats and empty test paper, right?
In this case, we rethink our question: it’s not what giving thanks does for God that’s important; it’s what it does for us – for the ones giving thanks. If Jesus said it’s important to give thanks, maybe it’s not because it does something for God’s strength or God’s ego, but because it does something for us.
What could giving thanks to God do for us? First, it’s a reminder that we can’t take all the credit for things. When we give thanks before a meal, we’re reminding ourselves – sure, we went to work and earned the money, and we went to the grocery store and got the food, and we prepared it into a delicious (sometimes) form – but it’s God who’s behind all of that, who gave us the ability to work, to shop, and cook, who created the stuff that we bought and prepared. Every giving of thanks is a reminder to ourselves that what we have is a gift from God, not a result of our own talents alone. It’s a reminder of our dependence, a call to humility, a reminder of our place relative to God.
A second way it’s a reminder is that it reminds us of what we’ve been blessed with. In those times when life seems unfair, or when there’s one problem that’s monopolizing all our energy and attention – a bad cold, the electricity being out, the car breaking down – a pause to give thanks results in a list of things that are going right, that are wonderful blessings. A prayer of thanks can’t help but remind us of what we have, of what isn’t troubled or broken. Giving thanks reminds us of our blessings.
Third, giving thanks does something for those around us, too, around the ones actually giving the thanks. When we give thanks or praise to God, we’re saying to those around us, “I believe in God, and that God is behind all good things.” Giving thanks is a witness, an example, a statement of faith. We hope that our giving thanks might do something for those around us.
Fourth, the very act of giving thanks is an entrance into relationship, a reaching out beyond ourselves, an escaping of the obsessive circles of me-me-me thinking that are so easy to fall into. If I’m worried about my problems and how I’m going to fix them so I can get on with my life, it doesn’t take too long to forget about everyone else and everything else.
How many times have we heard stories about a person who is determined to be absolutely independent, to need no one, to be an island – a person who has had enough of other people, who has decided that they’re nothing but trouble, who has been hurt by interaction and relationship and has decided to never have anything to do with anyone ever again. A person who is that independent, that determined to be alone, generally wants nothing to do with God either. Many times, the first step in overcoming the isolation, in beginning the return to community or relationship, is a reaction to something which has unexpectedly been done for them, when they didn’t even ask; many times the first communication, the first move back toward the possibility of relationship, is an expression of gratitude, a “thank you.”
Watch for stories like these especially as we approach the holiday season – a Scrooge-type figure receiving a gift, saying to himself “no one ever did anything for me before,” and saying “thank you” as the first response, the first step into relationship with someone else. The first prayers we learn as children, when we’re starting our relationship with God, are thank you prayers.
Our “thank you’s” to God do these things for us – they start us into relationship with God; they remind us of God’s blessings; they remind us of what our relationship is to God – one of beneficiary, of gift-receiver.
The narrator of the book One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is Chief Bromden, a big tall Native American who has been kept in a mental hospital for years and years. The Chief has been told by the government that he doesn’t count, that he’s nobody, when they took his family’s land to build a dam. He’s been told by society that he doesn’t count, that he’s nobody, when they locked him up in a mental hospital and forgot about him. He’s been told by the people that run that particular unit of the hospital that he’s nobody.
So the big tall chief has finally learned that he’s nobody; he’s been treated like a small weak little person for so long that he truly believes he is a small weak little person. The best way for small weak little people to avoid getting hurt is to stay out of the way, so he does – he stands in corners most of the time, and he pretends he can’t hear or talk because then he can’t get into trouble. He hasn’t talked in years.
A man named Randall McMurphy, played by Jack Nicholson in the movie, comes to the hospital one day and, mostly for his own selfish reasons, sets the unit on its ear. Part of his unorthodox upsetting method is to treat all the other patients as real people, not small weak little people, and this includes the Chief. The longer McMurphy’s around, the more the Chief starts to feel like maybe the hospital can’t run his entire life after all.
The Chief has no money and no income, so none of the cigarettes or chewing gum that form so big a part of the routine of most of the patients in the hospital. One night McMurphy, thinking nothing of it, tosses the Chief a piece of gum. The Chief writes: “And before I realized what I was doing, I told him ‘Thank you.’”
“He didn’t say anything right off. He was up on his elbow, watching me, waiting for me to say something else. I picked up the package of gum from the bedspread and held it in my hand and told him ‘Thank you.’ It didn’t sound like much because my throat was rusty and my tongue creaked. He told me I sounded a little out of practice and laughed at that. I tried to laugh with him, but it was a squawking sound, like a pullet trying to crow. It sounded more like crying than laughing. He told me not to hurry, that he had till six-thirty in the morning to listen if I needed the practice. He said a man been still long as me probably had a considerable lot to talk about, and he lay back on his pillow and waited.”
Before the night is over, the Chief has told McMurphy his whole story – how his land was taken, how he got in the hospital, how he came to be so small. McMurphy’s flabbergasted at the sight of the huge chief calling himself small; all he can do is swear he’s the biggest Indian he’s ever seen.
From that point on, the Chief feels himself growing, and when the rest of the book ends in tragedy, it’s the Chief who has finally felt big enough to lift a huge control panel, throw it through the window, and make his escape from the hospital. “I remember I was taking huge strides as I ran, seeming to step and float a long ways before my next foot struck the earth.” The Chief, the formerly deaf and dumb small weak little person who barely croaked out, as his first words, “Thank you,” begins a new life in Canada and from there speaks his entire book.
Let’s pray: God, thank you for this reminder of the importance of giving thanks. Help us to be a grateful people. Amen.