A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr A ~ P17 ~ Luke 17:11-19
Today’s gospel reading is another one of those tricky bible stories that appear to be straightforward but is actually quite deep. It works on several levels. On one level it’s a simple story about thankfulness. If someone does something nice for you, go back and say thanks. That’s great for kids time, and a lesson worth noting for all of us, but if you stay on that level you’re missing a lot!
On another level it’s a testament to Jesus’ ability to heal people. Although if you read it carefully he doesn’t seem to do all that much! Getting more personal, on another level it could be a teaching about how thick we are – that maybe we’re all 10 lepers and we need to keep hearing Jesus’ message over and over again and finally after so many times we’ll hear and respond.
On yet another level it could also be a shot at our tendency to think that when it comes to faith just following the rules and checking off the boxes is enough. It isn’t! Not by a longshot! So that’s in play here too. (We’ll talk more about this one in a minute.)
But ultimately, at its deepest level, for me, it’s a story about what real spiritual transformation looks like and where real gratitude comes from. It’s this level that I want us to focus on.
Let’s think about the word ‘love’ for a minute. This one single word has so many levels of meaning.
I love that song, I love that TV show, I love autumn, I love chocolate chip cookies, I love kids, I love you man!, I love Faith United!, I love you Jesus, I love you honey.
One word can seemingly interchangeably refer to the trivial and the profound.
You can probably see where I’m heading. Thank you is the same.
We say thanks for simple things like holding doors open or being handed something like a pencil, or a bulletin – and we use the same words when someone has just rescued our whole family from a pending disaster, or told us that we’ve just been judged to have achieved our life goal. Thank you! And all those levels of thankfulness are good – but some of them are pretty inconsequential and some are life-changing.
Ten lepers were healed. Only one returned to give thanks. But don’t think for a minute that those other nine weren’t grateful. Of course they were! Because of their illness they were banished from their society and their family, so being healed, being made clean, meant they could go back to their lives. It’s ridiculous to think they walked away with anything other than gratitude for Jesus.
But, when offered spiritual wholeness, instead of having it change their lives they chose to use the gift to continue in their regular ways. They said, indirectly of course,
“Thanks Jesus! This is great. Now I can go to the priests and be declared clean and get back to life as usual. I’m so glad I met you! This spiritual stuff is great! It pumps me up and inspires me on my path.” My path.
Please listen carefully here. There’s nothing really wrong with that. This story isn’t meant to judge the failure of the nine lepers. Christians have done that far too often! Those 9 didn’t fail. They received from Jesus what they were able to receive and their lives were better for it. That’s a win. Lots of people come to places like this and hear messages about Jesus and God and the Holy Spirit and they go away feeling more positive, and feeling uplifted, and their lives are better for it. Hallelujah! That’s awesome! “Thank ya Ja-eez-us!”
And yet, there’s also Something More. There’s something even better than all that. This scripture story gives us some clues as to how amazing and life-changing this gift of Jesus’ can actually be.
To understand this you have to be very aware of who in Jesus’ story came back. Jesus didn’t carelessly assign nationalities to the characters in his stories – there was a reason. The Samaritan was the one who came back.
Now, to get the full impact of this you have to remember that Samaritans were not the ‘good guys’ in most Jewish stories. Samaritans were looked down upon. They were the outcasts. You need to say ‘Samaritan’ with revulsion and contempt.
So who came back to say “thanks”? The foreigner. The outsider. The bad guy. The ‘wrong’ guy.
Notice who didn’t come back. To suggest that 9 Jews (presumably) accepted the healing and went away – but that a lowly, outsider Samaritan was the only one who really ‘got it’ was probably Jesus taking a plain shot at the average pew sitter.
Those who were supposed to understand were not getting it. The 9 received the blessing, apparently interpreted it as their ticket back into the society, went to see the priests (exactly as Jesus told them to do), and presumably got their ticket punched. They almost literally got their religious check mark, got their ‘good little boy’ pat on the head, and went on their way.
Again, let me emphasize, they did as they were told. They did what Jesus said to do, and they did what was expected of them by their society to be a good person. But that’s all they did. They checked their religious box.
But one of the ten did something much more than check a box. One of the ten – the one who probably would’ve been turned away from the religious establishment anyway because he was a Samaritan, an outsider, a person met with tall barriers – that one – the ‘other’ – did something far beyond checking boxes.
His journey is captured in 5 fantastic verbs. Follow these 5 verbs and your life will never be the same!
The Samaritan saw that he had received a great blessing, he turned back or turned around from the path he was on – which happens to be the exact meaning of the famous word ‘repent’ – in other words, he had a change in thinking and a change in the way he perceived the world – he had an epiphany, an awakening,
and upon turning his life around and aiming it at Jesus the first thing he did was he praised (meaning he affirmed the worth and value of Jesus), then he prostrated himself by throwing himself to the ground in humility and adoration and submission, and then, after all that, after seeing, and turning, and praising, and prostrating, he finally did the thing we all expected him to do in the first place – he thanked Jesus.
Now, what kind of thank you do you think that might have been?
A ‘here’s your bulletin’ – ‘oh, thank you’ – OR
a ‘here’s the greatest thing you’ve ever received in your whole life, the fullness and wholeness that comes when you really get it and fully embrace the gift Jesus offers’ – ‘oh, oh my word, thank you, Thank You, THANK YOU!!!!!!!!’
My favourite part of this story comes in verses 17-18.
Then Jesus asked, “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?”
Who do you think Jesus is talking to here? The Samaritan? The disciples?
I think he’s talking to himself! I think he’s muttering, and shaking his head in exasperation, and whacking his forehead with his palm thinking:
“What do I have to do to get through to these people? Why don’t they get it? They’re so caught up in their rule following that they’re missing the point. The only people who seem to get it are the outsiders who the religious rules never worked for because the rules always excluded them – like this foreigner here, this Samaritan!”
Then Jesus says, “Get up and go on your way (which could also be ‘go forth’); your faith has made you well.”
That word well also means whole. Your faith has made you whole. That’s a really important theological point that you have to work really hard for and wrestle with for yourself.
Here it is: it’s possible to be made whole, but not necessarily be healed or cured.
You can chew on that one with your turkey this weekend!
Your faith has made you whole. Ok, what’s faith? Maybe it’s as simple as five verbs?
Saw, turned, praised, prostrated, thanked. Do these and you will be whole.
So here we are on Thanksgiving weekend. What kind of thanks will you give? And to whom?
Will it be the kind of thanks that comes when someone holds the door for you? I hope so!
Will it be the kind of thanks that comes when you’ve received something valuable and it makes your life better? I hope that too.
And will it also be the kind of thanks that comes when you see that the gift you’ve received is that your whole life has been transformed and you’re living in an entirely new paradigm of light and love and hope and shalom and awesomeness? Oh how I yearn for that to be the case for each and every one of you – each and every day.
And it all comes down to the first verb. The ability to ‘see’.
The ability to recognize that God has moved and is moving in your life, the ability to notice, and to respond.
When you ‘see’ in that way – when you awaken to that kind of love that is already surrounding you and permeating your existence – the other four verbs come gushing forth.
When you learn to see you change your way to more closely align with Jesus’ way – your heart sings praises, your knee bends in awe and wonder and humility, and you give thanks.
No, that doesn’t cover it. At that point you’re not giving thanks anymore. It’s much deeper, and fuller, and richer than that. You’re not giving your thanks, you’re praying your thanks. Your gratitude is a soul-encompassing prayer from the heart.
That’s the kind of thankfulness that the 13th century German mystic named Meister Eckhart was talking about when he said these words. I hope you can memorize this – it’s so powerful. He said, “If the only prayer you say in your entire life is ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.”
“If the only prayer you say in your entire life is ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.”
Not the only words you ever say, but the only PRAYER you ever say.
The kind of thank you that 10th leper prayed.
The kind of thank you that recognizes how overwhelmingly wonderful your blessings are.
The kind of thank you that starts in your toes moves through your body like a power surge and explodes out of the top of your head.
Thanks-giving is a very good thing. I hope your weekend, and your life, is filled with it. I hope the people you gather with at table this weekend are able to recognize their blessings no matter how tiny or massive.
And I also hope that in the midst of the turkey and stuffing and pumpkin pie and celebrations that you’ll find a moment for a couple of really deep breaths, and you’ll ‘see’ how indescribably blessed, and accepted, and embraced, and renewed, and empowered, and beloved you are – and maybe your Thanks-giving can deepen to Thanks-praying!
Because “If the only prayer you say in your entire life is ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.”