Year C, Proper 23 (Luke 17:11-19)
(The sermon may be viewed HERE starting at the 21:00 minute mark.)
The story that we hear today in the Gospel (Luke 17:11-19) is interesting on several levels. Quick review. Ten lepers. They cry out to Jesus for healing. He says go show yourself to the priests. They obey and go. They are healed. But only one returns to say thank you. And that one is a Samaritan, a social outcast. And Jesus asks the question, why has only one returned to give thanks?
Jesus asks the question, but he does not provide us with the answer. So, what is the answer to the question? I have found in my studies that when the Scriptures, and particularly when Jesus, asks a question of someone or caused by someone’s actions, as here; the best place to find the answer is not in a bible commentary and not in the works of a great preacher or theologian. Rather, the best place to find the answer is within ourselves. Human nature doesn’t change and we should see ourselves in the nine ungrateful ex-lepers.
Therefore, put yourself in the place of the nine lepers who did not return to give thanks and ask yourself why you did not return. Why did you not come back?
As I went through this exercise in preparation for today, the answer was simply that we don’t come back because we just don’t think we need God anymore.
Let’s look more closely at the nine lepers. To have leprosy is to be placed on the margins of society. Leprosy causes pain and disfigurement. The traditional treatment is to isolate those suffering from leprosy. Until 20 years ago, The US still had leper colonies. If you are afflicted with leprosy, you are on the margins of society. You don’t get an invitation to Passover Dinner. You are a social outcast. You are socially and religiously unclean. At this time there was nothing a person with leprosy could do for themselves to improve their situation.
The nine see Jesus. They may have sought him out. His reputation as a healer would have preceded him. They call out to him “Jesus, Lord, have mercy on us.” They pray for deliverance from their condition. Not only deliverance from their disease but deliverance from their being an outcast and not having a normal life.
Jesus answers their prayer. Their disease leaves them. They can now enter back into polite society. They are no longer unclean. They have recovered a normal life. And in that recovery of their normal life, they now have the privilege of forgetting God.
For them, as too often for us, God is like a father on the playground, who, when his child falls down, will go out, pick the child up and brush off the dirt, and send him back to play. The natural self-centered human condition is that we only need that relationship with God when we think things are going so poorly we have no other option.
Think about your own life. Think about those times when you lacked no other option but to cry out to God. Think about those times when God has walked with you through your own valley of the shadow of death, and on the other end when he has picked us up and brushed us off, we simply run back off. Once we are no longer in peril, we have a great tendency to forget about who walked with us. God did his job, now I can go about my life.
It’s a pattern of Prayer, Deliverance, and then Forgetfulness.
I feel fairly certain that we have all fallen into this pattern in our lives. We become burdened with sickness or some type of adversity, we cry out “Jesus, Lord, have mercy on us”, and Jesus comes to walk with us and to share our burden and to heal us. But, once the storm has passed and once we are restored to health, we no longer reach out to him, because we no longer feel the need for him in our lives. Too often, at least for me and maybe for you, we act like the nine in the story.
The question is how can we prevent ourselves from falling into this pattern? How can we prevent ourselves from forgetting and running away until the next adversity arises? How can we stay in a relationship with Christ even when times appear to be good? How can we escape this pattern of Prayer, Deliverance, and Forgetfulness?
The answer to this secondary question lies in the story as well in the person of the Samaritan, and that answer is to give thanks. C.K. Chesterton, the great early 20th c. English writer, says that the life of a Christian is a life of gratitude.
The life of a Christian is a life of gratitude.
And when we look at a life of gratitude, we see three ways that having a life of gratitude, like the Samaritan, helps us to not become like the nine for disappear.
First, a life of gratitude keeps us from taking things for granted. When we give thanks for another day, we cease to take for granted that we have been given another day. The nine lepers knew Jesus’ reputation for healing. Jesus did for them what he did for others and they simply took that healing for granted. They did not return to Jesus to give thanks because they, like the child fallen on the playground, simply expected that outcome. A life of gratitude keeps us from taking things for granted.
Second, a life of gratitude keeps us from misbelieving that we can do it all on our own. We only give thanks to those who have helped us. To have gratitude necessarily gives us humility because it necessarily requires us to recognize the contribution of others. We cannot put ourselves first if we have to thank someone for helping us get to where we are now. Even in the ordinary things, like beginning a new day, we simply cannot do things on our own.
But the most important aspect of a life of gratitude is that it keeps us in a relationship with Jesus. To whom do we give thanks for another day? To whom do we give thanks for seeing us through not only our dark times but our everyday times? To whom is our thanks directed? In directing that thanks towards Christ, we have that ongoing relationship with him. We necessarily no longer take him for granted. We necessarily see him as an integral part of our lives.
Giving thanks to God in Christ should become a way of living. As Chesterton also said: “When it comes to life, the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude.”
The result of living a life of gratitude towards God in Christ is a breaking of the pattern of Prayer, Deliverance, and Forgetfulness, because every day, not just the extraordinary days, are days to give thanks.