the Ten Lepers

An Attitude of Gratitude


The 14th Sunday After Trinity

Micah 6:1-8, Psalm 19, Galatians 5:16-24, St. Luke 17:11-19

An Attitude of Gratitude

Before I moved over to Cranmer Theological House I attended a well-known, well-regarded Texas seminary . . . until I escaped.  One day I was drowsing through one of those dreadful Christian education classes when something interesting actually happened.

                In this class were 25 or 30 students, and maybe six or eight were black.  One of the white folks piped up with an opinion that there is so much more grace in black churches than in white ones.  White churches, we were told, are legalistic and judgmental whereas black ones exhibit compassion and charity.

A number of other white folks chimed in and before long I was in the throes of an identity crisis.  I was in an integrated church, about half-black and half-white, and it occurred to me we must be schizophrenic – compassionate legalists, or something.

Well, one of my classmates was a young, black fellow who was a youth pastor in a black church in an adjacent county.  He might have been in one of those denominations that ordain a guy first and then train him but I had found him to be a bright, reflective young man.

This opinion was confirmed when he joined in the discussion on black and white churches.  “Well, maybe so,” he said, “but in the black churches in my county over the last year we’ve had so much grace that I wonder if we have any accountability left whatsoever.”

That cooled some peoples’ jets.  We sinners can fold, spindle and mutilate God’s grace until it bears no resemblance to the original.  We twist it into a parody that makes sin O.K. because we choose to call it something else.  This is now not grace but license.

St. Paul locks onto the problem in his letter to the Romans.  The only medicine for our sin is God’s grace, of course, but he sees how some might contort his argument: If sin provokes grace, we should sin even more and reap more grace.  If you’re not aware of the problem with that line of thought, look me up later.

In our gospel lesson we encounter 10 lepers who stand under a waterfall of grace.  Jesus heals them – just like that.  In the Bible, infirmity and disease often represent sin.  When we see a leper healed, we’re seeing a sinner cleansed.

But of the 10 He heals only one gives thanks.  In the Bible, grace and gratitude are tighter than peanut butter and jelly.  The New Testament word for grace is charis and the word for thanksgiving is eucharistia.  Listen again: eu-charis-tia.  Grace is the root of thanksgiving.

So it is that we approach the Lord’s table to take in the grace of God in the Eucharist.  After we receive the bread and wine, the body and blood, our first words are, “Almighty and everliving God, we most heartily thank thee . . .”

Only one of the 10 lepers turns back to give thanks to God, and he is a Samaritan.  St. Luke invites us to ponder what sets the one Samaritan apart from the nine Jews.  The Jew Jesus of Nazareth makes it plain He has come to scatter God’s grace among His own – first to the Jew and then to the gentile.  Yet this outsider is the only one to give thanks.

A week ago, Luke showed us the good Samaritan, he who gave aid and succor to the man left beaten and dying on the roadside after his fellow Jews passed him by.

We’re up to our gunwales in Samaritans and healings.  The evangelist – and the lectionary – are pointing us to something.

When the hated Assyrians herded the 10 northern tribes of Israel into exile more than seven centuries before Christ, they populated the vacated territory, known as Samaria, with their own people.

These intermingled with the smattering of Jews the conquerors had left behind because they were too wretched to be of any use in captivity.  From this humble stock came a race known as Samaritans.  When the Jews to the north in Galilee and the south in Judea looked at Samaria, they saw a field planted with bad seed.  They despised the Samaritans as half-breeds.

When these pure Jews returned from their own captivity in Babylon, they set about rebuilding their temple in Jerusalem.  The Samaritans offered assistance.  When the Jews spurned them, we learn at the close of the Old Testament, the Samaritans menaced them during construction.

The Samaritans went on to build their own temple on Mt. Gerizim.  In 128 B.C., the Jews razed it to the ground.  Historians tell us the hatred played out over even more centuries.  In an age without a calendar on every laptop, the Jews lit a fire in their capital to signal the beginning of the annual Passover celebration.

More Jews lit more fires to the east in a series until the announcement had traveled all the way to the River Euphrates, hundreds of miles away.  Samaritans bedeviled this system by starting fires of their own on nearby dates to confuse the timing.  Imagine celebrating Easter on the wrong Sunday and you have a sense of the skullduggery at work here.

When Jesus’ Jewish revilers summon the most venomous insult they can hurl at Him, they snarl, “Do we not say rightly that You are a Samaritan and have a demon?”  Oh, there is no love lost between Samaritan and Jew.

But near one unnamed village on the border between Samaria and Galilee, one Samaritan lives among nine Jews.  Perhaps their desperate existence as sufferers and outcasts bound them with a tie stronger than their racial animosity.  The evangelist provides no detail on the point.

One other point, however, he makes abundantly plain.  In the original, Luke uses an emphatic construction: “And he was a Samaritan.”  With this story of a grateful Samaritan, no doubt, Luke is reminding us of the Good Samaritan.  But I suspect he is doing even more.

If we walk just a mile or so into the hills outside this village and sit and reflect, we might hear an echo.  The Prophet Isaiah relates God’s words as He reveals His ancient plan to redeem Israel:

“Go forth from Babylon! Flee from the Chaldeans! With a voice of singing, declare, proclaim this, utter it to the end of the earth; say, “The LORD has redeemed His servant Jacob!” (48:20). The Father is speaking.

But at the beginning of chapter 49, the speaker changes.  He is no longer “the Lord” but the Lord’s Servant – that’s with an upper-case ‘S.’ This Servant reports that God the Father has told Him:

“It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved ones of Israel; I will also give you as a light to the Gentiles, that you should be My salvation to the ends of the earth” (v. 6).  This is the Son.

Is St. Luke, the only gentile among the gospel-writers and the only one of them to record this episode in our Lord’s life on earth, recalling Israel’s past to point us to the church’s future?

Because in his next book, the Acts of the Apostles, he tells us in the first few lines that the gospel must go out not only to Jerusalem and Judea but also to Samaria and the end of the earth.  He shows us one episode after another in which official Israel tramples the gospel of our Lord — and those who proclaim it.

In chapter 8, we see that devout Jew Saul persecuting the Lord’s church, dragging off men and women alike and casting them into prison.

But not the hated Samaritans.  When St. Philip arrives in the city of Samaria to preach the good news, “the multitudes with one accord heeded the things spoken” by him, “and there was great joy in that city.”  In chapter 15, Paul and Barnabas travel from Antioch back to their capital to attend the Jerusalem Council.

As they pass through Samaria, describing God’s harvest of gentiles for the church on their journey, “all the brethren” greet the news with “great joy.”

While the rulers of Israel and most of her people are spitting on God’s good news of salvation for sinners, despised Samaritans are gobbling it down like sweet potatoes on Thanksgiving.  Those who know they are forgiven much . . . love much.  Those who celebrate their forgiveness rejoice when others are forgiven.

The divine plan has included them from eternity past.  The rescue of Israel alone was always “too small a thing.”  To that joyous news, you and I must say, thanks be to God!

In our gospel lesson, this Servant we met in Isaiah, called Jesus, heals 10 lepers.  The nine Jews do not praise God, they do not fall on their faces at His feet and give thanks; only the one non-Jew does those things.  What gives?

A defective view of grace.  Without a biblical view of grace we will never offer acceptable thanks.

The Jews have come to view God’s grace as an entitlement.  They are the chosen people.  God singled them out for His special favor from among all the peoples.  If they have the divine blessing they must have deserved it.

This is the fatal error.  Grace is by its definition unmerited favor.  Decide you have earned it and when you reach out to grab it, it will go poof! and vanish into the vapor.

Why did God summon Abraham from Ur of the Chaldees and make of him a great nation?  Why did he anoint Moses and David to preserve and lead this people He had set apart?  Why did He rescue them from foreign bondage?  Why did He send His Son into His creation to take on Jewish flesh?  I don’t know . . . and neither did they.

The Samaritan – another of the lowly and despised on whom our Lord lavished so much special attention – knew himself to deserve nothing from God.  Because he did, when he received God’s grace he gave thanks for it.

Did God leave gentiles out in the dark for so long for this very reason?  When the Syrophoenician woman asked Jesus to heal her daughter He told her He had come to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.  It would not be right for Him to give the children’s bread – that intended for the Jews – to the little dogs – the gentiles.

“And she said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.’” (Matthew 15:27).

And He healed her daughter.

Entitlement is a cancer.  It suffocates grace.  It smothers gratitude.

Yet in some sense more than those Jews of 2,000 years ago we inhale it daily.  In our culture, entitlement ain’t just for welfare queens.  You need not watch much television or read many magazines to hear incessantly of all the things you deserve.  If you’re breathing, you’re deserving.

Marjorie and I have a friend named Mary.  For quite a few years, her widowed mother Nicki lived with her.  Nicki, a child of the Great Depression, died a few years ago in her mid-90s.  She had declined over the last couple of years and her conversation was limited to reminiscence.

She thought back over all the years she and her husband had scratched out a living from farms in Arkansas and Texas, over the squawking chickens and muddy pigs and long, hard, hot days in the fields.  And she said the same words over and over until they sounded like a mantra to me: “We always had enough.”

They’d had little by our standards but God gave them enough, and for that she was forever grateful.

Gratitude is the attitude of the redeemed.  If pride is the first deadly sin, gratitude is the first lovely virtue.

If you have a child who strays far from the straight and narrow . . . if you stand by your child through all the pain and terror . . . if your child repents and returns like the prodigal son . . . you may judge the quality of his transformation by the depth of his gratitude.

If it is shallow, the change will be thin.  If it is pretty good, the turnaround will be kinda nice.  But if he cannot find words to express his appreciation for the love you showed him while he was doing hate-worthy things, if his thanksgiving overflows because he cannot shut off the spigot, you will know his metamorphosis is robust.  Behold the butterfly.

And that, my fellow Samaritans, is the outpouring we owe our Lord.

And because our Lord is gracious so far beyond our understanding, our gratitude to God circles round and blesses us.  An old English theologian named Simon Patrick put the matter smartly: “whatever doth Him most honour, will certainly do us most good.”

When the Israelites of old approached the glowing altar in the temple with their sacrificial bulls and goats and made an offering to God they then received it back from Him and consumed it.  Their expression of gratitude for His mercy melted into His act of grace.

An attitude of gratitude is our aisle to the altar, this altar where we receive His grace and offer our thanks.  An attitude of gratitude is our entryway through the veil and into the divine presence.  It speaks of our trust and joy and hope and love.  It is our only way of approach to Him.

He has healed us of that leprosy called sin.  Let us return to Him now with the Samaritan, and give thanks.  Amen.

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