The Grateful Samaritan
Robert S. Turner
Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost
October 9, 2016
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7; Luke 17:11-19
“The trouble with you and me, my friend,” sings Don Henley in “My Thanksgiving,” “is the trouble with this nation: / Too many blessings, too little appreciation.” I am in complete agreement with Mr. Henley on that score. Ingratitude is rampant in our society. Both those who have and encourage a sense of entitlement and those who hold to the myth of the selfmade person are to blame for this problem.
Of course, assigning blame is not the point, but if we were to do so, there would be plenty to go around. Nearly all of us deserve less than we think from the government, our fellow citizens, and God, and the notion that any of us has pulled or can pull himself up by his own bootstraps is a lie. Willfully to blind ourselves to all the ways we have been formed by the nurture and support of others is a slap in the face to all those who have gone before us, and to God, the ultimate source of every good gift. So is the expectation of special treatment from the universe. Both notions indicate that their holders have lost the capacity for gratitude.
Ingratitude can also be the result of relative comparisons. If someone were to ask you if you were rich, what would you say? Would you look at your modest home and compare it with the McMansion down the block? Would you compare your compact car with your neighbor’s luxury SUV? When we make those kinds of comparisons, the answer is clearly no, we are not rich. Those people are rich.
But if we make the comparison with the rest of the world—especially the developing nations of the global South—we get a very different result. If you own a car, you immediately vault to the top 16% in global wealth. If you make more than $47,466 a year—a modest amount by American standards—you are in the top 1%. Those who make $185,028 or more find themselves in the rarefied air of the top tenth of a percentage point in world wealth. But frankly, all of us who enjoy access to reliable health care and clean drinking water, and who lie down at night without fearing for our safety or that of our children are ahead of the game, compared to many in the world. Our tendency is to compare ourselves with those who have more than we do, which highlights all that we don’t have. When we compare ourselves with those who have less, we see in bold relief the great magnitude of what we do have. In the best of cases, this realization leads us to both gratitude and generosity.
When we turn to our Scripture lessons for today, we find that the problem of ingratitude is not a new one. It goes all the way back to the time of Jesus and beyond.
Luke does not tell us why the other nine lepers in chapter 17 of his Gospel did not return to thank Jesus for their healing. Perhaps they were simply being meticulous in following Jesus’ instructions to show themselves to the priests. After all, Leviticus 14 instructs those who had been cured of leprosy to come to the priest for examination before they could be declared ceremonially clean. A detailed process of examination, sacrifice, and ritual bathing was prescribed before the leper was allowed to rejoin the community. Maybe the other nine in Luke’s story were just following instructions.
But no less an authority than Jesus himself sees their failure to return as an indication of ingratitude. “Were not ten made clean?” he asks. “But the other nine, where are they?” A key point may be found in the language Jesus uses for the healing. “Were not ten made clean?” The Torah instructs those whose leprosy or other skin problems have cleared up to present themselves to the priests in order to be declared clean and allowed to reenter the community. Luke, however, tells us that as the lepers were on their way to Jerusalem to find the priests, “they were made clean.”
We do not know what the other nine lepers thought about what had happened to them. We only know that one of them understood that something had happened to him that made his trip to Jerusalem entirely unnecessary. He did not need a priest to tell him he was clean; he had experienced grace from a much higher authority than the temple hierarchy. He knew he was clean, and the moment he became aware of this, he turned around and headed back to Jesus, “praising God with a loud voice.” When he got to where Jesus was, he fell at his feet and thanked him.
At this point, Luke adds, almost as an afterthought, “And he was a Samaritan.” That may be the reason why this one was the one most likely to respond to Jesus with gratitude. As a Samaritan leper, he was doubly outcast. Not only his skin but his nationality made him an outsider. To be healed of the disease that had separated him from the community gave him hope that in the company of this Jesus he might find the alienation caused by his race overcome as well. Besides, heretic that he was in the eyes of the Jews, there was a good chance that even if he had gone all the way to Jerusalem, the priests would have refused to pronounce him clean. It was with Jesus, the one who wielded the true power, that his hope lay, so he came and prostrated himself and offered thanks. Upon seeing this, Jesus said, “Your faith has made you well.” He might just as well have said, “Your gratitude has made you well.” Faith and gratitude spring from the same root and bear fruit of comparable sweetness.
Let’s go a little farther back in time. The people to whom Jeremiah wrote the letter that appears in the 29th chapter of the book that bears his name were the elites of Judah and Jerusalem who had been taken into exile in the first wave of the Babylonian invasion, around 597 BCE. They had been the upper crust of Judean society—the royals, the nobles, the literati, the priests—and now they found themselves exiled from their homeland, their property having been confiscated or destroyed, and relocated to the least desirable area of the Babylonian empire—a swampy, malaria-ridden backwater, where they were deposited in the ancient equivalent of refugee camps. They were, to say the least, not happy with the way things had turned out for them.
Jeremiah wrote his letter to these exiles in response to some among them who had labeled themselves prophets and tried to raise their fellow exiles’ spirits and give them something to hope for by predicting the imminent downfall of Babylon and the exiles’ swift return to Judah and their lives of luxury and privilege. Jeremiah, however, had a different take on current events. He saw the exile and Judah’s subjugation to the Babylonians as God’s will, as punishment for the people’s injustice and idolatry. Call him a pessimist, but Jeremiah was not sanguine about the chances for these refugees to return in the near future. He predicted a period of seventy years before an end to the exile, and he added to his well-deserved reputation for giving unwelcome advice with what he counseled them in this letter.
He wrote, “Thus says the LORD of Hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease.” Whether you like it or not, he was saying, you’re going to be stuck in this situation for a long time, so you ought to make the best of it. In the words of Andy Dufresne, Tim Robbins’s character in The Shawshank Redemption, “I guess it comes down to a simple choice, really: get busy living, or get busy dying.” Jeremiah was advising them to get busy living.
In a way, he was also advising them to exercise some gratitude. The exiles could not get past their feelings of despair and offended dignity long enough to look at what they had to be thankful for. They were still alive, for one thing. That was not anything to sneeze at, considering the Babylonians’ cruel and bloodthirsty reputation. For another thing, they still had some degree of freedom—Jeremiah’s advice presumes that the exiles are free to build their own homes, have their own gardens, and choose their own wives. (Okay, so the men had some degree of freedom.) Most of all, despite everything that had happened to them, they were still blessed with God’s providential care. Jeremiah’s letter was evidence of this. “Thus says the LORD,” Jeremiah wrote to them. We should not overlook the significance of this short clause. In spite of all the ways they had offended God with their idolatry and arrogance, God was still speaking to them. “Thus says the LORD.” God had not written them off. God still cared for them. That was truly something to be thankful for.
They undoubtedly had a hard time seeing it this way, though. To their eyes, there wasn’t much at all to be grateful for. We need look no further than Psalm 137, where the exiles hang their harps on the willow trees and weep, to see how easy it was for them to succumb to despair. But it is exactly when one finds little to be grateful for that one should be most consciously and deliberately grateful. Gratitude is not merely a feeling; it is a discipline. And it is one that we neglect at our peril, because the more we neglect to practice gratitude, the more hardened we become to the goodness of the world and the wonder of our lives in the world, and the less open we are to grace. We need to create a space in our lives for gratitude.
The deeper truth, however, is that gratitude makes a space within us. The discipline of acknowledging all that we have to be thankful for opens up something inside us. It enlarges our capacity to experience God as the source of life. It makes us better able both to receive grace and to offer it to others.
Intentional gratitude is a kind of sabbath. When we fail to observe the discipline of sabbath, we find ourselves always pushing the limits—not only the limits of what we are able to accomplish in our work, but also the limits of what we are able to receive from God. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, and all work and no rest makes him a burnout who is always living at the frayed edge of life and is ultimately of little use in the building of God’s kingdom. Sabbath creates a space in which one can step back, breathe, acknowledge God, and be renewed.
In the same way, one who lives without gratitude is always pushing up against the limits of life. Ungrateful people do not perceive that what they have comes from a source beyond them, so they always find themselves on the brink and cannot be satisfied with what they have. There is a kind of anxiety that accompanies ingratitude that says, “I don’t have enough. I need all I have and more.” The ungrateful are always grasping for an illusory sense of security that always eludes them. The effect all this has on one’s generosity, as well as one’s mental and spiritual wellbeing, is obvious.
In contrast, those who practice disciplined thankfulness can be at peace in ways the ungrateful can only imagine. All of us, I think, have moments of anxiety in which we imagine we are sailing toward the edge of the world, that the brink of doom lies just beyond the horizon. Gratitude creates the space—the buffer zone—we need between our present circumstances and that imagined disaster. Disciplined gratitude reminds us that the good things in our lives have come to us as gifts. This realization gives us space to breathe and helps us entrust our future wellbeing to the Gift Giver who has always proven trustworthy before.
Gratitude also guards us against the lie that we are self-made, that our possessions and the good things we enjoy have come solely as the result of our own efforts, the sweat of our own brows. In the movie Shenandoah, James Stewart plays a farmer in Virginia during the Civil War years. An early scene in the movie finds the family gathered around the dinner table, and Stewart’s character leads them in what can only loosely be described as a prayer. He says, “Lord, we cleared this land, we plowed it, sowed it, and harvested, we cooked the harvest. It wouldn’t be here and we wouldn’t be eating it if we hadn’t done it all ourselves. We worked dog-bone hard for every crumb and morsel, but we thank you just the same anyway, Lord, for this food we’re about to eat, amen.” It makes for an amusing scene in a movie, but when all is said and done, such a prayer wells from an ungrateful heart.
Much better is the attitude that sees everything as a gift from a loving God who knows our needs and graciously provides for them with lavish abundance. The sun, the soil, and the rain that make the crops grow are gifts from God. The very process of growth—of life, death, and rebirth—in the worlds of both horticulture and the spirit is a great mystery, and ample evidence that the source of life is beyond us and our puny power to duplicate or even comprehend. The only proper response, when we realize we are the recipients of such grace, is humble gratitude.
So let us open ourselves today to the grace of God, which is new every morning and, in fact, with every breath we draw. Let us find our footing on the solid rock of God’s goodness, love, and provision for us. Then we will be able to join Don Henley in what is at its heart a prayer of gratitude: I’ve got great expectations, I’ve got family and friends, I’ve got satisfying work, I’ve got a back that bends. For every breath, for every day of living, this is my thanksgiving. For every moment of joy, every hour of fear, for every winding road that brought me here, for every breath, for every day of living, this is my thanksgiving.