Sitting here this morning, I imagine we all have a lot of reasons to be grateful. That we are able to enjoy this morning. That we have family or friends to spend time with. That we live in Ottawa, in Canada. That we are alive. We are here. Or perhaps we are grateful for what we are not. We do not live in Puerto Rico, or a refugee camp. We were not attending a country music concert in Las Vegas. We will not spend the afternoon in chemotherapy. We are not alone. We are not there, whatever there we would rather not be.
Giving thanks is always the theme of this weekend, so it’s a bit on the nose. Our gospel is clear as a sunny day: As Jesus is passing through on his way to Jerusalem, a group of 10 lepers call to him. They are suffering from a horrible disease, a painful, terrible illness that would have separated them from loved ones, and ostracized them from society, since it was believed to be contagious. At that time, when people showed symptoms of leprosy, they were taken to see the local priest, who would diagnose them and declare them unclean. They were believed to be cursed. “Go to the priest!” Jesus orders them in our gospel story. And when they do, they find they have been cured on the way. But of the 10, only one returns to Jesus. It is, we are told, a Samaritan. Jesus asks out loud: where are the others? Has no one returned but this foreigner? And Jesus blesses the man and sends him on his way.
Let’s unpack this story. On first reading we might take it as a judgement: that the 10th leper is better than all the other 9. He is the good guy in the tale, the unselfish one. The rest ran off to enjoy their families and their restored health and never thought another day about Jesus. I would argue this is a mistake we make often in interpreting the gospel – and the church has done us no favours in this regard. We want to draw a line between good and bad, villain and hero, and of course, we always know where we want to be. But the gospel is a much more nuanced tale than this. If all we take from this morning’s story is that the 10th leper was the good guy because he trekked back to thank Jesus in person and the rest were not, then we have not done it service.
Science now tells us that the 10th leper would have felt pretty good about his trek back to Jesus. Giving thanks and expressing gratitude is good for our mental health, it fires up the happy parts of our brain and its effects are long lasting, we are told. That’s why people with depression are often told to write gratitude journals – thinking positively of what they have in life, not what they don’t, is a healthy exercise. Also, people liked being thanked – and clearly Jesus was no different. So, it is good for our social relations. Everybody wants to be appreciated. Jesus Christ included.
But let’s think of those 9 people now cured of their terrible disease, free to go home to their families and be welcomed back into society. Can we blame them for rushing home to their loved ones to share the news? Should we judge them, when we might well do the same, believing our gratitude could wait? I don’t think we can blame them. Because we cannot know what happened afterwards. Did those 9 lepers become people of faith, who served others, who were kind to those still infected by leprosy? Did they show their gratitude belatedly? We can only wonder. But of ten people are we truly to believe that only one felt any sense of thankfulness for being rescued from a nightmare? Did no one else feel a sense of responsibility for having survived, and been blessed by Jesus. We have enough real life examples of people transformed by good fortune to know that this is not likely.
Instead what Jesus is highlighting is the act of doing something in thankfulness. The 10th leper went out of his way, he travelled back, to say thank you to Jesus. He didn’t keep it to himself: he acted. In our current context: he didn’t just say, thank goodness, I am not in Puerto Rico; he followed that up with donations for the people left without homes and power. He didn’t just say, thank goodness, I was not at that concert, he lined up to give blood. He didn’t just say, thank goodness, I am not in a refugee camp, he gave clothing and support to a refugee family. Giving thanks is a bit like saying prayers after a tragedy: yes, the act of saying thanks is important. Of course, the act of praying as people of faith is essential, and brings us closer to God. But those same words are meant to be activating, to bring clarity of purpose. We must resist the urge to say thanks so that our brains fire up in the right places, and not act out of thankfulness, which requires work and energy when we might be doing other things.
One last thing about our tenth leper: he was, as Jesus points out, a foreigner, a stranger to the land, separated not only by his illness but his culture. And yet, Jesus often uses the outsider to teach us insiders the way of the gospel. Why does he do this? So we could see –rightly – that the gospel is one long progressive lesson of accepting people who fall on the outside, who don’t quite fit in, who come from another place, another class, another life. That by valuing diversity of opinion and culture, we learn valuable lessons on how to live. It is in fact challenging for anyone not to read the gospel closely and see this inherent lesson woven throughout.
By pointing out the foreigner, Jesus is also saying a lot about the those in the majority. He is reminding us how easy it is to become complacent; to see our relatively comfortable place is society not as a lucky break but as something we solely earned; to see those gifts as a right and not a privilege. To give thanks, but to fail to act out of thankfulness. The first is not enough on its own to make the real difference. The second is necessary.
This weekend, many of us will sit at fine turkey dinners and say grace, and give thanks. It will make us feel warm, it is nice to do. But let us remember that on Thanksgiving, it is not the thankyous that stave off violence, or bring peace, or share hope. It is the giving.