Here’s what I said – more or less – last Sunday. It was a particularly busy week last week, so as well as using the usual commentaries, I also used the excellent resource from Redemptorist, Living Word.
When I was young it simply wasn’t the done thing to tell your parents exactly what you wanted for Christmas or birthday presents. These days everyone makes sure beforehand that you know exactly what presents they want, which to my mind rather takes the fun out of giving. When I was young you simply had to wait to find out what you were getting – which of course just increased the temptation to go looking beforehand while your parents weren’t around to see what they had bought. My father took to hiding all the Christmas presents in the loft, which was inaccessible without a step-ladder, so there was no way a small child could investigate – rather sneaky on his part, I thought.
Of course, an important lesson that parents try to teach their children is to say “thank you” when they receive gifts. We like to be thanked and we may feel disappointed or hurt when our gifts are unacknowledged. When a gift is received with gratitude a significant exchange is completed and the relationship between the giver and the one who has received is strengthened. And in the days when presents were actually a surprise, sometimes a thank you had to be said for something that you actually really didn’t want, but that a well-meaning relative had bought you.
When thanks are not expressed, there is a sense of incompleteness. Did the gift mean anything? More importantly, does the giver mean anything to the person who received the gift? The story in today’s Gospel echoes our experience of giving and being thanked – or sometimes giving and not being thanked.
Jesus is travelling in border country along a frontier between Galilee – Jewish territory – and Samaria, a place of strangers, people of alien beliefs and customs. As he approaches a village, ten lepers come as close as they can, crying out to him to have mercy on them. Jesus tells them to go and show themselves to the priests. They do so and on their way to the priests their healing becomes apparent. They are made whole and can belong to their families and their village again. So the healed lepers hurry to the priests.
But one of them knows that something else must happen first: before he can truly enjoy what he has received he must thank the giver. So he returns, praising God, and prostrates himself in gratitude before Jesus. And Jesus asks: “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they?” Although God doesn’t give just to those who are likely to respond gratefully, God’s gifts do come in order to create and deepen relationship. So gratitude, which is a sign of someone responding to God and not just enjoying what God gives, does matter to Jesus; there is a sense of disappointment or sadness as he asks about the other nine. Didn’t they get the point?
But this story isn’t just about the importance of gratitude. Its punchline is that the leper who returned to give thanks wasn’t a Jew (as the others presumably were) but a Samaritan. As elsewhere in the Gospels – think of the Canaanite woman, the Roman centurion, the good Samaritan – it is the despised foreigner, the religious outsider, who becomes a model to challenge the disciples. It is only the Samaritan who completes the exchange of salvation celebrated with thanksgiving. It is he who embodies true humanity before God, humanity healed and grateful. This is worth pondering: are we open to what God might teach us through those beyond our own community, those we might easily regard with fear and suspicion?
George Herbert was an Anglican priest and poet who lived in the first part of the 17th century. Among other things he wrote the hymn “King of glory, king of peace” with its line “Seven whole days, not one in seven, I will praise thee,” reflecting his desire that everyone should be in church every day of the week to say the daily offices, and not just attend church on Sundays. He would have been shocked to learn that these days many people don’t attend every Sunday. He died in 1633 at the age of 40 and his feast day is the same day as my birthday, which will give you a clue as to when it is.
George Herbert once prayed: “Thou who hast given so much to me, give one thing more, a grateful heart.”
Words echoed in the chorus we sang before the gospel reading. We must pray for a grateful heart because ingratitude is never far away and grumbling often comes much more naturally than thankfulness. But how do we cultivate a grateful heart like that of the Samaritan leper? Perhaps the clue lies in the very fact that he is a Samaritan. A Samaritan (especially a Samaritan leper) can expect no favours from a Jew. He has absolutely nothing to offer Jesus. He cannot put Jesus in his debt; he has no hold on Jesus, not even shared race. So what the Samaritan receives from Jesus is sheer grace – and he knows it. He is a model for us because he knows his need; he knows he can do nothing; and he knows that he has received grace. So he is grateful.
Misuno Genzo, a severely disabled Japanese Christian, writes poems – communicated through the movements of his eyelids – which make the same point: he knows that he himself can do nothing for his family, or for his people or for God. But what he can do is give thanks for God’s love for all those people. “I just give thanks,” he writes.
To understand grace, and so become truly grateful, it does help to be in a situation of utter dependence. This makes it harder to have any illusions about what we have to offer God. We are not lepers and outcasts from society – and most of us are not conscious of being in severe need of difficulty – and so we may struggle fully to recognise our total dependence on God; but we can recognise that this is what we need to learn.
I can do nothing. “Thou who hast given so much to me, give one thing more, a grateful heart.”