Don’t forget to say ‘Thank you!’
When did you last write a thank you letter?
Thank you letters were a part of my childhood, as they were for so many of us in days of old. You know, those far off days before we all had smartphones to send texts on. Those far off days even before email was invented.
As so, every Christmas and birthday, you knew what was coming after the event. You had to write thank youletters. And parents made it clear that saying ‘thank you’ was essential – even when you had to say it for things that you didn’t actually want. It was the polite thing to do, and it was expected. It was, as my parents used to say, the ‘done thing’.
What was not the ‘done thing’ in those days was 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 used to hide 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.
And after the event came the task of saying thank you – either by writing a letter or, if you were lucky, by saying thank you in person if we were going to see the donor soon after. Lucky, because that let you off having to write a letter. 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. Gifts are not given in order for the donor to be thanked, of course, but being thanked is an important part of the exchange between the donor and the recipient of a gift. And let’s be honest – it’s nice when someone says ‘thank you’ for something you’ve done.
Today’s gospel reading is about nine people who didn’t know how to say thank you, and one who did.
Jesus is travelling in border country along a frontier between Galilee – Jewish territory – and Samaria. Jews and Samaritans hated each other and had nothing to do with each other. And as Jesus 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 the gift of healing that 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 leper who truly understands the gift he has been given – healing, and wholeness. And he understands the importance of saying thank you to Jesus for being made whole.
And gratefulness, being able to say thank you to Jesus for what he has done for us, is such an important part of our relationship with him.
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,” which was more than simply a personal commitment to daily worship – it reflected 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 died in 1633 at the age of 40.
George Herbert once prayed: “Thou who hast given so much to me, give one thing more, a grateful heart.”
“Thou who hast given so much to me, give one thing more, a grateful heart.”
We would do well, like George Herbert, to pray for a grateful heart because ingratitude is never far away and grumbling often comes much more naturally to us 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 is an outsider, and a hated outsider at that. He has absolutely nothing to offer Jesus. He cannot put Jesus in his debt; he has no hold on Jesus. So what the Samaritan leper receives from Jesus is sheer grace – an unwarranted and undeserved gift given without anything being asked for in return – and he knows it.
He is a model for us because he knows his need; he knows that it is a truly wonderful thing that Jesus has done for him. So he is grateful. And he comes and prostrates himself before Jesus and thanks him.
We are not lepers. And most of us are not outcasts from society – I wish I could say no-one is, but we know all too well how good some are at demonising and rejecting those who are seen to be different.
But most of us at some point are probably only too aware of times in our lives when we are in need or difficulty – whether that’s caused by health issues, relationship problems, loneliness, financial difficulties. Perhaps those times of difficulty will help us to reach out, like the Samaritan leper, to say thank you to Jesus for everything he does for us, for he always reaches out with healing. And if we are not aware of those kinds of difficulties in our own lives, that’s also something to say thank you to Jesus for.
As George Herbert prayed, so may we all pray: “Thou who hast given so much to me, give one thing more, a grateful heart.”
And the great thing with Jesus is we don’t have to write a letter – we can just tell him.