I love the unlikelihood of the Kingdom of God. Today’s readings from
Kings and from the Gospel of Luke give us a whole lot of that: healing
happens to unlikely recipients in an unexpected place; God uses unlikely
means for healing; and Jesus receives grateful response from an unlikely
Jesus, this Jesus who has a few chapters earlier in Luke “set his face
like flint toward Jerusalem,” is taking a rather meandering way to get there.
“Between Samaria and Galilee” could be a lot of different places. This region
is as much figurative as literal: to say Jesus found himself between Samaria
and Galilee is to say that he was taking the scenic route to Jerusalem, through
an area of religious and ethnic diversity. He enters a village and ten lepers
keep their distance but call out to him: Jesus, Master, have mercy on us! We don’t know if they are all foreigners, or just some of them. We don’t know if they believe Jesus is the Son of God or simply a well-known local healer. But they see something in him and they call out. And Jesus calls back: Go and show yourselves to the priests. The priests would then certify that the leprosy was gone.
I’ll come back to these ten lepers in a moment. Over in the Kingdom of
Syria, in the reading from the second book of Kings, we have another story of
an unlikely foreigner being healed. Naaman, commander of the army of the
king of Aram, suffers from leprosy. With all the healers of the King’s retinue
at his disposal, he learns—from a most unlikely source, a captured servant
girl—that the prophet from Israel, Elisha, is the he should look to for healing.
An unlikely recipient of healing, in an unlikely place.
We are used to hearing, in the gospel, about healings that happen with
touch, with laying on of hands, with making mud out of dirt and spittle, or
even grasping the hem of Jesus’ garment. Not so in today’s stories.
Like so many people we meet in the gospels, the ten lepers are on the
move. They call out to Jesus from down the road, or across the village square,
and Jesus responds: Go. It is in that going, on the move, that they are healed.
There is no intimate encounter with God, no healing touch.
Similarly, Naaman, the great general, is healed through the simple act
of washing in the river Jordan, following instructions given to him by a third
party, a lowly messenger. He’s a little affronted that his healing is not more
complicated or glamorous, and that the prophet himself does not come and
wave hands over his leprosy. His own servants must say to Naaman: “If the
prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have
done it?” God’s healing comes without ceremony or grandeur; God’s healing
has nothing to do with the status and greatness of the recipient, and
everything to do with accepting God’s grace and mercy. I love this story; I
love how we are reminded that sometimes humility means accepting help
from unlikely sources to do something simple and everyday.
And what of our response to all of this healing? Naaman has a
conversion experience: “Now I know—he says—that there is no God in all the
earth except in Israel.” I’m sure there is healing power in the river Jordan that
runs through Israel, but also, perhaps, there is healing power in the
experience of humility and surprise that leads up to it, in being able to
discover God’s grace in doing a small and simple thing as much as a grand
gesture. Emptying ourselves of expectation and need opens us up to more
than we can possibly imagine.
And what about the tenth leper? His response is, of course, the climax
of the gospel story, the occasion for Jesus’ teaching moment along that
meandering way to Jerusalem. The Samaritan’s healing is complete—and the
Samaritan is made truly whole—because his response includes gratitude. All
the lepers are healed because they cried out to Jesus and because they
trusted Jesus enough to go present themselves to the priest. The tenth leper
is healed of leprosy, and he is changed forever.
Gratitude changes things. There are studies linking the practice of
gratitude to decreases in anxiety, depression, drug addiction, and more. I’m
sure I’ve mentioned before that I have an old friend whose family motto is:
never resist a generous impulse. This is a wonderful practice. I would add to
that: Never pass up an opportunity to give thanks.
Gratitude changes things. Gratitude is an act of faith, and it is an act of
* * *
When asked to describe the nature of true worship, Martin Luther is
said to have responded: “The tenth leper turning back.” True worship.
We talk a lot about worship as prayer, about prayer as this
community’s primary charism, but the heart of our worship, our Eucharist,
the Great Thanksgiving, is an act of gratitude in which we all participate. We
bring offerings to this table, and we give thanks. The call and response of the
sursum corda—lift up your hearts/we lift them to the Lord; let us give thanks
to the Lord our God/it is right to give God thanks and praise—this is our
turning, like the tenth leper, to God with gratitude. All we have to do is lift up
our hearts, grasp the mercy God offers us, and give thanks.
Thanksgiving is, of course, the essence of stewardship: acknowledging
our debt to God for all that we are and all that we have. During this season of
recommitment and renewal, we are surrounded with opportunities to turn
back and to give thanks, and to be completely transformed in the process.
As citizens of the Kingdom of God, nourished by a thanks-giving feast
at this table every week, it is never too soon or too often to be the one, to be
the community, that turns back to give thanks.