One evening a rich man was riding in his limousine when he saw two men at the side of the road eating grass. Disturbed, he yelled at his driver to stop and got out to investigate. He asked one man “Why are you eating the grass?” “Well, we don’t have any money for food” the poor man replied. “So we have to eat grass.” “Well then, come with me to my house and I’ll feed you” the rich man said. “But sir, I also have a wife and two children. They are over there, under that tree.” “Ok, bring them along too” the rich man replied.
Turning to the other poor man he stated, “You come with us, also.” The second man, in a pitiful voice, then said, “But sir, I also have a wife and SEVEN children with me!” “Very well, bring them all” the rich man answered. They all piled into the limousine, which was no easy task. Once under way, one of the poor fellows turned to the rich man and said, “Sir, you are truly too kind. Thank you for taking all of us with you. The rich man replied, “No problem, glad to do it. “You’ll really love my place “The grass is almost a foot high”
Our gospel reading today is a wonderful story about the generosity of Jesus and one man’s thankfulness. We join Jesus as he’s travelling between Samaria and Galilee. This is a mixed race area, which becomes important later on in the story. Living there are both Jews following their traditional religion, and Samaritans, who had a less orthodox version. There was no love lost between the two groups.
And then, in v. 12, ten lepers approach Jesus. Now I don’t know about you, but I was quite struck by that word ‘leper’. I had to ask myself: can you use that word now? Is it one of those words like handicapped or spastic that just grates?
I checked on the website for the Leprosy Mission, who do a lot of good work with leprosy sufferers, and they say: ‘The word leper, like most labels, is offensive – people shouldn’t be defined by their disease.’ So it’s probably better to say ‘people with leprosy’.
But of course, that labelling of people is part of the point of the story. Not only did these unfortunate people have to deal with a terrible disease, which incidentally was not necessarily leprosy, as the biblical word covers all sorts of skin diseases. But they also had to deal with the attitude of society: rejection and discrimination.
In those days there was no effective treatment for the disease. It was incorrectly believed to be highly contagious, and because of the deformities it produced, people suffering from leprosy were feared and loathed. If anyone got it they were cast out of society, having to live in little communities of fellow sufferers. It can still be the case now – I’ve heard people say ‘I can cope with my illness or disability, it’s the attitudes of others that cause me real problems’. A little step that an able bodied person would have no issue with can be experienced by a wheelchair user as an impassable barrier, as a thoughtless or even deliberately uncaring exclusion from the life of the community. That’s why we try to improve our churches to make them accessible.
V.13 describes them keeping their distance, calling out to Jesus from afar. ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.’ They have faith in Jesus, that he has the ability to help them. Not only that, we also see it’s an active faith, that takes God at his word and acts upon it. For when Jesus tells them to go and see the priests, they immediately do so. They believe, trust and obey God, which is a pretty good definition of faith. Going to see the priests was a requirement of the Old Testament Law, if anyone had been cured of a dreaded skin disease, it had to be verified by the priest before they were allowed back into the community. Jesus is going to overcome both their illness and the segregation they suffer.
‘And as they went they were made clean’. Now something strange happens. One of them turns back, praising God with a loud voice, and thanks Jesus – and the one who turned back was a Samaritan. Jesus makes two points out of this.
Firstly, out of the ten who were healed, only one outsider turned back to give thanks. It is so important that we give thanks.
At times we can be very thankful – I remember once I was taking a midweek communion service when an ashen faced man staggered in and took a seat at the back of church. I caught up with him afterwards. He had been walking to the village when a tree blew over right in front of him. He knew he’d had a lucky escape and had come to church to give thanks.
Last week we celebrated our Harvest and I was really struck by what it meant to the farmers. One of them said to me, ‘it’s the first time in five years when the seasons have felt normal and we’re back in tune with nature.’ When we depend on events which are beyond our control, perhaps we are more likely to give thanks.
For it can be easy to forget to be thankful. Maybe a health scare or an unpleasant task at work keeps us awake at night. We worry and pray for hours. Then it is resolved and we breathe a sigh of relief. Perhaps we send up an arrow prayer of thanks – thank God that worked out – and we get on with life. I can see in my own life times when I have been the one who returned to give thanks, and times when I have rushed on to the next thing, put the hard time behind me, and been one of the nine.
How then do we grow habits of thankfulness? One approach is to give thanks always, to say grace before meals, to notice the little moments of giftedness in the day and pause to say thank you, to end the day with a reflection where you give thanks for all that has been. We can grow generosity – by giving away a proportion of what we receive, and there are many Christians who take that approach to their giving.
For as Jesus says, giving thanks is good for us. Praise and practical acts of thanks make us whole. In v.19 he says to the Samaritan: ‘Get up and go on your way, your faith has made you well.’ He’s the only one to whom Jesus says this, and yet all ten were healed. In fact, the Greek word ‘Sodzo’ which translates as made well can equally be translated as ‘your faith has saved you’ or ‘your faith has made you whole’.
All ten showed a believing faith in Jesus, yet only one is told he is made whole. I think that is significant. All ten were physically healed, but is there a suggestion here that this man is spiritually healed too? That by returning and giving thanks he is made whole?
That’s because thanksgiving is good for us. Those who give thanks regularly have a more positive outlook than those who always feel hard done by. Thanksgiving grounds us in our relationship with God – it acknowledges our dependence on him. This man is now in relationship with Christ – the ground of all ultimate wholeness.
Someone once said the worst thing about being an atheist was there was no one to thank! We recognise that we have received everything we have – as the words at the offertory say: ‘All things come from you O Lord and of your own do we give you’. So thanksgiving overflows in generosity to others – as we have received much we give back to God and to others, and blessing flows back to us.
We can see that in the life of our church. Many give of their time, talents and resources to keep this place open, beautiful and decorated. Without volunteers there would be no church here. Activities like Open the Book assemblies, Mustard Seeds, Little Lights and the coffee morning are acts of service to the community. Our involvement in Pop Up, Boules and the forthcoming Arts Festival, Harfest and Doorway are all gifts motivated by gratitude to God. Sunday church is just the tip of the iceberg, much of our work goes on midweek, and many people serve God in their daily work, as school governors, or helping neighbours. All of this is underpinned by the generous financial support of many, for which we are so grateful.
God has given us so much, we enjoy such abundance. Above all he has given us the gift of Jesus. Let us therefore be thankful, and be encouraged as we continue to serve in our community.