Luke 17:11-19, 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Leprosy was and is a awful thing anywhere, anytime. But in the ancient Near East, it was a particularly heavy burden to bear since it meant complete social isolation. You could, of course, hang out with other lepers. But you were bound to stay as far away from the healthy as possible lest they be contaminated with your disease. To be a leper was to be an outcast.
Those who have watched the movie “Ben Hur” might remember the horrible but realistic scene when Ben Hur discovers his mother and sister in a leper colony
No wonder, then, that Naaman would travel all the way from his native Syria to Israel when he was told that there was hope of finding a cure there. So what if Israel was the enemy of Syria and he was a Syrian army commander? So what if he worshiped Syrian gods rather than the God of Israel? It was worth a shot. Nothing else had worked.
Naaman was healed instantly and completely. And his response was just matter-of-fact. He was obliged to express his gratitude by offering a gift which the prophet refused to accept because the healing had not come from Elisha. It had come from God. When Naaman recognized this, he loaded up a cart with soil from Yahweh’s land so that he could erect an altar at home to the God of Israel. And he pledged to worship no other god from that day forward.
Naaman was a pagan. He probably never heard of the Ten Commandments (Ex 20) which starts off with “I am the Lord your God and you shall not have any strange gods before me.” But Naaman did not need divine revelation to tell him what he already knew by way of common sense. He had just received a new lease on life from the God of his enemies. From that moment on, he realized he owed a debt of gratitude to this God that could never fully be repaid, but he was bound to try anyway. None of the other “gods” had been able to give him his life back. They had no power to do so and he owed them nothing. Naaman was a just man and so was determined to pay what he owed as best as he could.
How ironic! Israel had experienced extraordinary blessings from God for hundreds of years but failed to express gratitude to God. Instead, they flirted with the gods that Naaman abandoned. Rather than honoring the prophets, they persecuted them.
We see a similar irony in Luke’s story of the 10 lepers. An encounter with Jesus brings these ten outcasts total healing and restoration to society. Yet none of the Israelites among them takes the time to return to thank Jesus. Only one man does –and he just happens to be – how Jews called him – a Samaritan heretic.
Worship of God first and foremost is a strict obligation of justice. We were created out of nothing, through no effort of our own. We were saved by grace; it was not our own doing. On both counts, we owe God everything. We can never adequately repay him, and so owe him a lifetime of gratitude. That’s why we Catholics speak of our “Sunday obligation.” We are bound, if we are able, to observe the third commandment and keep the Lord’s Day holy by gathering together to give thanks. Eucharist, as you know very well, means thanksgiving.
In the ancient dialogue between priest and people that introduces the Eucharistic Prayer, we say “it is right to give Him thanks and praise.”
And why must we discharge this obligation at Mass rather than on TV in the comfort of our own homes?
Because our sacrifice of thanksgiving is weak and insufficient on its own. There was only One who has ever offered perfect worship to the Father, and His sacrifice is made present again at every Eucharist. Our inadequate “thank you” is absorbed into the perfect sacrifice of praise offered by the Son much like the small drop of water the priest puts in the chalice is absorbed into the rich wine that becomes Christ’s blood.
But thanksgiving can’t be limited to Sunday Eucharist. We are called to develop a lifestyle of thanksgiving. We’re called to become a Eucharistic people, meaning people of thanksgiving.
The 18th century Bible scholar Matthew Henry was once robbed by thieves of all his money. He wrote in his diary:
“Let me be thankful first, because I was never robbed before; second, because although they took my purse, they did not take my life; third, because although they took my all, it was not much; and fourth, because it was I who was robbed, not I who robbed.”
Not many people would thank God after being robbed. Yet, even in an extreme case like a robbery, thanking God can have surprisingly good effects. There is no anger, no hatred, only inner peace.
If some people can thank God after a robbery, surely a bad experience, one would imagine that everybody is naturally thankful, at least for the good things of life. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. A lot of people go through life grumbling and complaining. They never say “thank you” to God or to anybody else.
Harry Ironside, the great American Bible teacher, went into a crowded restaurant to have a meal. Just as he was about to begin his meal, a man approached and asked if he could join him. Ironside invited him to have a seat. Then, as was his custom, Ironside bowed his head in prayer. When he opened his eyes, the other man asked, “Do you have a headache?” Ironside replied, “No, I don’t.” The man continued, “Is something wrong with your food?” Ironside replied, “No, I was simply thanking God as I always do before I eat.” The man said, “Oh, you’re one of those, are you? Well, I want you to know that I never give thanks. I earn my money by the sweat of my brow and I don’t have to give thanks to anybody when I eat. I just start right in!” Ironside said, “Yes, you’re just like my dog. That’s what he does too!”
Why do some people not say ‘thank you’?
Perhaps for the simple reason that no one taught them to be grateful.
I cannot forget that when I was a little kid and somebody gave me something, my mother said, “What do you say?” And when I did not react immediately she said, “Say thank you. When someone gives you something, you have to say thank you.” In other words, I was taught to express gratitude even for small things. Being grateful is not a spontaneous reaction but a learned habit.
And how much do we receive from God! Often small things which we take for granted.
A Jesuit daily exercise is to pause and remember the little good things I have experienced in the past hours and so felt that God loves me. Obviously, the reaction is to thank God.
Most of our prefaces begin with, “Father, it is our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere to give you thanks.”
Our duty and salvation! Always and everywhere!
Why our salvation? Because we cannot be grateful and unhappy at the same time.
A person, who would always be grateful, would always be happy. Thanking God even for small things saves us from unhappiness. Yes, it is our salvation.