I once knew a man who was impossible to compliment. Whether you wanted to compliment a job well done or good deed, his response was always the same, “It’s not me. All the glory goes to God.” His response always left me feeling like I just offered a present that was rejected. Of course, I totally agreed with what he was saying – none of us is able to do good without the God who empowers us to do so. And truly, Jesus was not that great at accepting compliments either, especially if you recall all the times he asked people to keep a healing secret or to just go back to work. But upon receiving a compliment, a simple, “Thank you,” would not have hurt this man. After a while, I just stopped trying to praise his work or good deeds.
I think that is why I relate to the nine lepers who do not return to Jesus to give him thanks and praise. There were ten lepers originally – nine who were Jewish and one who was a Samaritan. We are not sure why the ten are together – the Jews and the Samaritans were enemies and rarely spent time together.[i] We are told at the beginning of the text that Jesus was passing through a borderland between Samaria and Galilee, so there is a possibility that then ten men banded together through their disease instead of culture. You see, both Samaritans and those of Galilee would have been seen as impure due to their leprosy. Being exiled to the borders of their land, they may have found more in common than divided them. And so, as a group, they shout out to Jesus for healing – careful not to approach him, of course, which would have been improper in their condition. Respecting their distance, Jesus does not insist they come forward, but instead tells them to go to the priest to show themselves to be healed. Along the way, they are healed, but they still would have needed to show a priest in order to be restored to their families and friends.[ii]
The Samaritan among them returns and gives praise to God, but the others do not. We do not know how their journey unfolds. Presumably they are faithfully doing what Jesus told them to do – going to the priest for restoration. Perhaps they give praise to God once the priest restores them. Perhaps they give praise when they are reunited with their families. Maybe they even show their praise through helping lepers later. But that is all supposition. All we get today is Jesus’ criticism of the nine because they neglect to turn and give God praise and thanksgiving.
I have been reflecting on Jesus’ words this week, and what rubs me the wrong way may be the same thing that rubbed me the wrong way when that man I knew always refused praise. In both cases, whether Jesus, or the man I knew, there is both implicit and explicit criticism of my own practice of gratitude and thanksgiving. What irritated me about the man’s responses to me was that they made me feel guilty – that perhaps I was not grateful enough to God for the goodness in my life. The same thing irritates me about Jesus this week – his judgment of the nine makes me feel guilty about the ways I have walked away healed and not given praise to God.
This week we are kicking off our stewardship season in a campaign called, “Living Generously.” After the service, you will be receiving a packet of information about how you can support the ministry of Hickory Neck, and a pledge card that we will collect in a celebratory ingathering in just four weeks. Most preachers would have read the text today and thought, “Yes! The perfect Stewardship text!” But the more I sat with Jesus’ words, the more I realized that his words actually bring up feelings of dread rather than joy. Most people associate stewardship with the same sense of guilt that this reading brings up. We feel guilted into showing gratitude, and so we guiltily look at our budgets and see if we can increase our pledge this year.
The first time I experienced the concept of pledging was when I started regularly attending an Episcopal Church. In the churches where I grew up, you never had to tell anyone what you were going to give. The preacher might have talked about a tithe – ten percent of your income. But the preacher never wanted you to say exactly what you were going to give. So when the warden of this church started explaining how he wanted us to pledge, I was aghast. I remember thinking, “That’s private! I don’t have to tell you how much I am going to give!” Now, I knew we would probably tithe that year, but the idea of telling someone else about my giving seemed to go against every cultural norm I knew. Fortunately, I stayed to hear the rest of the warden’s talk. He explained that the way the church formed the church’s budget was through the knowledge of what income they could expect. The Vestry would adjust expenses accordingly and try to get the budget balanced. My outrage faded as I realized how responsible that model seemed. Thus began my adult journey into pledging.
But that journey into pledging experienced a transformation about eight years later. We were at a new church, and the priest asked to hold our pledge cards until a particular Sunday. We did and the funniest thing happened. In the middle of the service, a banner appeared. The banner was processed down the aisle, joyful music started playing, and people started following the banner forward. We placed our pledge in a basket, and I felt something stirring in me. The priest blessed the pile of pledge cards, and something about stewardship turned in my heart – the pledging, the monthly giving was no longer an obligation or burden – something to be guilted into. My pledge was a joyful sign of gratitude – a sign blessed by God and affirmed by the community. And I have to say – it felt good!
In the gospel lesson today, the text says that the Samaritan turns back to Jesus. That word for turns back is more than just a physical description – the action of turning back is a sign of deep transformation – a reorienting of the Samaritan’s life from duty to gratitude.[iii] I do not think Jesus was looking for a guilty admission of thanks from the other nine lepers. What Jesus is looking for is a transformation of the heart – a turning of one’s life away from obligation and duty to joyful gratitude and thanksgiving.
I was reading this week about a woman with an interesting habit. Whenever someone asked her how she is – that basic question we always ask and anticipate the answer being, “Fine,” – instead she would say, “I’m grateful.” No matter what is on her plate – stress at work or school, an illness that kept plaguing her, strife at home – her response is always the same, “I’m grateful.”[iv] As I thought about her response this week, I realized that her response is probably one that took willful practice. I am sure there were weeks when she really felt grateful. But there were also probably weeks when she had to say she felt grateful even if she was not sure what there was to be grateful about. But slowly, slowly, I imagine the practice cultivated a spirit of gratitude. A practice like that can do exactly what Jesus wants for us all – a turning of the heart to praise and thanksgiving. I know I will never be able to shift toward the kind of response that the man I knew always gave, rejecting praise altogether. But learning to say, “I’m grateful,” might be a way for me to get a little closer to the same sentiment.
What that woman is doing, what Jesus is encouraging, and even what our Stewardship campaign is inviting is not a sense of guilt or burden, but a genuine invitation into a life that turns our heart to gratitude and transforms the way we see the world. Now that does not mean that every time you write the check to fulfill your pledge you will part from that treasure with a joyful heart. But that practice is a small invitation, every time, for us to turn our hearts and to see not only the God from whom all blessings flow, but to even see the blessings in the first place. Jesus is not mad at those lepers because they are ungrateful – he is sad for them because they have denied themselves the gift of transformation. That is the gift that he and the Church offer us every week – the gift of a transformed heart that can change everything. For that, I’m grateful. Amen.
[i] Audrey West, “Commentary on Luke 17.11-19,” October 9, 2016, as found at https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3029 on October 5, 2016.
[ii] Oliver Larry Yarbrough, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 169.
[iii] Margit Ernst-Habib, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 166.
[iv] David Lose, “Pentecost 21C: Gratitude and Grace,” October 3, 2016, as found at http://www.davidlose.net/2016/10/pentecost-21-c-gratitude-and-grace/ on October 5, 2016.