Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost

 

Sometimes we have to wonder whether our civilization is descending into Barbarianism. There are many reasons today to wonder about this, but the one I will single out for mention right now concerns the restaurants that are closing their doors early because of rude customers.

 

A restaurant in Charlevoix closed its kitchen early during one of its busiest days last summer, during the Venetian festival. The general manager had this to say: “My staff took a beating all week. Last night was our last straw. Too many rude comments. Too many arrogant individuals acting like they can throw money at us to get their way. Too many cocky jerks…We are not here to be abused. We will not tolerate that anymore.” These words appeared on a Facebook post that went viral. The story appeared in news outlets across the country.

 

More recently, a restaurant in Grand Rapids decided to shut its doors two hours before closing because of rude behavior. Customers were discourteous to the staff by refusing to acknowledge them. They rearranged chairs and tables even after explicitly asked not to. Several large parties came in with unruly children. When the staff asked them politely to keep their children under control, because of the safety hazard they posed, the parents blew them off.  And then two people came into the restaurant to take orders that did not belong to them. The staff couldn’t take it any longer. 

 

We can multiply cases here, which are becoming far too common. Sadly, this kind of behavior has almost come to be expected. Witness the sign taped to the drive-up window at the local Arby’s: “please be kind to our workers who are serving you.”

 

Anger, impatience, rudeness, nastiness—these are weeds in the heart that choke out the flower of gratitude. “Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks,” Jesus said in Luke 6:45. How can this abusive language and disrespectful behavior to which these servers were subjected flow out of a grateful heart?

 

To be grateful, even when we have reason to be, does not come to us so easily. We witness this in our Gospel lesson for today. It tells us about ten individuals who are afflicted with the disease of leprosy. This is a contagious disease that affects the skin and the nervous system. Its symptoms include discoloration and lumps on the skin, and, in severe cases, disfigurement and deformities.

 

By all accounts, it’s a terrible condition. Lepers knew not only physical pain, but also mental anguish. Whenever they approached others, they had to warn them by crying out: “unclean, unclean,” so as to avoid exposing them to the disease. One can say that they had to observe permanent social distancing.

 

We have noted before that news about the healing Jesus was doing spread rapidly. These ten lepers heard about what Jesus was doing and decided to intercept him as he was making his way to Jerusalem in the region between Galilee and Samaria.

 

“Lord Jesus, have mercy upon us.” It is a simple plea, direct and to the point.

 

Parenthetically, we should not hesitate to be direct and to the point about our own need when we pray to God. We should not be shy about asking God to show us mercy by meeting us at our point of need.

 

This is not a vague prayer without content. Jesus sees them and knows exactly what it is they are asking him to do.

 

Jesus does not lay his hands on them; nor does he speak a word of healing to them. Instead, he gives them a command. “Go show yourselves to the priests.”

 

The priests were in Jerusalem, to which it was absolutely forbidden them to go, since as lepers they couldn’t go near others, as we just said. So they all must have had faith, because they go on Jesus’ word and instruction. It’s only as they step out in faith that they are made clean.

 

“Trust God and step out in faith.” Last time we made the point that faith is an action. In moving forward in obedience to God’s word, to God’s direction, we find that faith is discovered in the act of faith. This is an efficacious faith, a fruitful faith, a faith that makes well, as the Samaritan discovered in his obedience to the word and instruction of Jesus.

 

In healing the ten, Jesus embodies and mediates the goodness and kindness and mercy of God. But only one of the ten is prompted to go back to see Jesus. When the Samaritan realizes that he’s been healed, he turns back and begins to praise God with a loud voice.

 

The Samaritan recognized it was God who acted through Jesus. This man has undergone more than a cure. He experienced a revelation that changed his life. He experienced the grace of God, which “fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus” (Pope Francis).   

 

This suggests that we can say of gratitude what we have been saying of faith. Just as the power of faith is realized in the act of faith, so also is the grace of God realized in the act of thanking God.

 

Many people take a moment to give thanks before meals. We who are Christians inherited this practice from the Jews.

 

When I was in graduate school, I studied Jewish table prayers—the prayers that the head of the household said at the family meal. The traditional one begins like this:

 

Blessed are you, Lord our God… because you nourish the whole world in goodness, kindness, and mercy. Blessed are you, Lord, who nourishes the world.

 

In the meal the earth’s bounty is present as God’s generous gift that nourishes everything that exists. But this immediately brings to mind the land that provided the wheat and the wine to the Hebrews when they came to the end of their long journey through the wilderness:

 

We thank you, Lord our God, because you have given to us a desirable land as our inheritance, so that we may eat from its fruit and be satisfied from its goodness.  Blessed are you, Lord our God, for the land and for the food.

 

But the land brings to mind God’s faithfulness in settling them in the land, which he promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God confirms this faithfulness to them by entering into covenant with them, which he ratifies through Torah (or the Law). That is why in the prayer there is added to the land the covenant and the law as gifts to be thankful for.

 

Notice what is happening here. Thanking God for the food sets in motion a whole train of associations. Food leads to fields, which leads to land, which leads to God’s promise to settle the people in the land, to give them rest there. That in turn leads to covenant, which leads to the Torah. The food brings to mind all these gifts.

 

All these links in the chain do not tend to occur to us. It’s only as we practice thanking God that we begin to see more and more of what we have as gifts from God. Much like faith, giving thanks to God is like an exercise.

 

Christians should be thankful people. The Apostle Paul tells the Ephesians that they are always to give thanks to God the Father for everything in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ (Eph. 5:20). In the same way, he tells the Colossians whatever they do in word or deed, to do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him (Col. 3:17). And he tells the Thessalonians that they are to gives thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God for them in Christ Jesus (1 Thess. 5:18).

 

Gratitude expands our awareness of God’s goodness and kindness and mercy. But our neglect or refusal to thank him does not make him less so. God causes the sun to shine on the good as well as the evil. He gives rain to the good and the evil.

 

Just as God does not withhold his grace from people until they thank him for it, Jesus does not begrudge the nine lepers the healing he did for them.

 

Nor does Jesus show mercy only to those who show their appreciation to him for it. People can be ungrateful and heartless and even nasty, just as those patrons were in the Michigan restaurants we mentioned earlier. Far from returning thanks, they even return evil for the good shown to them. But incredible as it may sound, God is good and kind and merciful to them too.

 

Jesus teaches this about God to his disciples and others who listened to him. He sought to speak and show his Father’s goodness and kindness and mercy, as we have already mentioned. He wants his disciples too to embody these traits in their own lives. That is why he concludes his teaching in the Sermon on the Plain with the words: “Be merciful, just as your Father in heaven is merciful.” 

 

If we allow our hearts to become so saturated with God’s goodness and kindness and mercy through giving him thanks, it will hardly occur to us to return evil for good. On the contrary, we will be inclined to return good for evil.

 

We sing a song in worship “They will know we are Christians by our love.” (We sung it last week.) But if they will know we are Christians by our love, they will at least suspect that we are Christians by our graciousness, by our spirit of generosity.

 

This speaks volumes about genuine Christian faith, say, for example, in a restaurant in which we are inconvenienced by the long wait to be seated and to be served, in which our servers are not immediately responsive to our demands.

 

But what if instead of complaining about the service and heaping abuse on them like those patrons in those Michigan restaurants we mentioned, we thanked them for their service and left them a generous tip as a token of our gratitude?

 

We all know that restaurant managers today struggle with staff retention. There are a variety of reasons that people leave a job. But they burn out, seldom because they work too hard for too many hours, but because they do not feel appreciated. Despite how hard the night was, those servers in those Michigan restaurants may have been willing to keep going if patrons thanked them for all the hard work they were doing.

 

“He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him” (Luke 17:16). This is a gesture of worship. It is how one comes into God’s presence, in direct encounter. No one emerges from this encounter unchanged. The Samaritan is no exception. He receives two additional gifts that come to him in and with the encounter.

 

First, Jesus sets him free “Get up and go on your way.” According to John’s gospel, “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36). “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free,” according to the Apostle Paul in Galatians 5.

 

This freedom manifests itself in various ways. For the Samaritan maybe it’s a freedom from fear of sickness and social isolation. As a leper, he knew both of these all too well. But now he knows a God who is greater, more powerful than these. Regardless of what happens to him in the future, including that final sickness that comes to all of us sooner or later, he rests secure in his knowledge that God is greater, more powerful than these.

 

Or maybe it’s a freedom from fear of what others think. To be the only one out of ten doing what he does—that does not make him very popular. And praising God in a loud voice—that certainly must have made him look ridiculous to others.

 

And then there is a living faith. Is this not even a greater gift than his healing, even though it was his faith that made him well? Faith is an action, as we have been saying, but it’s also a vessel, a container.  Christian faith is filled with all that Christ is and has. That means even though the Samaritan has to get up and be on his way, too, Jesus’ presence goes with him. “Never will I leave you; nor forsake you” (Heb. 13:5). This is the promise of Jesus to his followers. When this becomes more precious to us than anything else in the world, then we truly become people with grateful hearts.

 

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