by James BlayLuke 17. 11-19, NRSV
It is hard to be thankful or to express gratitude sometimes. Especially when you live off the margins of society and are considered an outcast or undesirable, finding gratitude can be a tasking endeavor. Trust me. As a Liberian man who grew up during a civil war and had to live on refugee camps as a tween and teenager, I know how hard it is to find a reason to be grateful.
Take a moment to imagine waking up to the sound of guns firing, bombs going off, and the smell of burning all around you. Better yet, imagine waking up in the middle of a massive natural disaster, heavy winds, rising tides, wild fires, or the earth literally shaking and opening up around you. Imagine waking up to the news of the death of a love one or a diagnosis of a terminal illness or that you have lost your job and your home and any sense of security you held sacred. Now ask yourself, what is there to be grateful for?
I haven’t even yet talked about imagining being told to endure and tolerate abuse, or to imagine having your very identity criminalized because it does not fit the so called norm. I could on about what it means to live in a society under systems of oppression designed to keep you marginalized. But I think by now you get my drift. Finding reasons to be grateful can be the hardest thing to do for so many of people.
What can be, and many times is particularly frustrating is when people are dismissive of other people’s suffering or pain. We hear superficial platitudes like weeping may endure for a night, everything happens for a reason, God doesn’t put more on you than you can bear, just work hard, think positive thoughts, or repeat this really magical self help mantra. All these things are supposed to make all suffering dissipate and we can live happily ever after. But the opposite is true.
Suffering is not alleviated by positivity nor is injustice upended by kind words. By ignoring the suffering of others because of their race, gender, religion, or political ideology, we contribute to the eroding of what’s left of the moral fiber of our society. Sadly, people who call themselves followers of Jesus cause many of the deepest hurts and injustices in our society. Messages of hate are spewed from many pulpits and social media platforms and are shrouded in the toxicity of “hate the sin, love the sinner.”
Here’s the thing, until we begin to develop true empathy for people living on the margins of society, we are at risk of losing our humanity and definitely our salvation. On this Lenten journey it is time for us, as we say in West Africa, to shine our eyes. Shine our eyes to see the suffering around us, to hear the cries of those in need, to take advantage of opportunities to serve our neighbors. Jesus models for us in the text from Luke how serving others can lead to an expression of thanksgiving and praise.
The account in Luke 17 tells the story of 10 lepers who happen to encounter Jesus. These Lepers are castaways living on the margins of society because they are considered unclean. Because the law requires it, they have little to do with the people living in the cities and towns. They have to declare themselves unclean whenever they happen to be in close proximity to someone who was not unclean. It does not take much to imagine the daily sufferings of people living under these conditions.
If you were to ask the people who lived in the towns and villages around where the lepers were stationed, they would probably have some valid reasons why they keep their distance from them. They would tell you about Leviticus laws against uncleanliness. They would tell you about how many of those people brought it on themselves probably because of their sin. Some might even tell you they have their own problems to worry about and didn’t have the time to concern themselves with the issues of lepers. Whatever the excuse, the fact remains that these lepers where mostly left to fend for them selves. It is within that daily fending for their survival that they encounter Jesus on his way to Jerusalem.
Jesus is on a journey that begins in Luke 9 when he “sets his face to Jerusalem.” This stage of the journey gets Jesus to an area somewhere between Samaria and Galilee. In this in between or liminal space, Jesus is about to enter a village. The concept of liminal space as laid out by preeminent anthropologist Victor Turner—and then drawn on by a myriad of sociologists, liturgists, and theologians—is a concept which helps us realize that there are times when we are neither-here-nor-there, but somewhere in between. The word “liminal” comes from the Latin word limnus, which of course means “doorway.” When we are under the limnus, we aren’t in THIS room, and we aren’t in THAT room, but rather we are in transition. We are betwixt. Jesus and his disciples are in that space preparing to enter the village.
Now we do not know what kind of village this is, but in the grand scheme of the story whether it is a Samaritan or Jewish village is not important. The focus of the story is not the village. In fact at this point of the account, the ethnicity of the 10 lepers is of no consequence. All we know is that 10 lepers met Jesus in the in between, not very different from the upside down for all you Stranger Things fans.
It is important to note here that in this liminal space, Jesus encounters great suffering, not of himself but the sufferings of others. He sees the lepers. As a Jew himself, Jesus is well aware of the laws as it relates to making contact with the unclean, but yet he pauses and gives ear to their cry for help. Here you have ten lepers standing at a distance dressed in torn up rags looking disheveled, because that was required by law, and smelling fowl calling out to Jesus “Master, have pity on us.” Instead of walking away and dismissing their cries like I am sure many others did over the years, Jesus listens. In this in between space somewhere on the edge of a village between Samaria and Galilee, in this no mans land, Jesus sees and listens to a bunch of lepers.
After hearing their cries, Jesus takes the opportunity and says to them; go show yourselves to the priest. There is no big declaration of healing here. Jesus simply gives them instructions in fulfillment of the law. You see before anyone who is unclean can be declared clean, they have to show themselves to the priest and get a full head to toe inspection in order to begin the ritual of reentry into society from no-man’s land. As they hear these words from Jesus, the lepers according to the text begin to go. One cannot help but wonder what’s going on in their heads at this moment.
Some of them may have been thinking, wait is that it? Is he serious? What if we get to the priest and nothing happens? Or what if we go see a priest and we get arrested for breaking the law, what then? But even with all the hesitations and uncertainty swerving around in their heads, they journey on. And then suddenly one of them looks down and realizes their skin looks way better. Quickly the others follow suit and they all come to the realization that they have been healed. There is laughter, there is joy, there if relief, there if hope, there is the possibility of a new and exciting life, and finally being able to reenter society.
They are so happy and elated that they begin running to find a priest; they are no longer lepers, they are healed. In all of their excitement it seems they have forgotten about Jesus. Nine of them keep going, ready to get out of no man’s land, but then there is one, a foreigner who turns back. He too is excited but in his excitement he remembers where he was just a few hours ago. He remembers what life was like living on the outskirts. He remembers what it felt like being an outcast, someone who was unclean. In that moment, as he looks at his healed skin and contemplates what it means for him moving forward, his heart fills with gratitude. He has to go back, he has to give God thanks. So he does.
As soon as he gets to Jesus and prostrates himself giving God praise, Jesus wants to know, “has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God?” It is puzzling, because you would think that people whose lives have been changed so drastically for the better would be falling over themselves to show gratitude. But that is not the case here for the 9 other lepers. They are gone, healed. Luke does not tell us what happens to them after they leave. They probably go to rejoin society and return to business as usual. The foreigner however realizes that even though he is healed, he is still a foreigner, therefore instead of following the nine, he turns back to give thanks.
The Samaritan’s expression of gratitude prompts Jesus to repeat a phrase that is familiar in the Gospels, “Your faith has saved you.” The Samaritan has been both healed and delivered because of his faith as expressed in his gratitude. His faith took him on a healing journey and brought him back to say thank you. By his faith, the Samaritan is now the standard by which the others are judged rather than being the consummate other of the narrative.
Every time I read this text I wonder about the other nine. I wonder why they did not return to say thank you. The only response I can come up with is that because of their suffering they had not nurtured gratitude. Gratitude or thankfulness is like a muscle in our psyche that needs constant work in order to grow and become a part of who we are. If you do not practice being grateful, even in difficult times, you lose your ability to show gratitude when it matters the most. It has always surprised me that sometimes it is people who are going through the most difficult seasons of their lives who find reasons to be grateful. It is mind boggling for most of us, but there is so much for us to learn about practicing gratitude, and some of that we can learn from people living on the margins, the outcasts.
Having lived in Liberia, a country devastated by civil war and over a hundred years of corrupt leadership, I am always amazed by how people embody gratitude to God and on some occasion to one another. Most often when asked how are you doing, many Liberians, even those living in poverty and destitution will respond with “we thank God.” In that simple phrase is expressed a lifetime of faith in spite of great suffering.
I have seen several videos of Ukranians as they experience the horrors of an oppressive war. It is heartbreaking, and sad, and maddening. But I cannot help but pay attention to how they express gratitude. They are grateful for their home, their culture, and their identity, therefore they are willing to stand up to an oppressive tyrant and his war machines. They are grateful for each other so they go out of their way to help one another to survive the onslaught of war. We can learn from their expressions of gratitude, let go of some of our entitlement, and be more thankful for all the ways we are blessed.
Practicing and embodying gratitude is not an embracing of the superficial hash tag blessed culture. It is not an espousal of toxic positivity. The kind of gratitude that is modeled by Jesus and demonstrated by the tenth leper is one that is grateful not just for the good, but also for the lessons and opportunities of the bad. Being grateful for life and all its ups and downs is not a call to diminish the pain and suffering of anyone. It is an opportunity to be present for those on the margins, loving them, giving them hope, but also learning from them about true gratitude.
As we journey through this Lenten season, we will find ourselves in some in between places. Let us not walk through with heads bowed focused only on ourselves and our redemption, fostering a dangerous narcissism fueled by spiritual rhetoric that pays too much attention to individual self improvement and so little to the practice of love in community. Let us be wide eyed and find ways to practice and embody gratitude in all that we do. Let us allow ourselves be the presence of Christ for others within and outside our communities so that they too may express their thanks and praise to God. Lent is about being renewed day by day and as we strive for that renewal, we should make provision for practicing and embodying gratitude. We should also offer ourselves as agents of God’s love to others so that they too may practice gratitude. And then when Jesus wants to know who has returned to give thanks, a multitude of us can show up.