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More Than Feeling Thankful

It happens every Christmas, after a child opens the present the parent asks, “What do you say?” To which the only correct answer is, “Thank you.” Why? Isn’t the excitement of the child enough to satisfy? Wide eyes and rapid hands tear apart paper fast and faster as he discovers what’s inside. Then he jumps up and down. She might even scream for joy. Isn’t that good enough? After calming down and the shreds of paper float to the floor, the same question comes up. “What do you say?” “Thank you.” Feeling thankful is good, but it isn’t complete without saying “Thank you.” Every Christmas we had a routine growing up. After the presents were opened, we wrote thank you notes to grandma and grandpa. Mom would hound us for days over Christmas break until they were finished. Even after we said thank you on the phone, we still had to write the thank you notes. Being thankful can dramatically change your life.

We learn a lesson on thanks from an event in the life of Jesus. This is in a society that learned to say thanks just like we do. God taught them through the Old Testament worship practices to be thankful. They would give thank offerings, say prayers, sing songs, all to show their gratitude for the goodness of God. So the good, little, Jewish boys and girls would have known the proper response to “What do you say?”

11 Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. We find Jesus and his disciples traveling between two regions, Galilee (Jewish country) and Samaria. This perimeter was what many in Israel would have wanted to build up a border wall for racist reasons. Keep the Samaritans out. They were the ethnic mutts, a mix of Jew and Gentile descent. The Jews only liked the pure bloods. Jesus traveled along this border to Jerusalem.

On the way, he meets ten men. 12 As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. These were ten sick men. Leprosy was a word used then that ranged from on the one hand any skin rash to on the other hand a flesh-destroying disease, and anything else in between. What they had; we don’t know. But what we do know is that when someone had leprosy of any kind, they were isolated outside of town and away from people to live alone, unless they were in a small community of other lepers. They were separated from their family and from their religious practices. This is a loss that we can’t possibly imagine because we don’t have much to relate it to in our modern American context. They were quarantined, banished, without help or hope for anything getting better by all outward circumstances. The pain and loss that they must have felt, physically and emotionally, is terrifying. They were separated. Which is why we see them shouting from afar to get Jesus’ attention. They stood at a distance 13 and called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!”

These men were in desperate need of help if they wanted to live out their days without the separation. So they cry out to one who they know can help. “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!” The word pity is eleison, have mercy; one we sing in worship sometimes. In it these men acknowledged that they could offer Jesus nothing. They couldn’t pay Jesus because they couldn’t work. They couldn’t feed Jesus because they relied on the generosity of others to feed them. They couldn’t house Jesus because they were supposed to be separate. They could offer him nothing. Mercy is what is given to those who can’t and won’t pay it back.

This is where things get interesting. 14 When he saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” What? What in the world is this? Is he shoeing them? Is he passing the buck off to the local church for them to get some charity there? No, the priests would inspect the skin to see if the leprous were clear. If so, they would declare that person ok so they could return home. But they weren’t healed yet. Their condition hadn’t changed. We don’t have any word of them hesitating or questioning Jesus. They went. And as they went, they were cleansed.

What caused them to notice? Did one look at the face of another. Did one see his hands gripping his walking stick as they walked? Did one feel his limp disappear? Was it instantaneous or a slow disintegration of the ailment? What do you think was their reaction? We only have the reaction of one.

15 One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. Returning to Jesus was a feat all on its own. Jesus was traveling in one direction and these lepers were sent in another. So he had to double back and find Jesus. Instead of thinking how inconvenient it was, he praised God. On top of that, 16 He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan. He thanked Jesus on his face at Jesus’ feet. The leper was shown mercy and so he doubled back to thank Jesus. Here’s the difference between feeling thankful and being thankful.

What about the other 9? Were they thankful? I am sure they felt thankful. I imagine them jumping up and down, hugging each other, cheering, perhaps even crying. This means they can go home. They are no longer separated from their family. They are no longer physically suffering because of the leprosy. Of course they felt thankful. But they didn’t say thank you.

Jesus noticed. 17 Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? 18 Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” He was obviously disappointed. Didn’t all of them receive the same mercy? There is a difference between feeling thankful and being thankful.

Clinical studies have concluded that expressing gratitude can have profound and positive effects on our health, mood, and social connections. In one study on gratitude, researchers randomly assigned participants to groups given one of three tasks. Each week, participants kept a short journal. One group briefly described five things they we