a sermon on Luke 17:11-19
Some things are just thankless tasks. You know the sort of thing I’m describing: the work that no one notices if it gets done but that everyone will notice if it goes undone, the tough words that must be spoken even if no one wants to say them, the little things that seem to just happen behind the scenes because someone steps up quietly to do it without expecting anyone to say thank you. But beyond thankless tasks, I think there are also a lot of thankless people these days. These are the folks who walk right past you without saying a word if you hold the door open for them, those who don’t notice when you do something nice to make life easier for them, or even worse, the people who find something wrong with everything, even the most generous gift. The southern gentleman in me, ingrained in my spirit from my earliest days, resists this sort of thanklessness almost to a fault, so I say “thank you” for nearly everything, and many times I’m afraid that I end up saying thank you a bit too much!
An overabundance of thank yous is not the problem before us in our story from the gospel of Luke this morning—in fact it is quite the opposite! In one of the last healing stories of Luke’s gospel before the narrative turns to the events of Jesus’ last week before his crucifixion, we hear of how Jesus heals ten lepers of their brutal and awful disease by sending them to prove their cleanliness and healing to the priests, and they discover that it has happened as they go on the journey. But unlike so many of the healing stories in the gospels, there is little or no emphasis on the healing itself—we know almost nothing about it! The village where it happened is not identified but rather vaguely positioned as in the region between Samaria and Galilee. The ten individuals involved are not identified in any way at the beginning of the story. While the lepers cried out for healing saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” I suspect they probably had said similar things many times before to many other people. And the specific process by which Jesus granted them this gift of wholeness and healing is not described as it is in other stories.
Instead of giving us all these details, this story focuses on one of the lepers who took a different turn. Rather than making his way quickly to the priest with the rest of them to verify their new status as clean, when this now-former leper discovered that he had been healed, he cried out with praise to God. He turned around, returned to Jesus, and fell at his feet to thank him. Jesus was surprised, but not by this man’s actions. This kind of thanksgiving was what Jesus expected from everyone, so Jesus’ surprise here was actually that this one leper was the only one who responded in this way. He expressed his skeptical thoughts out loud: “Were not ten healed? Where are the nine? Can none be found to come back and give glory to God except this outsider?” Only when gratitude was expressed do we learn that this one who had been healed and returned to give thanks was not just anyone but a Samaritan—an outsider among outsiders, one assumed to be perpetually ungrateful, the last one anyone expected would stop and give thanks for anything. After noting his surprising thankfulness, Jesus sent him on his way, reminding him, “Your faith has made you well.”
This strange moment of thanks stands out even now. In our world where people just don’t stop to say thank you, it is notable to see this example of one who not only stops but goes out of his way to say thank you. As preacher John Buchanan puts it:
All we really know about him is that he recognized a gift when he saw and experienced it, that he returned to say ‘Thank you,’ and that Jesus said to him, ‘Your faith has made you well.’ (“Homiletical Perspective on Luke 17:11-19,” Feasting on the Word)
Luke makes it clear that this man’s life of gratitude is all that we really need to know about him. We don’t need to know anything more about his faith, his race, his cultural perspective, his religious practice, his ethics, his theology, his political ideas, or his moral values. What we need to know is that he has faith that gets lived out with gratitude. In her reflection on this text, Kim Long makes this abundantly clear:
In short, to ‘have faith’ is to live it, and to live it is to give thanks. It is living a life of gratitude that constitutes living a life of faith—this is the grateful sort of faith that has made this man from Samaria truly and deeply well. (“Pastoral Perspective on Luke 17:11-19,” Feasting on the Word)
He was healed of his awful skin condition before Jesus made this recognition, but his ultimate transformation came when he embraced this gracious gift for what it was and began to live it out in his expression of gratitude. Again, Kim Long puts it well:
Jesus reminds us that living out our faith—by revering God’s ways, by honoring one another, and by giving thanks in all things—we are given all the faith that we require.
In our world where there are so many thankless tasks and even more thankless people, what does this kind of deep gratitude that leads us to faith look like? It certainly has its roots in the kind of thanks that we offer to those who hold the door for us or that come out of our cultural exposure, but there is still something more. Deep gratitude takes “thank you” to the next level. Gratitude shows generosity beyond measure when others are in need. Gratitude sets aside our fears of the other and embraces those who are different from us as the beautiful children of God that they are. Gratitude gives first and asks questions later. Gratitude approaches others with kindness rather than suspicion. And gratitude looks ultimately for the good of the other rather than seeking our own self-interest. This deep gratitude emerges from the life of faith even as it enables the life of faith. Just as we don’t really know whether the chicken or the egg came first, we can never know whether faith or gratitude comes first, because they always come together.
Ultimately, though, this way of living with deep and real gratitude changes us. We stop noticing what we do not have but begin to embrace the gifts that we have been given. We set aside our concerns about what is in it for ourselves and begin to turn our hearts and minds to the gifts God has so graciously given. We stop giving thanks that we are not like those poor people over there and start to use the abundance that we have to transform all the world. We pray not just for healing and redemption and new life but to give thanks for all these things that we have already received, in whatever measure.
And when we do all these things, just like this healed leper, we walk away different. We are not afraid of what might come our way but thankful for all that has come our way and open to the things that God still has in store for us. We define our lives not by what belongs to us or what we wish belonged to us but by the recognition that we belong to God no matter what. We set aside our fears because we know that God has overcome our greatest fear—death itself—in Jesus Christ. And just like this healed leper, when we live lives of gratitude, we go on our way rejoicing, giving thanks for all that God has given us, offering our prayers for those places where we long for the fullness of God’s love and presence, and singing songs of praise wherever we go.
So may we go rejoicing all along the way, giving thanks to God for the incredible depth and breadth of healing, wholeness, and new life that is before us, and living lives of faithfulness and gratitude each and every day until we join with this healed man and all the heavenly choirs to rejoice all our days. Thanks be to God! Amen.