As Saturdays go for college students, mine were always a bit atypical, particularly during football season. I was a part of the marching band at my school, and every Saturday our football team had a home game, we had band practice on the field at 9 a.m. I don’t think I have to tell you that marching band practice at 9 a.m. on a Saturday was not easy for any of us, but it was what it was. And so we would assemble, many often still in their pajamas, and run through our show on those Saturday mornings. I vividly remember one Saturday morning late in my college career when we arrived at the field to discover the band director had brought donuts and orange juice for the entire band. We all indulged heartily before practice began; our spirits were lifted as we took to the field…donuts just seem to have that affect! It was great!
Now, normally, a few donuts on a Saturday morning wouldn’t be particularly noteworthy. But here’s why I remember that morning so well. It was because of a class I went to on Monday, just two days later. It was a small Music Ed. Methods class taught by the band director, and as we gathered for class that day, he told us that of the roughly 85 people in the band, not one single person had thanked him for those donuts he brought on Saturday. Needless to say, those of us in the class who were a part of the band were quite ashamed, and we quickly offered our thanks to the band director, but really it was too late.
It wasn’t that the band wasn’t appreciative of what our band director had done for us. Of course we were. The problem was that none of us had bothered to express that appreciation to the band director. He had gone out of his way and put up some of his own money so that we could all enjoy some juice and donuts before that early morning practice, and none of us had bothered to take just a few moments to say “thanks.” None of the 85 of us could come up with a simple “thank you.”
That one incident from my college years stands shamefully in my mind as a most appalling example of ingratitude. This passage we heard from Luke this morning poignantly tells another story of ingratitude. The lepers came to Jesus with desperate longing; he cured them, and nine never came back to give thanks. It was the truth of the donuts, and it is the truth of the healing; it is the truth of humanity that so often after we have gotten what we want, we never come back. But what if we were to think of gratitude as an expression of faith; or even that they were one and the same?
In so many of the healing stories of the gospels, Jesus heals people because of their faith; the faith that compelled them to come to him seeking his healing touch, believing that he had the power to make them well. Jesus tells the grateful Samaritan leper that his faith has healed him as well, but this time it is the foreigner’s faithful gratitude and praise of God that heals him. Because in that gratitude, the foreigner also faithfully acknowledged something special about Jesus.
Here’s what I mean: In the cultural rules of Jesus day, if you were trying to get help from someone, you would not thank that person until you had actually been fully helped. You might thank God in prospect for help to come. But you would not thank another person until the favor asked was completed. That just wasn't done. What this means is that the nine lepers who went on their way and did what Jesus told them to do were not so much being rude. They were just doing the normal thing under such circumstances, much like we would probably do today. They would thank the priest who declared them clean, because that was the point when all was completed. It kind of makes you wonder even more if the nine lepers were any better men because of their cure; we are led to believe that they were just in better health. But the Samaritan's return to Jesus was special; not only because of his special expression of gratitude, but also because he was showing himself to the priest! Jesus was the priest and this Samaritan recognized that! Jesus saw the great faith of this man expressed in many ways, declared him whole, and sent him on his way.
The other nine had been healed, but only this one received Jesus’ declaration of salvation. It was the man’s faith in Jesus Christ the Priest, expressed in sincere and fervent gratitude that saved him, that brought him complete healing. Faith, like gratitude, is our response to the grace of God as we have experienced it. For those who have become aware of God’s grace, all of life is filled with a sense of gratitude, and each encounter becomes an opportunity to see and to respond in the faithful spirit of the grateful leper. The Samaritan, because of his praising God, was really whole, in soul as well as in body, for all eternity.
Jesus saw the need of the lepers and he acted on it. When the leper saw healing, he did not just celebrate his good fortune; he returned to praise God and fall on his face before Jesus. Gratitude may be the purest measure of our character and spiritual condition. As believers, we need to be aware that gratitude opens up our lives for God’s will to be done in and through us.
In a sense, gratitude is an expression not only of faith, but also of modesty. In Hebrew, the word for gratitude is hoda’ah, the same as the word for confession. To offer thanks is to confess dependence, to acknowledge that others have the power to benefit us, and to admit that our life is better because of their efforts. And our lives are better because of the work of God in Jesus Christ, are they not? We are greatly blessed because of the love of our generous Savior. Yet is our gratitude to God reflective of his generosity to us? There is an old spiritual discipline of listing one’s blessings, naming them before God, and giving thanks. It’s a healthy thing to do, especially in a world where we too often assume we have an absolute right to health, happiness, and every possible creaturely comfort!
It’s easy to get caught up in our “rights;” to become bitter and angry when we do not get all that we are “entitled” to. The absence of gratefulness reveals self-centeredness or the attitude that I deserve more than I ever get, so I do not need to be grateful. I think we all know the misery of an ungrateful soul. But with gratitude, there is joy! Just think of the happiness that comes in living a thankful life; in pouring out all our praise upon those who give of themselves, in whatever way, for our benefit! You know that wonderful feeling, do you not? And how equally wonderful it is to receive the thanks of one for whom we have given something of ourselves!
The grateful person reveals a humility of spirit and a sensitivity to love expressed by others. The grateful person regards others’ acts of kindness and experiences of God’s grace with profound appreciation. Life itself is a gift! Health is a precious gift. The friendship of others and the love of family and special friends are an overwhelming grace! At our wedding a few weeks ago, Ken and I experienced the love of family who traveled to East Tennessee from Northern New York, the California coast, Washington DC, and a host of other places. They came in the middle of a school year. They took time off of work and bought plane tickets or lots of gas. It is hard to express the love that we felt in the presence of those people who had made such efforts to be there for that special day. These things are to be treasured and guarded with gratitude. You cannot help but be thankful for such expressions of love! And if we live as a grateful people, I think we will find that it will draw us more fully into the presence of our Father, lifting our spirits and enlivening our souls!
Pastor Chuck Swindoll tells the story of a visit to a veteran’s hospital. He says, “The day I arrived to visit, I saw a touching scene. This man had a young son, and during his confinement in the hospital, he had made a little wooden truck for his boy. Since the boy was not allowed to go into the ward and visit his father, an orderly had brought the gift down to the child, who was waiting in front of the hospital with his mother. The father was looking out of a fifth-floor window, watching his son unwrap the gift.
The little boy opened the package, and his eyes got wide when he saw that wonderful little truck. He hugged it to his chest. Meanwhile, the father was walking back and forth waving his arms behind the windowpane, trying to get his son’s attention. The little boy put the truck down and reached up and hugged the orderly and thanked him for the truck. And all the while the frustrated father was going through these dramatic gestures, trying to say, ‘It’s me, son. I made the truck for you. I gave that to you. Look up here!’ I could almost read his lips.
Finally the mother and the orderly turned the boy’s attention up to that fifth-floor window. It was then the boy cried, ‘Daddy! Oh, thank you! I miss you, Daddy! Come home, Daddy. Thank you for my truck.’ And the father stood in the window with tears pouring down his cheeks.”
How much like that child are we? How often do we pour our gratitude out to our waiting Father, who has so blessed us? Probably not often enough. God gave us his only Son and often we never give to him even a word of thanks. The best thanks we can give him is to try to deserve his goodness and mercy a little better. This story of the ten lepers reminds us that if our faith is genuine, we will never cease praising God for the many blessings of our lives!