Luke 17:11-19

a reflection by Dan Spragg

Karl Barth, a German Minister and Theologian who ministered in Germany during the early to middle part of the 20th Century said, that the basic human response to God is gratitude. Not trembling or fear, not guilt or dread, but thanksgiving. “What else can we say to what God gives.”[1] He said. If there ever was a time when people could have looked around and been anything but grateful, surely the first half of the 20th Century was the time. But no, apparently not, gratitude according to Barth was the response we are compelled to give. It is to be our basic human response to God. Just say thank you.

In the gospel story today Jesus encounters ten sick people and he offers them the gift of being healed. One out of those ten returned to say thank you. The statistics aren’t very good! One out of ten! I was listening to a sermon on this passage by Fr Richard Rohr[2] who stated that he thinks that the general statistics with regards to being thankful as we go about our daily lives are probably about the same… 10% seems to be a good estimate of our ‘thankfulness’ frequency. He doesn’t seem far wrong. Have you ever looked around at the faces of the other drivers on the road while you are in your car? Do it on your way home today I guarantee grumpy faces will be what you see! The driving faces of the masses don’t seem to communicate that people are going about their days with a general sense of thankfulness! I remember the first time I noticed this and then a second later I noticed that I had a big frown on my face too! Lime scooters are the exception as the vast majority of people I see riding Lime scooters have grins on their faces! But anyway, it seems our disposition isn’t one of thankfulness… we seem to be caught in a much heavier kind of mood that pervades our daily lives and causes us to be ignorant of the daily gifts we are given. Instead of being thankful and possessing a posture of gratitude we tend to use language like ‘I deserve this’ as we hold our thanks in and instead give off an air of entitlement. I think we would all agree that the best way to be is when we are thankful and when we express gratitude, just think of all the ‘ungrateful little sods’ you’ve encountered in your life… that’s not how we want to be and yet it seems that as a human race we struggle to get beyond it! How then can we become like the one, how can we take on the conviction of Karl Barth, that our response is to always be one of praise?

It is interesting that this story from the gospel of Luke is framed in the context of ‘journey.’ It begins with Jesus being ‘on the way to Jerusalem.’ And it ends with Jesus telling the healed man, ‘Go on your way…’ The journey that Jesus is on, on his way to Jerusalem is both a literal and symbolic journey towards death and resurrection. This journey is the journey that we are all on too. We as a people of faith are on the journey of salvation, it is a journey of growing liberation, of growing freedom as we take one step at a time towards what Paul would talk about as our maturity in Christ.[3] Perhaps this one grateful person who returned to Jesus in thanks and praise has something to teach us about what it means to take a step in the journey from death to life, about growing up into mature people of faith.

In quite concrete ways the sick people Jesus offered healing to were experiencing a life defined by a sort of death. They are ‘lepers’, the man who returns is a ‘Samaritan’, he is a ‘foreigner’. Lepers were excluded from society from fear of the disease – that lasted quite a while in human history. Samaritans were seen by the Jews as unclean and unworthy poor cousins. Foreigners, well we don’t have to think too hard about how that word has always been and still is used. All of these labels essentially tell us that this group, and this man, were outsiders. Outsiders who of course are always the ones who are wrong, or unworthy, or undeserving of our time or energy. Being labelled an outsider tends to be a sort of death sentence, it certainly seems to cut off your access to a number of things. Jesus here cuts across all the right and proper boundaries and offers life to these outsiders. Jesus reaches in and bridges the gap that was ‘them and us’, turns it upside down (as usual) and leads them to new life. Labels that create any sort of ‘in’ and ‘out’ group are ultimately a form of death at work because they are imposed and they cause separation and restriction. The only label Jesus offered was the one in which we are all given from the very beginning – you are a beloved child of God – ‘know the truth and the truth will set you free’ Jesus said elsewhere. This a gift of grace, of freedom, of life. The universal message here is that as we impose labels on one another we impose a sort of death. We impose this on the other and we impose it on ourselves. In this story though it is the one who is the outsider who shows us the truth and exposes the false categories at play. The outsider shows us here that Jesus’ invitation to life is indeed available to not only the ‘in’ group, but perhaps it is especially available to those who we would consider the ‘out’ group. No doubt Luke included this aspect of the story on purpose to remind the Jewish audience once again that the life of God is available to all. It is always a good reminder to us ‘in’ the church too.

The particular message in this story though is where it gets interesting. Given the physical and social situation of this group of sick people, that they were intentionally excluded from the rest of society, it would have taken a lot of courage to head off to the priests. Up until this point they were excluded from doing so because of their illness, but there is something more than courage at play in the one who returned to give his thanks and praise to God. I’d like to suggest that while all ten were healed only one was transformed. We don’t often quote from the King James Version of the Bible but in this case it does quite well. At the end of the story Jesus says to the man, “Arise, go thy way: thy faith hath made thee whole.” Your faith has made you whole. Other translations say ‘has made you well’ or ‘has saved you’ or ‘has healed you’, all these are interchangeable as far as I see it but to be made ‘whole’ indicates quite strongly far more than simply a physical healing. To be made whole is to be transformed, it is to be changed not only in the physical sense but also on a deeper level. It indicates a turning of the mind, a shift in your soul, a change at the core of your being, a healing of your deepest wounds. One of the best ways to talk about faith is to call it trust. Yes, this man had the courage to get up and head off to the priests, but the story indicates that he didn’t make it that far, he turned back to Jesus before he got to them. His trust in the word of Jesus opened up a joyous response of thanksgiving to God that showed that he didn’t need to go to the priests for confirmation of his healing and therefore his restored place in the world. In other words, he no longer needed to rely on the systems and the categories of who was in or who was out, for he had faith, he trusted – and his actions showed – that he had stepped into a new form of life found in the freedom of how God orders the world. Yes he was healed physically, but he was also healed on so many other levels as well. As Karl Barth said, “What else can we say to what God gives.” His response of thanks and praise is the only response to deeply knowing that the only label God gives everyone, is ‘beloved child of God.’

The author C.S. Lewis in his Reflections on the Psalms, says this, “I noticed how the humblest and at the same time most balanced minds praised most: while the cranks, misfits, and malcontents praised least. Praise seems to be inner health made audible.”[4] Praise seems to be inner health made audible. This one man who returned to Jesus to offer thanks and praise teaches us that to have faith, that is to trust, that what God offers is complete freedom and wholeness, is the way to truly enter the journey from death to life that Jesus invites us all into. To be grateful, to offer our thanks and praise in response is to enter the celebration of fully accepting that the only label you have is ‘beloved child of God.’ Gratitude is a choice of course, one that we will need to choose actively. But to choose it is to let the joy of God’s love be at work in you, to transform you into greater life. Gratitude is our expression of trust in God’s love that makes the journey possible. Without Gratitude we may be offered healing but will we be made whole? Gratitude is the key to moving beyond what was – living in the imposed forms of death we put on ourselves and others – and stepping into what is – freedom and joy found in trusting in the words of Jesus that are the way, the truth, and the life.

Praise, inner health made audible… but as we go about our journey of life, the journey of faith, we are still left with the statistics and the grumpy driving faces. I do really believe that gratitude is a choice we have to make. To trust in what God offers as if it is true is a choice. I believe we find ourselves stuck in the middle of knowing it to be true but still struggling to know it to be true. This one grateful man who turned back to Jesus and offered his praise to God shows us how to truly know it to be true for us. Inner health made audible. Like a sacrament – an invisible grace made visible – this is what our thanks and praise is, bringing to light, making it known, reminding ourselves of the way things truly are so that we can continue on our way stepping into life lived to the full. The life that God intends for us. The life Jesus invites us to.

[1] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III/3, p564.

[2] https://cac.org/podcasts/the-grateful-leper-was-probably-grateful-before-his-healing/

[3] See the book of Ephesians Chapter 4.

[4] C.S.Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms, p78-81.