Several weeks ago, just before Thanksgiving, I had a conversation with a man that stopped by the Cathedral seeking assistance. He had just gotten out of prison after having been incarcerated for six years. He was living at the Rescue Mission and told me that starting over was difficult. Moreover, he also was recently divorced and had lost custody of his children except that he was permitted to see them on weekends. To top it off, he attempted suicide.
We spoke for quite a while. It was cold in the Cathedral, so I suggested we go someplace warm. I asked if he had eaten anything and he said no, that he missed the lunch meal at Hope House. So, I took him to Subway and bought him lunch. After about an hour or so, we got up to leave. As we stood outside the store, ready to part ways, I embraced him, gave him a blessing, and wished him a “Happy Thanksgiving.” I asked him what he was doing for Thanksgiving, as I was planning to invite him to spend Thanksgiving with me and my family, but before I could extend the invitation, he abruptly said, “Father, what do I have to be thankful for?” His response felt like a dagger being plunged into my chest.
Certainly, the man’s world changed from what it was a year earlier. For one thing, he was out of prison and for that alone, he should have been thankful. Yes, it is true that he did suffer losses, and trying to get back on his feet was not easy. Sadly, and I know this from personal experience, when you have been in prison, people avoid you like the plague. I not only sympathized with him, I empathized with him, for I experienced the same feelings and treatment when I got out of prison. And I still do to this day. So, I understood completely how the young man felt.
As is often the case with individuals who have experienced tragedy and hardship, they tend to compare their situations to where they were in the past. It is for this that the holidays become difficult for them and we coin the term “holiday blues” to describe such afflictions. Many people experience depression during the holiday season, and it is during this time, especially around Christmas, that incidences of suicide spike.
Our brother chose to remember what the year was like and perhaps concluded that rather than progressing, he was going down. His attitude was that there was no hope for a better life; that he would be better off back in prison or even dead. Rather than thank God for the positives in his life, like getting out of prison and having a second chance, he was seeing the losses and so concluded that he had no reason to be thankful.
This morning’s Gospel reading is about gratitude and being thankful. We find Jesus in an unnamed village on His way to Jerusalem. St. Luke gives the location of the village as situated between the regions of Samaria and Galilee. At the entrance to the village, ten men with leprosy shouted from a distance: “Jesus, Master have mercy on us!”
Jesus was, at this time, a popular figure and the lepers must have heard about His miraculous healings. They were not asking for money, for they knew that anyone on the way to Jerusalem could not have contact with them otherwise they would be considered unclean and would not be permitted to enter the temple in Jerusalem.
The lepers were seeking healing from our Lord; they asked Jesus to have mercy on them. Jesus responds by telling them to go and show themselves to the priests. Only a priest could certify that the lepers no longer had the disease and such certification brought enormous benefit because it meant that one could re-enter society and have dealings with others. It meant one could buy or sell, own property and have relationships. Their very humanity would be restored if they became clean, and this was what they were asking from Jesus, to be cleansed and healed.
Now let me remind you about the disease that St. Luke referred to as leprosy. It was not leprosy as we know it today. Leviticus 13 provides symptoms and instructions on what to do. Seven different kinds of infections were often called leprosy, and it had enormous economic, social and psychological implications. Once there was a skin infection, the individual was to show himself or herself to the priest and if the priest was not sure, isolation was required for seven days. If there was no change, the priest could pronounce the individual unclean. Therefore, a bald spot on the head, boils, scabs, or any infection that exposes raw flesh or anything that spreads and turns the skin and hair white were considered leprosy and the priests were given the power to pronounce anyone with such infection, generally called leprosy, as unclean.
Once an individual had been pronounced unclean, they were to live outside the city (Leviticus 13; 14; Numbers 12:10-15). They could not touch anybody and were required to leave family and friends and live an isolated life often with other lepers. Whenever such individuals left their place of isolation, the law required that they scream to passers-by that they are unclean so that no one accidentally came into contact with them.
These were the ten people Jesus met on that road to Jerusalem. They were considered punished by God for something they did and therefore were dismissed from society. They were not regarded as human beings but were considered less than human; they were treated as outcasts and filthy animals. They lived without hope and believed that God punished them. They were sinners, and no one took pity on them.
Yet, there was one person that afternoon who saw them and heard them. They were required to shout “Unclean! Unclean!” to avoid contact with others, but they also shouted something else: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” No big ceremony was performed. Our Lord simply said, ”Go, and show yourselves to the priests.”
The focus of this morning’s Gospel is not on the healing of the lepers but on their gratitude, or lack thereof. St Luke reported that they obeyed and turned around to go and show themselves to the priests, but they noticed something: they were healed. Upon realizing what happened, one of the healed men turned around and ran straight back to Jesus.
St. Luke reported that the man fell at the feet of Christ, thanking the Lord. Luke also added something important in Verse 16. He identifies the man as a Samaritan. He was a member of a group not regarded as being legitimate. Samaritans were hated and discriminated against and were not even allowed into the temple to worship. Jesus noticed that only the Samaritan returned to say, “Thank You”. The rest were too excited to remember to thank God. They could not wait to do the things they had missed for so long. They had their lives to pick up where they left, but the attitude of the Samaritan was different. He knew the enormous gift that comes only from the Lord. He had a different attitude and that was gratitude, and for that, he received more blessings from the Lord. “Rise and go your way, your faith has made you well,” Jesus told him.
How should we develop the attitude of gratitude that the Samaritan had? First, remember where you have been and where you are going. The German statesman, Richard Von Weizsaecker, once wrote that those who work hard to forget their past are the ones who are likely to stay in exile the longest, for it is remembrance that is the secret of redemption.
As we inch towards the end of another year, be reminded that what you remember is a choice and that such remembrances affect your attitude. Whether you are sad, angry or thankful depends on your attitude. You may say that the year has not been filled with good things if you overlook the little blessings that have come your way all year long. You may not see what you have to be thankful for if you do not remember the smile of the stranger on the street or the cry of the baby that reminded you of life and youth.
You may wonder what you have to be thankful for if you choose to remember the difficult days and not the pleasant ones. Gratitude is an attitude and the blessings of God are all around us if we choose to remember them. When we count our blessings and when we choose to remember them, then we can truly see God’s grace in action.
Second, believe that all is well and that all can be well. No condition is permanent. God is always faithful and keeps His promises. The nature of God as the God of Mercy does not provide us with what is bad. Jesus asked “"Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone?” (Matthew 7:9). In the same way, we who follow Christ must know that God will answer us in His time. It might not be our time but in His time.
St Thomas Aquinas reminds us that whatever is received is according to the nature of the receiver. Lack of a spirit of gratitude is the reason we fail to act with thankfulness for the things that we have. We dwell on our needs, and wants, and desires and fail to be thankful for what we already have. As a result, it is easy to forget those things that we already have.
It is true that there are people who have bigger houses and better cars than you do. Some may make more money and have better health. You may feel you have nothing to be thankful for, but the spirit of gratitude lies not in what we can see, but in what our attitude is towards what we already have. Gratitude and thankfulness come from our belief that all is well, and all can be well. Gratitude and thankfulness are reflections of how we see the world and how we approach the world.
What you remember is a choice. Choose the things that bring thankfulness, not those that elicit anger, regret, and sadness. If all you do is look at the things you do not have, it is very difficult to remember all the good things you do have. If what you do is feel sorry for yourself for missing out on life’s pleasures, it is difficult indeed to see those strengths that you do have. Yes, there are wars in our world, there is hunger and there is pain. There is poverty and there is death. Yet, we become thankful not because of, but in spite of, all these things.
A songwriter once wrote: Count your blessings and name them one by one and it will surprise you what the Lord has done. That young man who came to the Cathedral seeking help did not count his blessings. He was alive; someone had found him after he overdosed and called the paramedics who rushed him to the hospital. He was slowly getting back. He had a place to live. He was alive, and hope had begun for him. But that was not what he saw. What he saw instead was what he lost.
The young man’s attitude shows us that what we remember in this life is a choice. The leper before Christ that afternoon on that lonely road to Jerusalem did not cry over the years and the things and relationships he lost. He saw God’s blessings and therefore became thankful.
This Christmas, instead of remembering what you do not have, look at what you do have and thank those who have made it possible for you to be who you are. Someone once wrote that he was crying for a shoe until he found someone without a leg. The Prophet Habakkuk heard about the terror and violence that the Chaldean army was inflicting on the nations they conquered, yet he was not afraid and uttered one of the most beautiful verses in the Old Testament: “Though the fig tree should not blossom, and there be no fig on the vine, though the yield of olives should fail….though there be no cattle in the stall, yet I will praise the Lord, I will rejoice in the God of my salvation” (Habakkuk 3:17-18).
The above lines were written by someone who had reasons to be afraid. The prophet had heard enough stories of hardship and difficulties to be fearful, but he reflected on the benevolence of God. The lines above came powerfully to him because of what God had done in the past. What are you waiting for before you say “Thank you, Lord”?
The third thing we need to do to develop an attitude of gratitude is to have hope knowing that the Grace that has led us this far will continue to lead us. A lack of hope can cause a lot of havoc and prevent us from bouncing back after a setback. Without hope, it is hard to develop an attitude of gratitude. If you see the world through the lens of doom, developing a sense of gratitude can be difficult, for who is thankful for doom. The man who returned to say, “Thank You, Lord” had hopes for the future.
Fourth, and finally, do not take things for granted. Have a reflective spirit. The other nine lepers had heard that Jesus healed the sick and raised the dead, and so they never thought of their own healing as anything out of the ordinary for Christ. The Samaritan had a different view. He remembers the life of isolation and living as the dead while still alive. He saw what Christ did and thought about the possibilities for the future and so through this reflection he returned to say, “Thank You”.
We develop an attitude of gratitude not because our lives are perfect but because we know whom we are following. We develop an attitude of gratitude not because of but in spite of all we have been through.
I would like to end my homily this morning with a story. Many of you will remember the hymn “Now Thank We all our God." It was written by the Rev. Martin Rinkhart, a Lutheran minister who endured years of isolation and pain in a city called Eilenburg, in Saxony, during what is called the Thirty Years War. In that walled city and with the Swedish army surrounding it, there was no escape. Famine and disease killed a lot of people. At a certain point, the pastors in the city were burying as many as fifty bodies each day. Then some of the pastors themselves succumbed to illness and death. When the war was over, only the Rev. Rinkhart had survived. His fellow pastors had all died.
For the service of Thanksgiving to celebrate the end of that war, Rev. Rinkhart wrote the hymn “Now Thank We all our God." He had lost and buried so many friends and colleagues, but he developed an attitude of gratitude to God for all what God has done, not because all was well, but in spite of what he had endured and seen. The lyrics of the hymn are:
Now thank we all our God, with heart and hands and voices,
Who wondrous things has done, in Whom this world rejoices;
Who from our mothers’ arms has blessed us on our way
With countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.
O may this gracious God through all our life be near us,
With ever joyful hearts and blessèd peace to cheer us;
And keep us in His grace, and guide us when perplexed;
And free us from all sin, till Heaven we possess.
All praise and thanks to God the Father now be given;
The Son and Him Who reigns with Them in highest Heaven;
The one eternal God, whom earth and Heaven adore;
For thus it was, is now, and shall be evermore.
From our mother’s arms, God has blessed us with countless gifts of love. He remains still “God with us,” always faithful and true. May you pause today and every day to thank God for all the blessings He has bestowed on you. May you thank those who have been a great influence in your life. And may you remember always that what we remember is a choice, and that gratitude is an attitude.