By Brother Julian McDonald cfc
One of the lepers, realising that he had been healed, returned, glorifying God in a loud voice; and he fell at the feet of Jesus and thanked him. He was a Samaritan. Jesus said in reply: “Ten were cleansed, were they not? Where are the other nine?” Luke 17, 11-19
There is much food for thought in today’s readings, especially in their invitation to consider the place of gratitude in our lives. Despite our being schooled during our childhood and youth in the courtesy and human decency of saying “thank you”, many of the adults I encounter seem to experience a degree of discomfort when others affirm them or extend to them a kindness. The inability of ordinary people to express gratitude for favours and compliments seems to me to be on the increase. Doctors report that some patients seem more inclined to threaten legal action than to express appreciation for the small and large victories that medicine and surgery can provide. And counsellors and psychologists, who work with clients to resolve painful relational and personal issues, indicate that their clients often disappear in haste and don’t want to come near them again. Moreover, have you noticed how many people want to brush off expressions of appreciation as though the sentiments expressed carry an expectation that the favour has to be returned?
Today’s gospel story confronts us openly with the issue of gratitude, as Jesus asks: “Why is this foreigner the only one who came back to give thanks to God?” Do we take it for granted that Jesus’ cures were just a display of divine power and came at no personal cost to him? Does it ever occur to us that they were a result of his intense prayer and his enduring faith in God? There is an edge of personal hurt to his question as he wonders, as many of us sometimes do, just how people skip over the courtesy of expressing gratitude.
Expressing gratitude inevitably draws us into some form of contact with the person who has done us a favour or given us a gift. It involves us in the intimacy of relating. And intimacy frightens many people. I wonder if that’s because of our low self-image, of our inability to accept that there are some people who really like us and who want to express their admiration and affection for us by going us a favour or giving us a gift. Could it be that we slip into thinking thoughts like: “If she really knew what I was like, she wouldn’t be doing this for me.” or “That watch must have cost him a fortune. I just can’t understand why he would want to give it to me”? We focus on the value of the gift or the magnitude of the favour as a way of escaping from the expression of intimacy that motivated it. I suspect we sometimes operate that way when we are the focus of God’s graciousness. We used to refer to it as grace, and, instead of seeing it as an expression of God’s love, we turned it into a thing, as though it were stuff we collected and built up like a heavenly bank account. We invented ways of saying how we got it, how we lost it, when we lost it, and when we were in it. The result was that we were able to keep God at a distance. If we were alive to God’s graciousness, we would be drawn into relating to the God who loves us endlessly and unconditionally, and that could be uncomfortable, especially if we regard ourselves as unworthy of God’s interest and attention.
And while we’re taking time to reflect on gratitude and how it draws us into closeness with others, we might even dare to look at why we ourselves give gifts and extend favours. Could it be that we do it to make others dependent on us or to make them feel as though they now owe us something? Do we use gifts and favours as bribes or as ways of controlling those to whom we give them? Do we use gifts to make sure others have a good impression of us or even to ensure that God will give us credit for reaching out to the poor and needy people we encounter? If our thinking goes in that direction, we can end up concluding that God, too, is gracious and kind in order to make us dependent. That would be trying to limit God to our petty categories. Still, there’s a sentence in today’s second reading from the Letter to Timothy that can leave us with a false impression. It reads: “If we deny God, God will also deny us.” It could leave us thinking that God is intent on getting even with us if we don’t respond appreciatively to God’s love and kindness. It hardly leaves us believing that God is a gracious giver of gifts. But Paul immediately corrects the possibility of giving us the wrong impression by stating: “If we are not faithful, God remains faithful, because God cannot be false to himself.” In other words, even if we do not appreciate God’s kindness and goodness to us, that will never change God’s generous and loving nature.
One last thought. Even if there are times when we are needy, there’s no shame in that. Nor is there an obligation to be embarrassed if some generous person sees our need and helps us out. We might even end up seeing that there really are people who actually like us.
And that’s a good segue into today’s first reading and its story of Naaman, a big-time Syrian General who found himself stricken with leprosy. An insignificant Hebrew girl told him about Elisha, a prophet in Palestine who could cure him. So he put a parcel of gifts together and turned up at Elisha’s door, expecting Elisha to come out and cure him. But when the prophet sent a messenger with directions for him to go and dip himself seven times into the Jordan, Naaman couldn’t believe his ears. “If he thinks I’m going to wash in that mudhole, he’s got to be joking. Besides, you would think he could have come and met me in person, instead of sending a messenger. Doesn’t he know who I am? So, I’m going back home, to where we have some real rivers that are worth bathing in!”
But Naaman’s lieutenant prevailed on him to get down from his high horse (metaphorically and literally): “If you’ve come all this way, why not do what the prophet has directed?” So Naaman ate humble pie, dipped himself seven times into the muddy Jordan and was cured. As a result, his heart, too, was changed, and he adopted the God of the Hebrews.
This, of course, is a story that invites us to set aside our self-importance and our need to be in control and to be open to letting God come into our lives in ways we just don’t expect. Naaman had to do something that was totally foreign to him. He had to set aside the status he had adopted and do something that humiliated him. He could command an army, but he had no control over the leprosy that had taken hold of him. Helpless as far as his own health was concerned, he had to do what everyone who participates in an AA meeting does – acknowledge that there was a power greater than himself, surrender to the power of God transmitted through the message of a prophet he had come to know by reputation. We all have some spot, weakness or vulnerability in need of healing. In God’s eyes we are all equal. Status, role and qualifications count for nothing. We are invited to approach God from a position of powerlessness and simply pray with the lepers: “Jesus, Master have pity!”