Thanksgiving Sunday (CANADA)
TEXTS: Deuteronomy 8:7-18 and Luke 17:11-19
One of the things for which I am most grateful today is the wonderful, wired world we live in. My understanding of social media and all that stuff is, I admit, pretty limited. But I thank God for the internet and all its gifts. I do! I’m especially glad for e-mail, because sometimes people use it to send me stuff that’s really useful—and sometimes even profound. Like this story:
It’s a story about a man who was two days away from celebrating an important anniversary—a very important one for an A.A. member. In two days’ time, he would celebrate 20 years of sobriety. But just two days’ previously, his wife had left him for another man. She left him right after hearing him announce that he had lost his job.
So this poor man was completely depressed. He’d lost much more than a wife and a job, terrible though those losses were. He had lost faith—faith in himself, faith in God, and faith in other people. And so it was that he awakened on a cold, wet, dreary morning, wondering why he bothered with life—wondering, really … why he should go on living.
He decided that he needed a drink.
However, neither the bars nor the liquor stores were open this early in the day. So he went to have breakfast in a small neighbourhood restaurant. Now, when he arrived at the diner, he could see that there were already quite a few other people there. But—for whatever reason—nobody was speaking to anybody else. It was quiet as a tomb. So this man—this man who had lost faith in himself, in God, and in other people—he just sank deeper into his own misery as he hunched over the counter, stirring his coffee with a spoon.
Now, in one of the small booths along the window, there was a young mother with a little girl. They had just been served their food when the little girl broke the melancholy silence with words that were heard by everyone in the place. She said, “Mommy, aren’t we going to pray before we eat? How come we don’t pray here?”
The waitress who had just served their breakfast turned around and said, “Sure, honey, we can pray here. Will you say the prayer for us?”
Then she turned and looked at the rest of the people in the restaurant and told them: “Bow your heads!”
And surprisingly, they did! One by one, the heads went down. The little girl then bowed her head, folded her hands, and said: “God is great, God is good, and we thank him for our food. Amen.”
That simple prayer completely changed the atmosphere inside the restaurant. People began to talk with one another. Soon laughter was heard. The waitress said, “We should do this every morning.”
And, all at once, this man—this man who had been so lost in his bitterness and despair—all at once, he realized that his whole state of mind had begun to improve. Following that little girl’s example, he started to thank God for all that he did have and stopped dwelling on the things that he didn’t have.
And he never did go get that drink.
Now, I have no idea whether all of that really happened, or not. Maybe it’s a kind of parable like Jesus used to tell. But, regardless of whether the story is true, it does tell the truth! It tells us that thanksgiving is about giving thanks for what we do have.
Here’s another story I found on the internet …
One afternoon a shopper at the local mall felt the need for a coffee break. She bought herself a little bag of cookies and put them in her shopping bag. She then got in line for coffee at the food court, found a place to sit at one of the crowded tables, and then—removing the lid from her cup and taking out a magazine—she began to sip her coffee and read. Across the table from her a man sat reading a newspaper.
After a minute or two she reached out and took a cookie. As she did, the man seated across the table reached out and took one, too! This put her off a bit, but she said nothing. A few moments later she took another cookie. Once again, the man took one, also. Now she was getting a bit upset! But still she said nothing. After having a couple of sips of coffee, she took a third cookie. So did the man. She was really upset by this—especially since, now, only one cookie was left!
Apparently, the man also realized that only one cookie was left. Before she could say anything, he took it, broke it in half, offered half to her … and proceeded to eat the other half himself. Then he smiled at her, and—tucking the paper under his arm—got up and walked away.
Was she steamed! Her coffee break ruined—already thinking ahead about how she would relate this offense to her family—she folded her magazine, opened her shopping bag, and there discovered her own … unopened … bag of cookies.
That story makes me think about how well God treats me even when I am not treating him very well. It also makes me think about how, sometimes, I neither appreciate what I have nor act like I understand where it came from. And it reminds me of the Old Testament passage for today.
As the children of Israel are preparing to enter the promised land, Moses tells them how blessed they are going to be—how, after so many years of slavery and wandering, they will reside in a land of plenty. He tells them:
“Do not say to yourself, ‘my power and the might of my own hand have gained me this wealth.’ But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, so that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your ancestors, as he is doing today” (Deut. 8:17-18).
That speaks to us, I think, of something that, deep in our hearts, we all know, but too often forget. It speaks of how everything we have is a gift from God: a gift worked upon by our hands, to be sure—a gift perhaps even enhanced by our own strength—but a gift nonetheless. For it is God who gives us hands to use, and God who gives us strength to labour.
No one likes to be taken for granted—or to see someone that they love taking things for granted. Because we certainly know what it feels like to be thanked for something. And we also know what it feels like not to be thanked for something! We know how much that can hurt.
In today’s gospel story about the ten cleansed lepers—and about how only one of them returned to give thanks—we see that Jesus knows exactly how we feel. The story begins with Jesus and his disciples on the move. Luke tells us they’re traveling through the region between Samaria and Galilee—and this is a significant detail! Why? Because that region was a racially mixed area, inhabited by both Jews and Samaritans.
That’s right. Jews and Samaritans: people who absolutely despised one another! Luke provides this detail to set us up for the punch line near the end of the story.
As Jesus and his disciples are about to enter a village, they encounter a group of ten men—all of them Jewish, except for one, and all of them afflicted with leprosy. Leprosy, you understand, was the most dreaded of all ancient diseases because it ate away at the body and left its victims maimed and disfigured, and with almost no hope of a cure. Lepers were cursed with a terrible existence. In an attempt to contain this awful disease and prevent it from spreading, Jewish law (Lev. 13:45-46) prescribed that lepers had to be expelled from the community. They were forced to live outside of the village, made to wear distinctive clothing, and required to shout “unclean, unclean!” so that other people were warned to avoid them. They were excluded from worship because they might infect others and because they were deemed by the priest to be ritually impure. In that place and time, disease was considered to be God’s punishment for sin.
Imagine what it was like to be a leper in Jesus’ day. Not only were you presumed to be physically contagious, but also you were seen as morally and spiritually inferior, as someone cursed by God. So, to protect the community from physical contagion—but to shield it against moral or spiritual corruption, as well—you were cut off from virtually all human contact. At the same time, you were utterly dependent on the charity of family members or neighbours for your survival.
That was the predicament of these ten men. They walked the earth. They breathed the air. They ate, when they could. They had hopes and aspirations just like you and me. Yet, in a way, they were as good as dead. Without hopes for a family life, for a useful occupation, for a better future, they were like dead men walking—living in the hell of loneliness.
Keeping their distance from Jesus, these ten lepers cry out to him saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” (Luke 17:13)
And when Jesus sees them, he tells them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.”
Remarkably, they obey him. And on their way, they are made clean (Luke 17:14).
“Go and show yourselves to the priests.” Do you understand the significance of that instruction? According to Jewish law (see Lev. 14), only a priest could declare a person to be healed of leprosy, and therefore fit to re-enter society.
On their way to see the priests, all ten were made clean. All ten were healed. But only one of them, when he saw that he was healed, came back, praising God with a loud voice. He threw himself at the feet of Jesus and thanked him. And then … here’s the punch line … “he was a Samaritan” (Luke 17:16).
Notice the thankful leper’s response. While all ten lepers had called out loudly to ask for mercy, only this one leper—the Samaritan, the outcast—only this one offers loud thanksgiving and praise to God. He throws himself at his Saviour’s feet in a gesture of complete devotion and profound gratitude—and Jesus receives his thanks graciously. Then Jesus asks, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” (Luke 17:17-18)
And there’s the surprise ending to this story. The only thankful one is the outcast, the foreigner—the non-Jew who gives glory to God and says “thank you” to a Jewish Messiah. The Samaritan puts the others to shame.
Now, none of them was any less cured—but the story implies that the other nine were certainly less grateful. Their bodies were changed, but their hearts were left untouched. Only the outsider—the foreigner—gives glory to God. Only the outsider—the Samaritan—only he is transformed by Jesus’ gift. And that’s the point. Thanksgiving blesses the one who is thanked—but it transforms the one who gives the thanks! It works the same way with us … when we remember to do it.
When we forget to do it … then, hard things get harder. When we allow the situation we are in to swallow us up and drown all thought of God’s power and goodness; when we begin to think we deserve all the good things we have because we’ve earned them; when we forget that—by God’s power—we can stand firm against any storm … Then, life becomes bleaker—and true virtue becomes much more difficult to find.
Here is the testimony of Scripture: God wants us to celebrate his love and give him thanks. But God doesn’t want this because he is greedy for praise. The Lord doesn’t need our thanks in order to feel better about himself. No. He wants it because he knows it will bless us. He wants it because it will bless the world he has created.
So, my friends, let’s learn from the Samaritan. Let’s learn from this grateful outcast. Let’s remember that the Thanksgiving holiday is about much more than simply filling our stomachs. It’s about filling our hearts and souls, as well.
Thanksgiving is about offering thanks for everything that we do have. Thanksgiving reminds us that everything we have is a gift from God. As a wise man* once wrote: “If we never say any other prayer than ‘thanks’ … we have prayed fully.”
* Eckhart von Hochheim O.P. (c. 1260 – c. 1328), commonly known as Meister Eckhart, was a German theologian and mystic.