28th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year C
He threw himself at the feet of Jesus and thanked him (Lk 17:11-19)
A few years back, while back in India for holidays, I was once traveling by train. It was past the lunch time and I was anxiously waiting to get something to eat. When the train did stop I managed to get something to eat. As the train pulled out of the station I started having my late lunch right at the gang-way between the doors of the compartment, not far from the toilet. As I was hurriedly finishing my lunch I looked up and noticed a man seated on the floor at the corner of the gang-way. My embarrassing eyes met his. He smiled at me and stretched out his hands in a posture of request. I noticed that his fingers were deformed probably due to leprosy. Very embarrassed, and yet wanting to be charitable, I reluctantly offered him the last bit of rice remaining in the packet. He refused to take it. He said he didn’t want the food, but he wanted the cross that I had pinned up to my shirt. As I washed my hands in the nearby tap, we began to speak. He said he was a Hindu, but had been once taken care of by some Catholic nuns, and now that he was better he worked on a farm not far from his home. He wanted the cross because he wanted to gratefully remember those Christian nuns. I couldn’t refuse his request. Often when I read the gospel text of today from Luke, I think of that man on the train, because he had been healed of leprosy, he was grateful, and he was a Hindu – an ‘outsider’ to me!
During the Ordinary Time of the year, for Sunday liturgy we normally listen to a particular Gospel. This year we are listening to the Gospel of Luke. The first reading is selected from the Old Testament in such a way as to correspond to the gospel text, while the 2nd reading from the Epistles follows its own sequence. Today, the first reading and the gospel text have extraordinary similarities. Both are stories about lepers being healed; in both stories there are expressions of gratitude; and both are about outsiders!
Let us begin by looking at some of the interesting details in the gospel text of today so as to appreciate the context of the story, and then we can reflect a little deeper on the theme of gratitude.
Faith of intercession and faith of gratitude
Jesus is on his final journey towards Jerusalem, a journey that began in the ninth chapter of the Gospel of Luke. In his journey from Galilee towards the south he has to pass through the Samaritan territory. The story unfolds as Jesus is at the border between Samaria and Galilee. It is at the borders that lepers were forced to live (Lev 13:45-46; Num 5:2). And people who live at the periphery tend to forget their ethnic backgrounds. Jesus is about to enter a village, when this group of lepers – Jews and Samaritans – take courage to meet him. May be it was not Hansen’s disease, as we know it today, that they were suffering from. Any skin disease would have made them outcasts. So they keep their ritual distance from Jesus, even if they have already broken a taboo in speaking to a Rabbi. Jesus could also become unclean (Lev 15:4-17) by his contact with them. In another gospel text, Jesus in fact touches a man with leprosy (Mk 1:40-42). In this story the lepers seem to be quite familiar with the stories of Jesus. They call him by name. It is not clear if they were just asking for alms, or they were really requesting a cure. They just pray: ‘Take pity on us.” (A lesson for us not to tell God what we need. We might end up asking for a penny when God wants to give us a pound.) Jesus does not want to give them a mere penny. He wants to reinstate them in the society (Lev 14:2-3): “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” The lepers have ‘faith’ in the power of Jesus. So they obey Him. And they are cleansed. The book of Leviticus describes how the rehabilitation of the cleansed leper takes place in two phases: first (Lev 14:3-9) the leper is examined and certified by a priest. This makes it possible for the leper to interact with people. In the second phase (Lev 14:10-32), the cured leper is expected to re-establish his relationship with God by offering a sacrifice. This sacrifice is very significant because a sickness like leprosy was falsely considered a curse from God due to the sins of individuals or their forefathers (Ex 20:5; Is 53:4).
In the present story, while the nine men really obey Jesus to the letter and continue their journey to regain their social status, just one man thinks it better to re-establish his relationship with God first. He wants to have a personal encounter with Jesus. This would not have been natural for a leper, if he had been constantly reminded by his society that he was cursed by God. Yet this man does so. Perhaps because he was a Samaritan, he thinks outside the box. He does two things that facilitate his salvation. He is grateful to God: he “turned back praising God at the top of his voice” (Lk 17:15). Secondly, he worships Jesus in an act of self-surrender: he “threw himself at the feet of Jesus and thanked him” (Lk 17:16).
In this personal encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan leper there are two things that surprise me: (1) the faith of being grateful seems to be different from, and even deeper than, the faith that requests help; (2) miraculous healing seems to be different from salvation. The nine lepers had faith to seek help from Jesus, but the Samaritan leper had a deeper faith in expressing thanks. The nine lepers were healed; the Samaritan leper was healed and saved. These two aspects could be challenging to many of us. We might have faith that only seeks help from God; and others among us might think that ‘we are saved’ because God has acted in a miraculous way in our life. Jesus challenges us to go beyond.
Let us briefly look at the two types of faith: the faith that seeks help, and the faith that expresses gratitude. The faith that seeks help is problem-focused. It could be an expression of being self-absorbed. It could even create negative energy in us – making us feel depressed. We might continue to ask for the wrong things, and we are not given. On the other hand, the grateful-faith is solution-focused. It is positive. It is an expression of going beyond our selves – transcendence. That is why, St Paul tells us, “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1The 5:18; see alsoCol3:17).
A closer look at gratitude
What is gratitude? It is an awareness of, and appreciation for, the good things in our life and not taking them for granted. It is a spiritual attitude insofar as we accept whatever God offers. It is also strength of character that we can develop by acknowledging the role of other people in making our life possible and enjoyable.
The findings of contemporary psychology confirm the positive effects of gratitude on general wellbeing and happiness. I suggest three ways in which we can develop the character strength of gratitude.
1. Write gratitude letters. Are there people who have played an important role in your life, and you have not expressed your gratitude to them explicitly? Why not write a letter of gratitude to them? A letter would be more meaningful than an email or a text. Research by psychologists has found that people who wrote a gratitude letter to someone they had never properly thanked were happier and less depressed one month later compared to those who had simply written about an early memory. You might want to consider writing a letter of gratitude to God too!
2. Keep a gratitude journal. At the end of each day, or even once a week, think of writing three things that went well for you that day or week. Sometimes you could just write a prayer thanking God for that day or week. Mention some details. Again in a psychological experimental comparison, those who kept gratitude journals on a weekly basis enjoyed better physical health, felt better about their lives as a whole, and were more optimistic about the upcoming week compared to those who recorded hassles or neutral life events.
3. Say ‘thank you’ on a regular basis during the day. Say ‘thank you’ to people around you. Say ‘thank you’ to God. More than the vocal expression of gratitude, the attitude is important. Again, children who practice grateful thinking showed more positive attitudes toward school and their families.
So, when your mind wants to focus on the dark side of things, look for a crack through which you can see the light. Perhaps that little ray through the crack could become for you the light of salvation.
Fr Franco Pereira, S.D.B.