Jesus can be one weird guy. I mean that sometimes He can be one weird guy to us, to people that have some preconceived expectations of what He is supposed to be like. Ten lepers interrupt Jesus on the road, standing respectfully at a distance, and beg His mercy. What’s our expectation? What would we expect Jesus to do, knowing that He is the One who touches the untouchable, the One who whispers into the ears of the deaf, the One whose saliva, real and visceral, opens the eyes of the blind? We would expect some comforting words, maybe a meal shared, perhaps a healing touch. Instead we get a command and then indignation.
The command was to go do what they were supposed to do, for the lepers to show themselves to the priest and prove they weren’t lepers anymore. It seems that the healing they were to receive was dependent on the fulfillment of the command. The ten of them went immediately – perhaps they had faith in Jesus, perhaps they remembered the story of Namaan, which would have been familiar to both Jews and Samaritans. Now Namaan was an honorable man, the captain of the soldiers of Syria, but he was also a leper. Namaan sought help for his leprosy, and eventually wound up going to the great prophet Elisha, who sent him a message telling him to go wash in the river Jordan seven times, and he would be cleansed of his leprosy. After some initial hesitation, Namaan did as he was told and emerged from the Jordan clean, with new skin, and he went back to Elisha and gave thanks. “Behold, I know that there is no God in all the earth but in Israel,” Elisha didn’t think there was any better way to say thanks.
And so our ten lepers have a similar command, and so they go, and along the way they too were made clean. And there we find the rub. Ten lepers cleansed, one bothers to say thanks. “Were not ten made clean?” Jesus asked, “But the other nine, where are they?” You can feel the frustration in His voice, frustration over the lack of gratitude. I talk about gratitude a lot, I know, but so much else in our lives hinges on being thankful, on expressing that thankfulness. “Unexpressed thanks is an insidious way to hurt someone. A sin of omission if ever there were one, a lack of thanks-giving is a passive form of verbal abuse. We all know how we can wound people through what we actively spew out of our mouths. But silence can have a heft all its own–failing to thank people is an emptiness with substance, a gratitude vacuum that suffocates…life is out of joint when we fail to give thanks. The insensate way by which some people receive and receive and receive yet without ever saying “Thank you” is a baffling phenomenon–baffling, it seems, even to God.”1
And yet it’s so easy to be ungrateful; it’s just as easy to be grateful and not bother to express that gratitude. We are so easily undone by our insecurities, insecurities that can come off as pettiness or rudeness. I’m as guilty as anyone; I can’t count the thank you cards I haven’t sent, the phone calls I haven’t made. I can’t count how many times I must have come off as presumptuous or rude, too caught up in my own struggles to simply turn and say thank you. So it’s easy to be ungrateful or to seem ungrateful, yet it’s gratefulness that leads to salvation.
Ten lepers were healed and yet only one came back. St. Luke tells us that he made his way back to Jesus “praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving Him thanks. Then said Jesus, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” And he said to him, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.”
Well, that’s almost what Jesus said, that’s what the RSV says that He said. What Jesus said was “your faith has saved you.” All ten were healed, yes, but the one who came back to say thanks was somehow healed in a greater sense, he was saved; like Namaan, that Samaritan recognized that there was more to be thankful for than just being healed. He recognized God in front of him; he knew right then that his life would never be the same, and so he fell to his knees and gave thanks. God changes our lives all the time, in ways great and small; He shows up when we call upon Him and even when we don’t, and sometimes He says and does the strangest things. And even so, every time we recognize God in front of us and fall on our knees in front of Him, He always says “Rise, your faith has saved you.”