When a leper under the Mosaic covenant is healed of his leprosy, he is to go and show himself to the priest, who is to examine him and certify that he is indeed free of leprosy, so that he can perform the required rituals and sacrifices at the time of his cleansing (Lev. 14).
Today, ten lepers lift up their voices and shout to Jesus from a distance, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” (Luke 17:13). We can identify with the lepers at this point, I think. Wounded and broken, we cry out to the Lord from a distance, repeating these same words again and again in our Liturgy: ἐλέησον ἡμᾶς – have mercy on us. Well, Jesus does not respond by simply healing them – even though that’s what he has done in the past.
This isn’t the first time that Jesus heals a leper. Once, when a leper begged of him, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean,” Jesus simply stretched out his hand, touched him, and said, “I will; be clean,” and immediately the leprosy left him (Luke 5:12-14).
This time, however, he tells them to go and show themselves to the priests. Remember, that’s what you’re supposed to do after you’ve been healed of leprosy. By rights or at least expectations, Jesus ought to have healed them and then sent them to show themselves to the priests. But that’s not what he does. He just tells them to go to the priests, without even so much as mentioning – except by implication – that they’re going to be healed at all. As St Cyril of Alexandria says, “He commanded them to go as being already healed” – though they were not already healed.
Remarkably, all ten lepers – to a man – step out in faith and obey Jesus’s instruction. And as they go, they are cleansed (Luke 17:14). They believe first and obey Jesus’s command and then, while doing so, they are healed. “Blessed are they who have not seen and yet believe” (John 20:29). They acted as if they had been healed – they were doing what healed people do – in obedience to Jesus Christ, and in doing so, they were in fact healed.
All ten of these lepers had faith – remarkable faith – and it is their faith that made them well (cf. Luke 17:19). More than seven times in the gospels, Jesus says to those whom he has healed, ““Your faith has saved you.” Or “made you well.” Or “made you whole.” Faith is key to our healing. But, what happens next shows us that faith alone is not enough to please the Lord.
One and only one of the lepers who were healed by Jesus returns to him, falls on his face, and gives him thanks (17:16). Jesus, exasperated at seeing only one tenth of the gratitude that he should see, says, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the other nine?” (17:17). Now, if only one tenth of the Church offers thanksgiving to the Lord, we will exasperate him again. It’s clear that each of us should be like the tenth leper, and not like the other nine who offer no expression of gratitude.
Our Holy Father Athanasius says, “You recall that [Jesus] loved the one who was thankful, but he was angry with the ungrateful ones because they did not acknowledge their deliverer. They thought more highly of their cure from leprosy than of him who had healed them” (Festal Letter, 6).
These are like those who offer prayers to God only when they need or want something – who regard God as a sort of divine problem solver whose primary role is to make us happy. These are like those unconcerned with pleasing the Lord and concerned only with being pleased by the Lord. And they outnumber the grateful ten to one.
Maybe they have faith – certainly they do – but faith alone is not enough. It is also necessary to give thanks. How often we forget to give thanks.
As a sign of how rare it is, note that at no other time, in any of the healings recorded in any of the gospels does the healed person offer thanksgiving to Jesus. Others at other times give glory to God, but only this cleansed Samaritan leper glorifies God and then offers thanks.
Scripturally speaking, this thanksgiving is a potent thing. In all but a couple of instances in the New Testament, thanks is addressed to God – and not to humans. So when this healed leper glorifies God and thanks Jesus, I think he is acknowledging that this man who cured him is also the very God who created him.
But he was the only one of the ten to do so. Ingratitude is a common bad attitude – from that day to this. How often the saints among us go unthanked for their many good deeds. Nine out of ten times, you might say. Thanksgiving is what makes this particular healing story so worthy of our proclamation, our meditation, and our imitation.
Because when Jesus sees our faith, he not only heals us but also saves us and forgives us of our sins (Mark 2:5), which are the cause of all the suffering and death in the world. But take note: this time, Jesus says, “Your faith has saved you” to only one of the ten he has healed. Among the ten, only this one received in full the mercy for which they all cried out because this one alone thanked him.
The kind of faithfulness that saves us is no mere intellectual assent to a proposition, no mere belief or true opinion that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior, as important as that is. All ten believed the Lord could heal them. But only one returned to thank him. And only that one was accounted faithful.
So, we must remember to be grateful. It can be hard in the midst of our sufferings to be grateful for the many blessing the Lord bestows on us each day and is bestowing on us even now and in eternity.
But, He is giving us life and giving it to us abundantly, even when it doesn’t feel like it (John 10:10). Let us thank him.
He blesses us with loved ones, our families, our neighbors, and our friends. Let us remember to thank him.
He gives us himself in the holy mysteries of our Church. Let us not forget to thank him.
Having offered him many prayers of thanksgiving every day of our lives, let us then also often come together to offer him the most perfect thanksgiving we can muster – the holy eucharist. The word for thanksgiving is εὐχαριστω – that is, eucharist. Eucharist means thanksgiving. Because the Son of God “took bread, gave thanks, broke it, and gave it to his holy disciples and apostles.”
Thanksgiving not only expresses a feeling of gratitude, but also places us in proper relationship to God, in whom we live and move and have our being. And the supreme way of offering thanks is the Eucharist, in which we will again today partake for the remission of our sins and for life everlasting.