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Practicing gratitude is practicing faith.
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11 On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, 13 they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” 14 When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. 15 Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16 He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17 Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18 Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19 Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”
Our gospel passage this week is a continuation of where we left off last week. If you weren’t with us, Benjamin Wills was here and helped us understand something so important about faith. The size of our faith is unimportant, even the tiniest faith can have the biggest impact, like uprooting a tree or moving a mountain into the sea as Jesus described. What is important, though, is who our faith is placed in. It’s not important to have huge, earth-shaking levels of faith. Instead, what God requires from us on most days is the simple, everyday, ordinary faith that comes in the little moments of life.
This week, Luke continues the story of Jesus and teaches us something else that is incredibly important about faith. We know faith is important, but many times we don’t know how to obtain it. Faith can seem like a “black box,” something that is supposed to work in our lives but we have no idea why. Today’s passage breaks inside the black box of faith and gives us a very simple way to start growing that faith in our everyday, ordinary lives.
In today’s passage, Jesus is walking in the “borderlands,” a region between the territories of Samaria and Galilee. Today, this is somewhere near the West Bank, still a disputed “borderland” territory. And as he walked in this in-between land, ten lepers approached him. Leprosy at the time was a word used to describe a number of skin diseases that were thought to be radically contagious. These ten “lepers” would have been social outcasts, forced to live outside of their communities, in this no-man’s land territory.
They cry out to Jesus and ask for mercy, and he says “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” Now this was an important part of Jewish law, if you were someone who had leprosy or a skin disease, in order to be restored back into the community the local priest had to sign off on the fact that you were truly clean. So all ten people set off, headed into town to meet the priest. And as they are walking, the healing happens. And as they begin to notice that they really are healed, one of the ten stops dead in his tracks, turns around and goes back to Jesus to thank him. He falls on his face and thanks Jesus.
In response, Jesus asks some questions, and we don’t know the tone of the questions from the context. He could have been upset, discouraged, sad, perplexed, we’re not really sure how he felt about the situation. But he 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?” He’s drawing attention to the fact that only one came back, and it was the foreigner, the outsider, the Samaritan who would’ve been thought of as spiritually unclean and distant from God. How odd that this, of all people, was the one to return and thank Jesus.
But Jesus responds to this one man with a very interesting statement, something that would have been entirely unexpected to his followers. To speak with a Samaritan would have been shocking enough, but in response to this man returning and thanking Jesus, he says “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” Your faith has made you well. Faith, again. What does it mean? He didn’t mention faith when he told the others to go show themselves to the priests. Why here, why now, and what on earth does this phrase mean?
Now, this is one reason why understanding this passage is so important. For some of us, we have heard a sentence like this used and abused in really harmful ways. If we read the statement outside of its context, what Jesus seems to be implying is that faith and healing are linked in some kind of spiritual formula. That faith is the missing ingredient whenever physical healing is needed. If you are sick, and sometimes seriously sick and nearing death, apply a regimen of faith and healing will surely be on its way. Sickness plus faith equals healing, right? It definitely looks that way from a quick reading.
But life experience tells us otherwise. Many of us have witnessed instances where people who have a deep faith in God are not healed, and some where people who don’t have deep faith in God are healed. Sometimes the painful situation we beg for God to take away remains, and sometimes it is removed. Sometimes the disease is healed, and later returns with a vengeance. Sometimes we rejoice, sometimes we mourn. If life has anything to say about it, sickness plus faith equals a giant question mark. The danger of this way of viewing supernatural healing is pretty easy to see, and yet many of us have had to deal with the painful consequences. When our core belief is that difficulty plus faith equals healing, and a loved one is not healed, or a situation is not changed, then there is only one part of the equation that can be challenged: our own faith. And so, whether explicitly or implicitly, we carry huge questions about why our faith wasn’t big enough to bring the healing that should have resulted. Why didn’t the equation work, and what’s wrong with me that caused the problem. This leads to mountains of shame and guilt, piled on top of the grief that comes when we’re faced with these tragedies. But remember what we learned last week, the size of our faith is not really what matters here. God can do incomparable things with a tiny amount of faith, so that can’t be what’s happening.
What is more dangerous, and more subtly at work in this kind of formula-based faith, is an attempt to control the difficulty and pain of life. Trying to squeeze the mystery of suffering into a simple formula is an attempt to put us in control, to give us a way of navigating the difficulty of life with some kind of a steering wheel. And this makes sense, after all we are all trying to make sense of the pain of the world around us. Living in a reality where some peopler healed and others are not leaves us with massive questions, and a degree of fear about the future. It reminds us that we are not in control of the outcome. No wonder we are grasping for anything that could help make sense of the chaos around us!
But if we fall prey to this formula thinking, if we put ourselves in the driver’s seat of the chaos of life, then we are in effect trying to play God. If my faith can demand and direct healing in every circumstance, then I can determine the outcomes of life as I choose. The sickness plus faith equals healing formula may seem logical, or like a simple attempt to make sense of the world, but really it’s just another example of a way that we all try to become God, that we all try to sieze control and shape the world in ways that we desire.
And this is where it’s important to notice how the entire story unfolds. Jesus doesn’t heal this man’s leprosy because he displays faith. In fact, the faith that this man shows to come back and thank Jesus is in response to a healing that’s already happened. Jesus healed all ten people, even the ones who didn’t have the faith to come back. The faith of this Samaritan and his physical healing were not a formula at work in this story.
So why does Jesus look at him and say “your faith has made you well”? Wasn’t everybody made well? But they didn’t have the faith to return, so what gives here, Jesus? The formula is breaking down!
In fact, when we look closely at the passage, Jesus is actually making a much larger statement than a physical healing formula. When Luke describes the ten lepers as having been “made clean,” or “healed,” those are the typical terms for a physical healing. The skin condition that had plagued them had miraculously been taken away. This is huge! No one could imagine something so devastating as this skin illness being turned around in an instant.
But the terms Jesus uses when he speaks directly to the Samaritan man are different. First, he says “Get up,” and uses the greek phrase that is also used to describe the resurrection. Early Christians would have seen that parallel immediately. He’s bringing something to life, something much deeper than just the state of this man’s skin. And when he says “your faith has made you well,” the healing verb he uses there is different than the ones before, it’s the same verb we use to say “saved.” Jesus is saying to him, your faith has saved you. He is proclaiming deep, life-altering transformation over this man.
The others in the story got the physical healing, but they missed out on this deep transformation, this future-altering salvation that Jesus offers. His faith didn’t heal his skin, but because he had shown faith, there was a much more important healing that could be provided.
That’s a pretty interesting and important way of viewing this story. Faith isn’t something that provides physical healing in a formulaic way. Instead, faith in the hands of Jesus is what allows for the deep and lasting transformation of grace to occur.
But how do we find that faith? What does it look like, and how do we grow it? If we want to be like the Samaritan in this story, the one who displays deep and transformative faith, where do we begin? How do we learn to practice faith? That seems like something heroic, something we may not be equipped to do at all.
Well let’s look at the difference between this man and the other nine. All ten approached Jesus for mercy. All ten followed his instructions and walked toward the priest. All ten were healed on the journey. The only thing that marked this Samaritan man as different, the only thing that set him apart was his choice to return to Jesus and simply say “thank you.” His faith is shown in his gratitude.
And notice that when Jesus talks to the Samaritan man, he doesn’t say that he has faith based on what he believes. In fact, that would have been blasphemous because the Jewish people believed that Samaritans had their theology all backwards. Here was someone who didn’t believe the right things, who didn’t understand the scriptures the right way, who wasn’t in the right congregation. And yet, Jesus says this man has the faith needed to be made well. Why?
Because faith and gratitude are linked. Someone who displays gratitude, who returns and falls at the feet of Jesus to say “thank you,” that gratitude is an outward sign of an inward faith. According to what we see in this passage, Jesus views gratitude and faith as inextricably linked.
To practice faith is to practice gratitude. And practicing gratitude is something we are all equipped to do.
Gratitude is something we can act on, today. It’s something that we can practice regardless of the state of our career, our finances, our relationships, even our health. We can always find a reason for gratitude.
And notice that expressing gratitude, especially expressing gratitude in the face of suffering, is the exact opposite of what happens when we approach healing from a faith-formula perspective. The faith formula puts us in control, puts us in the position of God, looking down on our lives from a posture of power. Gratitude, on the other hand, puts us in a posture of praise and thanksgiving, looking up at God as the provider of all that we need. Gratitude is a posture of worship, opening our hands as recipients of God’s good gifts.
A heart of gratitude and praise can do miraculous things in our lives. It can bring, much like it did for this Samaritan, a level of healing that can completely transform our lives. C.S. Lewis, in his study of the Psalms, wrote that “I noticed how the humblest and at the same time most balanced minds praised most: while the cranks, misfits, and malcontents praised least. Praise almost seems to be inner health made audible.”
Inner health made audible. The simple act of gratitude, praise, looking up to God and saying “thank you” for whatever he has done for us, has the power of transforming us in the most powerful ways.
And this is why I think today’s passage is so helpful. Last week, Jesus told us that faith as tiny as a mustard seed was all that we needed. And this week, we see such a practical way to begin growing that faith. By simply practicing gratitude.
So this week our challenge is simple. How can we be more like this Samaritan than the other nine who never turned back? Where can we look at the landscape of our lives and be grateful? Not just grateful to ourselves, or to facebook, or to the universe. Where can we directly offer up something from our lives as a sacrifice of thanksgiving directly to God? Where can we offer thanks to God, even in the midst of questions, or pain, or difficulty? What if we took time each day to practice a simple prayer of gratitude to God?