Fr. Paul's Homily
The Associated Press once carried a story about a woman in Seattle who carried on an extensive search for an U.S. Army doctor who saved her life in a Nazi death camp more than a half century earlier. “I wish I could talk to him,” the 62-year old woman said. “I would thank him and tell him it’s wonderful to see him again at last.”
In May, 1945, U.S. troops liberated a concentration camp in Austria. A doctor who was part of the liberating army treated this woman who was a prisoner in the camp for malnutrition. She had spent five months in the camp and had not eaten in six weeks. This woman remembered the kindness and respect the doctor showed her by keeping her covered as he examined her. But she never had the opportunity to thank him.
For more than twenty years after she moved to the U.S. she searched diligently to locate him through the Department of Defense, but with no success. But she never gave up hope. She said she still longed to be able to see him and say face to face, “Thank you, for saving my life.”
“Thank you, for saving my life” are the words of this woman searching for the doctor who ministered to her. It is also the gratitude expressed in the Gospel today by a man who was cured of leprosy. And this is the gratitude we should express to the Lord each time we reflect upon our salvation won through the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Let’s take a moment and look at the Gospel story and see how faith and gratitude are meant to go hand in hand.
Leprosy was the most dreaded of all diseases in Jesus’ day. If you contacted any skin disease that might be leprosy, you were required to go to the Jewish priest of the community and he would decide if it was leprosy. If it appeared to be leprosy the priest would declare you unclean and you were immediately ostracized from the community, unable to return home. You would live outside of the towns and cities with other people with leprosy, often in very inhuman conditions. You were never allowed to come close to someone who did not have the disease and were required to yell, “Unclean, Unclean” if anyone approached you. It was a horrible way to live.
So, in our gospel, Jesus is approached by 10 lepers who cry out to Jesus for help. Perhaps they have heard through the rumor mill who Jesus is, we don’t know. Jesus response by saying, “Go show yourselves to the priests.” This might sound like a strange response! Yet, just as the priest was the one who determined that you had leprosy, it was also the priest who had the responsibility of declaring that you did not have leprosy and, therefore, you could return home! His judgment was needed.
The scripture reading continues with, “As they were going they were cleansed!” So, it appears that the 10 lepers did start the journey to the priest, even though they had not been healed yet. In other words, the very act of starting the journey required a statement of faith! They had to believe Jesus might heal them on the way, or else there was no reason to go to the priest!
This is very similar to the first reading where Elisha the prophet has required the Syrian, Naaman, to wash seven times in the river. Naaman thought this request was crazy and refused to do so, until his people convinced him to go ahead and fulfill the request. And Naaman was healed just like the 10 lepers were healed.
In both miracles, there was an expectation of faith and trust first. This is the challenge of faith that we all struggle with. We want to see obvious signs of God’s power BEFORE we commit ourselves to faith. We want God to prove his Presence and Love before we are willing to trust. Otherwise, we might look like a fool! Can you see yourself in this story? If you were one of the 10 lepers, would you have started down that road to the priest? Or, would you have reacted with cyncism and doubt. Jesus is not requiring perfect faith, only that they are willing to take the next step of faith.
The next step of faith…what does that mean to each of us? Perhaps there is a particular area of your life where you are being called to take the next step of faith. It doesn’t require perfect faith and trust, just a little bit of faith that enables us to take one small step forward. Small steps of faith are good steps because with each step, trust is growing within us.
Returning to the Gospel, all 10 lepers are healed as they walked to the priest!! How joyful that group must have become, knowing that soon they would be able to return to their families and perhaps see their children and spouses for the first time in years. The eagerness would have been overwhelming and, realizing this, we might understand how the nine lepers chose, not to return to Jesus with thanksgiving, but rather to rush on the priest’s house so that they could get home soon.
Only one returns to Jesus, the least likely candidate…a Samaritan. Remember that Samaritans and Jews did not get along and for the Samaritan to return to Jesus, a Jew, with thanksgiving would have required great humility. But the greatest example is shown by the foreigner, the one looked down upon by others.
What is so important about gratitude in this Gospel? Maybe it is because gratitude moves us back into a relationship with the other, be it God or someone else. In the first part of the Gospel, the 10 lepers are thinking about what they want or need. The focus is upon themselves and how Jesus might help them. There is nothing wrong with this, but it is incomplete. It is like a child who is always saying, “I want this”, “I want that”. When our prayers to God are constantly filled with only petitions only with no gratitude, then we make God like a gas station where we go to get we want. Again, there is nothing wrong with going to God for what we need since Jesus encouraged this when he said, “Seek and you shall find; knock and the door will be open to you.” But asking is only the first part of the equation. In a sense, when we ask for God’s help, we are turning toward him. Thanksgiving is the actual encounter with God.
When the Samaritan returns to Jesus to say thank you, the attention has now gone from the healed person with leprosy to Jesus. Jesus now becomes the focus of the encounter, so that with Jesus being the center, salvation becomes possible. “Stand up and go; your faith has saved you” are the final words of the Gospel. All 10 were healed. Their bodies may have been made whole, but their hearts were still diseased, if they did not feel a profound sense of gratitude for what they had experienced. No matter how stunning your physical appearance, no matter how impressive your intellectual credentials, no matter how complete your material success, you are still morally and spiritually inadequate if you have not learned to say, “Thank you” to the one who is the source of all you have and all you are.
Gratitude or thankfulness take an extra effort and it requires us to move out of ourselves into the other person’s life. Maybe that is why it does not come naturally and we have to consciously do it. Where is gratitude in your daily life? If asking and thanking were put on a scale, which way would it tip? That might be a humbling question to ask!
So, my friends: thank you for coming to church today; thank you for giving of your limited resources to support our church; thank for the love you show to me day in and day out; thank you for the ways you support each other when life is difficult; thank you for being good, faith-filled people.
But most of all: “Thank you, Lord, for saving my life.”