“Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him.” Luke 17:15-16
I have a few boxes of items saved from my teaching days, one of which is a collection of thank-you notes from students. They were fun to read on discouraging days to remind myself that I had in fact helped people learn some things along the way. One of my favorites is from a Japanese exchange student with whom I worked during my student teaching at Western Albemarle High School in Charlottesville. When I was leaving at the end of the semester, she gave me a card that included the sentence: “Thank you for had been teaching me English.” It was very sweet – and also made me wonder how well I had actually done with teaching her English.
Experiencing gratitude has some benefits. A newsletter from Harvard reports that when people acknowledge the goodness in their lives, they can see “that the source of that goodness lies at least partially outside themselves. As a result, gratitude also helps people connect to something larger than themselves…whether to other people, nature, or a higher power.”[i] People who express gratitude in tangible ways are generally happier and healthier than those who don’t.
Today’s First Reading gives us a case study in someone who needs help with gratitude. Meet Naaman. A powerful man, a commander of the king’s army in Aram (what is known today as Syria). Naaman is used to ordering people around and having them obey without hesitation. But Naaman also has leprosy, a horrible disease that surely must have made him feel self-conscious – and perhaps even shameful. Leprosy is a painful condition involving skin lesions that can sometimes lead to infections of the respiratory system and other parts of the body. It can mean nerve damage in one’s extremities and the inability to feel pain there, which, as we heard in the vivid account from the children’s Bible, can sometimes lead to losing fingers and toes. It must have been difficult for Naaman to reconcile his pain and his power.
When Naaman is finally convinced to go to the king of Israel for help, notice what he brings with him. He brings a letter from the king of Aram (written on Namaan’s behalf), a truckload of silver and gold, ten sets of clothes, and a bit of an attitude. Namaan shows up with all the trappings of his power, and he expects results.
Namaan thinks he can throw around his money, his connections, his power, his status, and he will get what he wants. But nothing goes as he expects. The king of Israel at first seems to reject his request, but lucky for Naaman, the prophet Elisha is good at eavesdropping. Elisha sends a messenger to tell Naaman to wash in the river Jordan in order to be healed.
And how does Naaman respond? Is he thankful for a possible cure? Is he thrilled that Elisha has intervened on his behalf? Does he rush to follow Elisha’s instructions?
No. He somehow manages to get offended. He’s upset that Elisha didn’t come talk to him in person. He’s dismissive of the Jordan River and insists that the rivers back home are far superior. He rejects the entire premise of the cure that he’s been offered. This wasn’t the help he had wanted to buy. He wanted Elisha to come out and wave his hands around and make the cure more dramatic.
Imagine if you had a painful, debilitating condition, and the nurse practitioner working with your doctor told you that all you needed to do to be healed was to drink some orange juice every day. If you were to respond as Namaan does, you would cross your arms and pout that the doctor had not given you this information directly, and you would refuse to drink the orange juice because you would insist that apple juice is far better.
I love that the people who save Naaman from his own worst impulses are those with the least amount of power. Did you see that? In a world where Naaman expects money and power to buy influence, he needs the voices of a slave girl and the voices of his servants to set him on the path to healing. The slave girl – a girl who has been stolen from her family and forced to work for Naaman’s wife – is the one who recommends that Naaman go see Elisha in the first place. And when Naaman is having his little tantrum and refusing to do what Elisha says, it’s his servants who persuade him to follow what seems like a simple set of instructions. If he had asked you to do something hard, wouldn’t you have done it?
Sometimes our help does not come in the way we expect. We want help and healing on our own terms. We’d like to direct the narrative in the way that we imagine it. But when I think about the times I have been most deeply grateful, it was because someone helped me in a situation that I could not handle on my own or in my own way. I needed other voices to urge me toward wholeness.
We often try to twist gratitude into something endlessly complicated. We, like Namaan, want it our way, and we like to make ourselves central to the outcome of the story. But in the end gratitude can really look like that tenth leper in Jesus’ story – another foreigner who had suffered too long. The tenth leper simply turns back toward Jesus, praises Jesus for what he has done, gets humble and still, and says thank you. He literally flattens himself on the ground and says thank you.
What if we did that more often? Turned to Jesus, praised him, got still, and said thank you. We need what Jesus offers – that fullness of life that he wants each of us to have, even when we feel overwhelmed. What might happen if we acknowledged that need and felt grateful for it?
That verb for thanking Jesus? In Greek it’s eucharisto. That’s where we get one of our names for Holy Communion – the Eucharist. A meal of thanksgiving for the life that Jesus gives freely.
So come forward today. Turn to Jesus. Be still for a moment. Receive his healing presence. Experience gratitude. And then carry your grateful heart out into a world that longs for the healing that only Jesus can give. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ