Some time ago, I was listening to CBC Radio One and heard one of those segments where they ask people on the street about current issues. In this particular instance, they asked whether or not the current world financial crisis would have any effect on Christmas spending. One fellow replied that Christmas would not be as festive because he could not afford to buy his children the usual quantity of presents.
Now, as a parent, I understand wanting to give our children everything they deserve, and the sense of failure when we are not able to do so. However, this feeling, though natural, is ultimately misdirected. We have come to associate festivity with the abundance of food, drink, or stuff that we can buy. We hitch our sense of our “quality of life” to the star of the economy, and the level of our material prosperity.
I need hardly say that this attitude goes completely contrary to the teaching of Christianity. No matter what the preachers of the so-called “prosperity Gospel” might say, abundance of material possessions and other earthly blessings (good health, for instance) are in no way linked to the quality of one’s spiritual life.
The Old Testament promises of blessings for the obedient and faithful simply prefigure the riches of divine life we received when the old covenant was fulfilled in Christ. Jesus clearly upholds the poor, the homeless, the widows and the orphans—all the needy ones of the earth—as the first inheritors of the Kingdom of heaven. The rich, by contrast, will find it impossible to enter at all, except by God’s grace. (Matt. 19:24-26)
We find this principle illustrated in chapter seventeen of Saint Luke’s Gospel, when Jesus enters a village and is greeted by ten lepers “who stood at a distance and lifted up their voices and said, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.’” (Luke 17:12-13) Jesus directs them to go to the priests, and as they go, they find themselves healed of their leprosy. But only one of them goes back to Jesus with the simple intention of thanking Him. Jesus, disappointed at the other lepers’ lack of gratitude, tells the man (who is a Samaritan) that his faith has made him well. Not just healed physically, the man is now made well spiritually by his gratitude.
Why is he healed, and not the others? Simply because he is a Samaritan. Being healed and cleansed, the nine lepers are free to re-enter normal Jewish society. The Samaritan leper, however, can expect no such acceptance. As a Samaritan (which was a heretical Jewish sect hated by orthodox Jews), he will always be an outsider, regardless of his physical condition. His healing is a bittersweet event, in fact, because where he was part of some sort of community, he is now truly alone. His fellow lepers have returned to their lives, and he is now just a “stranger in a strange land,” far away from home.
So by returning to Jesus to give thanks, he demonstrates something that transcends what we generally think of as gratitude. Like the parent who feels that Christmas will be less festive because he must buy less, we tend to define thanksgiving as an emotional response to a material payoff. For the Samaritan leper, however, gratitude goes beyond emotion. His thanksgiving is the simple, concrete act of bringing the fact of his physical healing back to Jesus, the One from whom the healing came. Uncertain as he may be about what might lay ahead of him now, alone and afraid as he may be, he returns to offer everything to God. And it is in doing this, and this alone, that he gains his spiritual wellness.
The point of the encounter is that we can only achieve the elusive “quality of life” represented in Christmas and other holidays, when we shift our definition of thanksgiving from an emotional response to the things we possess (or don’t possess), to the physical act of offering everything back to God, both the sweet and the bitter.
All our material blessings, all our suffering and pain, all our financial woes, belong to God, and our sole task as human beings is to literally say, “I don’t understand what this means. I don’t know where all of this is leading. But I do know all of it is Yours. So take it and do with it as You wish, for my salvation and my healing and my eternal joy.”
And in making this offering of thanks, we fulfill the purpose for which we were created, which is to be “a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (1 Peter 2:9), returning creation to its Creator, reuniting that which was separated and making whole that which was broken. Indeed, when we live lives of gratitude in this sense, we find healing, not just for our own souls, but for the whole of our little corner of the universe, which once again finds the wellspring of its life and meaning in the One who gives life and meaning to all.