Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time – October 10, 2010 – St. John’s
Only St. Luke records the story we have just heard, and it is the second time that a Samaritan is pointed to by Jesus as deserving of special praise. A few weeks ago, we were reminded of the good Samaritan who stopped and aided the robbed and wounded man after a priest and a Levite had passed him by. Today it is a Samaritan again, a foreigner (literally, “man of a different race”), who alone of the ten lepers healed returns and gives glory to God while he falls at Jesus’ feet in gratitude. All were healed of their leprosy, but only the Samaritan heard also that his faith has saved him, the outer cleansing thus shown to be symbolic of an inner healing.
We may use the occasion to think about gratitude, and I’ll start with a personal note. My niece lives not far from my brother and me and brings her boys with her, one four years old, the other two. She is trying, of course, to teach them manners. They are not simply to demand something, but to say “Please, may I have”; and, on the other hand, they are to say “Thank you” whenever something is given to them or done for them. Good habits for them to learn, I’m sure we all agree. (I once tried to teach it to a little neighbor; when he demanded something, I said, “What’s the magic word?”, and he replied: “Open sesame?”)
But are the lessons simply a matter of good manners, of politeness? Isn’t there something deeper behind them? Don’t they rest upon a whole way of looking at the world and at our place within it? Why should we say “Please”? Well, what does it mean? It means something like: “Would you be so kind, so agreeable, as to…” The usage points to elements of graciousness, of kindness, in family or in society. It is an acknowledgment that much, perhaps most, of what is of value in our social ties derives from attitudes and actions that are not required, not owed to us, but that are the free gifts of others to us. Our inter-relationships, in families, of course, but also in larger communities and societies, aren’t built only on justice, aren’t simply a matter of rights and obligations, but rest also on the freely given affections and generosity of others. We see this by its opposite, when we run into people whose first thought is always themselves, numero uno, who think the world owes them a living, who take things for granted, who think to say “Please” or “Thank you” is unnecessary, even humiliating.
Let’s think for a moment about that phrase: taking something for granted. In one sense it means that you assume everyone agrees about something: I take it for granted that the sun rises in the east. But there is another popular sense of the phrase: it means to presume something, to count on something, as when we might say of someone: “He takes his father’s generosity for granted.” But in this case, doesn’t the phrase really mean the opposite of what it says: “He takes his father’s generosity for granted” means that he does not take it for granted, doesn’t take it to be a gift. He may think it’s something owed to him, something he has a right to, something he’s earned. In any case, gift isn’t part of his vocabulary.
But it is part of our Christian vocabulary. The first article of our creed speaks of the God who has created all that is. God did not have to create; to create was his own free decision, and all that exists is as much a work of art as Michelangelo’s Pietà or a sonnet of Shakespeare or a symphony of Beethoven. God did not create for his own sake, in order to have or to be more; he created us so that there could be other spirits, endowed with intelligence and freedom, who might know the joy of understanding and the ecstasy of love. God created out of pure generosity, and all that is, including us ourselves, is nothing but gift.
We might say that God gave us existence and life, but the sentence is not quite right, is it? It’s not as if we first were somehow and that to us God then gave us existence and life. No, that we exist at all, that we live at all, is pure gift. And creation is not something that happened way back when, perhaps with the “Big Bang” that got things started. No, creation happens, is happening, at this very moment: that I am, that you are, that I am speaking, that you are attentive, all that makes this moment in this place and time, all of it is God’s gift now. The breath we are breathing, the thought we are thinking, the emotion we are feeling, the words we are speaking or hearing–all of this is the gift of God now. At this moment we are because God wishes us to be.
To these gifts we must add all those that have come to us through Jesus Christ our Lord: the knowledge of God’s love for us, of his forgiveness of our sins of forgetfulness and ingratitude; the joy and peace of his holy Spirit within us; the fellowship, the communion, among us that come from our unity of faith, hope and love; the hope of a life beyond the grave; –all this is gift, gift after gift, grace after grace, God’s graciousness never old, never weary, never exhausted.
“What do you have that you have not received?” St. Paul once asked the Corinthians; “and if you have received it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?” (1 Cor 4:7) Gratitude should be the first instinct of a Christian heart, the bedrock on which we build the edifice of our thoughts and dreams, desires and loves, attitudes and behavior, decisions and actions. Gratitude is the only appropriate response to a universe defined and constituted as gift. In a moment I will invite you to join me: “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God,” and we will agree that it is right and fitting that we do so. Today, remembering the grateful Samaritan, let us enter more fully than ever into this holy eucharist–this Holy Thanksgiving.