U.S. NATIONAL THANKSGIVING HOLIDAY, NOVEMBER 24, 2005
Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance and called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!” When he saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed. One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan. Jesus asked, “Where not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner? Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.” (NIV)
WHAT IS GRACE CALLING YOU TO BE?
Have you ever wondered when you first began to think about why some people are more thankful than others are? When I was a young father, I remember taking my little children out on Halloween to go “trick-or-treating.” They were very young, perhaps three and five, and were appropriately costumed in garb which thrilled us as parents. As they toddled to the front doors, I stood back and watched. I noticed that after they bravely mustered their “trick or treat,” and took the candy, they didn’t say “thank you.” It then became my mission to explain that after they received the candy, they should always say “thank you.” After many attempts to encourage a grateful behavior pattern, in some frustration I came to understand that they were far more overwhelmed with the idea that when a door opens in the darkness two people with candy appear, than they were overwhelmed with the idea that they were being graced with an unwarranted gift. It dawned on me that gratitude needs a touchstone in the heart, a place or moment when someone recognizes that this didn’t have to happen: What I am receiving is pure gift! I neither earned nor deserved this! Such an insight is too profound for little children on Halloween night—and perhaps for many of us on any night.
Geologically, a touchstone is a piece of flint used to determine whether a precious metal is really gold or silver. As gold is scraped on the touchstone, a mark is left to assure that this is the real ore. Many are the pieces of fool’s gold that were discarded because the touchstone revealed only base alloy. It’s an interesting analogy to think of grace as the touchstone, which reveals us for what we truly are. In fact, there are profound personal and theological questions raised as we analyze what happens or does not happen when we experience grace, whether divine or purely human.
TEN LEPERS ARE SCORED BY THE TOUCHSTONE OF GRACE
The traditional Gospel lesson for Thanksgiving Day is the story from Luke’s Gospel of the ten lepers, only one of whom, as you will remember, was found, when scored by the touchstone of grace, to be thankful. Why that seems to have been puzzling to Jesus as well as to those of us who hear the story today, is at stake here? For that matter, to ask the question in a more general way, why is it that some people are overwhelmed by a gracious gift, and others seem to be unaware of their good fortune? Or why is it that some people are revealed to be pure gold, and others are more like galena or lead?
Let’s try to understand the issue by learning a bit about the situation of the lepers and what Jesus was inviting them to do. In the first place, these people suffered from some kind of skin disease which may or may not have been similar to what we know today as Hanson’s disease, the horrifying condition in which limbs and digits lose their circulation, deteriorate, decay and fall off. Whatever the actual condition (and a variety of words are used in the New Testament to describe it), it was visible and resulted in the affected person being declared “unclean.”
The matter of being physically and ritually “unclean” was far more problematic than having the disease itself. It resulted in being shunned, in being required to keep your distance from those who were “clean.” It incorporated a self-understanding, which could be variously defined as “unacceptable” or “incomplete” both to other humans as well as to God. Being unclean, according to the interpretation of Jewish law in Jesus’ day, especially to extremists like the Essenes, could mean that “…no one …paralyzed in his feet or hands, or lame, or blind, or deaf, or dumb, or smitten in his flesh with a visible blemish…” would be allowed into sacred settings because holy angels are also present there (J. Jeremias, D. Zersen, trans., The Theological Significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls, St. Louis: CPH, 1968, p. 13). People with significant diseases and deformities were therefore outsiders. Outcasts.
That our text places the lepers along the Samaritan/Galilean border is more than a geographic issue. (One of my famous teachers at Goettingen, Hans Conzelmann, once used this statement to prove that Luke never lived in Palestine because he was ignorant of the fact that you can’t get to Jerusalem by going between Samaria and Galilee.) It is really a highly symbolic issue. These lepers were marginalized people, living on the fringes of society. They were the disenfranchised, the nobodies. It was to be assumed that even God ignored them. More than that, at least one, perhaps more, were Samaritans, the foreigners to whom Jews condescended because they did not accept traditional Jewish scripture, did not revere the Jewish holy mount, and were of mixed heritage, only some of which might have had Israelite origin. They were outcasts as well.
Now, to me, the stunning thing in this text is, not the healing of leprosy, and, not even, initially, the thankfulness of one of the lepers. The striking matter is that, given the Jewish attitude toward unclean people and foreign people, Jesus attends to the request of outcasts. The awesome issue here is that Jesus is standing over against his entire tradition and saying that ritual and ceremonial laws are really not important issues before God. God accepts each and every person, regardless of his/her situation, and invites one after another into a relationship, a community of people in which forgiveness cancels sin and love empowers action. He invites them to cross over into a land of promise. The stunning thing for me in this text is grace.
I began by saying that as a young man I was not entirely sure what it was that fostered gratitude in some, even in children on Halloween. And I am still in awe that the touchstone of grace elicits various reactions from human beings, specific kinds from gold and other types from lead. In the case of the ten lepers, one was so thoroughly overwhelmed that Jesus of Nazareth should invite him to cross the border from being unclean to being clean that he could not help but fall on his knees and give thanks. In doing that, he realized the full potential of his humanness, the prospect of being a person allowed to be loved and to love. This to me is the heart of the story, the awesome power that grace can have when one recognizes that he/she has been accepted, affirmed, loved.
ONE PERSON EXPLORES THE IMPACT OF GOD’S GRACE
Tell me what is the heart of this story for you? In all of our lives there are incidents and issues to which we respond in differing ways. Sometimes, on the one hand, we allow ourselves to be crushed and emaciated by circumstances, and are not scored by the touchstone of grace seeking to name us as the ennobled ones-- enabling us to cross a border, to enter into a new reality, to claim the fullness of our humanity. Recently I read a story about the Enga people in Papua, New Guinea, who had this problem. In their tradition, they fear the power of the semongo, the spirits of their deceased ancestors. To show that they are properly remorseful when a relative dies, so as not to be stricken by some “payback” at an unexpected time, they cut off a joint of a finger. Some who have seen this testify to having known people with almost no joints at all-- everything scored right down to the palm. (Rob Selle, “Write on Alleluia,” Wrightstown, WI) The touchstone of God’s grace has confronted them in the midst of life’s issues, and they have nothing to explain their response other than a scored palm. Here there is no story of the kind of victorious living that the Gospel’s power can introduce. Here there is only fear and death.
The Good News of the New Testament is that God loves each one of us. In the midst of life’s burdens and tragedies, no one is lurking in the darkness waiting to get even. Jesus has destroyed the power of that kind of fear in his victory over darkness and death itself. He calls us to look at the circumstances in our lives with confidence and hope because he is waiting to lead us into his future for us on the other side. Christians are resurrection people who know that nothing can defeat them because full life-- forgiven and perfected life-- is their lasting treasure.
Sometimes, on the other hand, we allow our humanity to be enriched and fulfilled in visionary ways. Recently I read a novel, which showed that people can see this truth even in dire circumstances. Mary Doria Russell’s A Thread of Grace tells the story of a group of Jewish refugees making their way to safety in Liguria, an area on Italy’s northeastern coast. What they did not know was that Mussolini had surrendered Italy to Hitler and Jews were now no longer safe even in Liguria. Terrible struggles take place as, in the death throes of WWII, Hitler’s officers attempt to bomb and capture Jews and those who are sheltering them. But the little known story of the war, told in this novel, is that some 40,000 Jews were protected from work camps and executions by these simple Italian peasants and priests, good people who selflessly sacrificed themselves to ease the suffering of others.
In a reflective passage towards the end of the novel, the rabbi who has lived through all the terror and travail, says, “There’s a saying in Hebrew, ‘No matter how dark the tapestry God weaves for us, there’s always a thread of grace.’ After the Yom Kippur war in ’43, people all over Italy helped us. Almost 50,000 Jews were hidden…. I keep asking myself, Why was it so different here? Why did Italians help when so many others turned away?” He shrugs and turns away. ( New York: Random House, 2005, 421) You see, the rabbi is not sure of the answer. He is as puzzled as was Jesus, and as we are? Where are the nine? Why is it that some respond to circumstances with fear and hatred and others with love and affirmation? Why is it that some are indifferent to positive blessings and others build their new life on such affirmation? Why is it that some see only the struggle and not the promise, not the thread of grace?
More in tune with our Thanksgiving celebration is the well-known story about Lutheran pastor Martin Rinkert who during the Thirty Years War was spared from death by sword or plague to be able to bury more than 4000 people, including his wife, and still at the end of the war, to compose one of our most beloved Thanksgiving hymns, “Now Thank We all our God.” Why is it that Rinkert saw the thread of grace, allowed himself to be terribly scored by the touchstone, finally becoming the pure gold, the fuller human being that Christ’s love can create?
Tell me what is the heart of the story for you? Tell me what you cannot afford to miss this Thanksgiving. Tell me when in your life you were most profoundly scored by grace, and you came away knowing it was all pure gold. Was it when you failed your spouse or your children and they forgave you, and you then felt ready to go out and embrace the world? Was it when the guilt of some moral transgression hammered away at you until one day you heard the pastor say, “your sins are forgiven, rise and walk”? Was it after ignoring countless homeless beggars, you were once moved to give a dollar for which he physically pressed your hand and said, “God loves you too?” Thanksgiving is a time when we are pressed to find that place this last year, and any year, when God met us most profoundly with his grace and we came away thrilled to be alive, to be allowed to respond, to be privileged to care. In such golden moments, the touchstone leaves its mark on us and God’s hope for our humanity is fulfilled.
It doesn’t matter where the nine are! Don’t worry about them anymore. They may have been healed, but they never saw the grace. You are here and grace is claiming you in countless ways. What and where is its impact in your life? What is grace calling you to become? Follow that call! Follow it now! Where is it summoning you to go? Go there now! Go!
Prof. Dr. Dr. David Zersen, President Emeritus