28th Sunday in Ordinary Time

“Thank you Jesus.” Say it with me. “Thank you Jesus.” Did that sound weird? Is it easier to say “Have mercy on me, God, in your kindness. In your compassion blot out my offense. O wash me more and more from my guilt, and cleanse me from my sin.” It’s easier being miserable, because misery loves company, if only to prove my misery is greater than yours. It takes greater effort to be thankful because few people want to hear how great your life is going. And until someone else brings it to your attention, you might not as easily recognize your blessings and find reason to say thank you.

There are certain expressions in English (I don’t know if other languages have them) where the meaning that is intended is conveyed more significantly in the tone of the speaker’s voice. Take for instance “I’m fine.” You can say it in any number of ways and mean any number of different things, from the brightest cheeriest positive to the darkest gloomiest negative. Depending on the tone of voice, “I’m fine” can mean “I am grateful that I have escaped great danger and everything will be in good running order shortly,” or it can mean “This is entirely none of your business, leave me alone.” So I suppose any effort to teach language will fall short if non-native speakers don’t also learn to pick up on context and body language and other extenuating circumstances.

When the highly esteemed and respected general Naaman, army commander of the king of Aram, heard from his wife’s Hebrew slave girl that there was a holy man in Israel who might heal him of his leprosy, the general thought he just might take a chance and visit this holy man. So many diseases and skin conditions were considered leprosy in that time and place, which means we can’t be certain it was what we today call Hansen’s disease or actual leprosy. But it definitely bothered him that he was willing to explore a solution requiring him to travel far from home. And if nothing came of it, no real harm done. But since he was a senior military officer accustomed to all manner of official protocol especially when dealing with a foreign power, he knew he had standards to uphold. Mustn’t make his king look shabby. So Naaman arrived at the palace of the King of Israel with a  small retinue of soldiers and servants, with ten silver talents in hand, six thousand gold pieces, and ten festal garments, whatever he predetermined his gratitude would look like in the form of material compensation for potentially being cured of his dreaded disease. The general brought with him a letter of introduction from the king of Aram, that read: “With this letter I am sending my servant Naaman to you, that you may cure him of his leprosy.”

The king of Israel took offense at this. “Thanks a lot!” He tore his garments and exclaimed, “Am I a god with power over life and death, that this man should send someone for me to cure him of leprosy? You can see he is only looking for a quarrel with me!” Hearing of this incident, the prophet Elisha thought the king’s response was just over the top. So he sent for the general to come see him. “You’ll thank me later.”

The general arrives at Elisha’s door expecting to be met with some appropriate ceremony. He was after all a high ranking official sent by the king of Aram. But no. The prophet doesn’t even meet him at the door, thank you very much. Instead he sends a servant to tell the general to go wash himself seven times in the Jordan river. The general is livid. “I thought that he would surely come out to me, and stand there to call on the name of the Lord his God, and would move his hand over the place, and thus cure the leprous spot. Are not the rivers of Damascus, the Abana and the Pharpar, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them and be cleansed? Thank you, but no thank you.” And he storms off.

Eventually his servants talk him down from his high and mighty perch, and he goes off to bathe in the nasty Jordan river, and he is cleansed of his leprosy, and he is ecstatic and humbled and delirious with joy. And when he returns to Elisha, he meets him at the door. “Thank you, thank you, thank you. I brought money and precious cloth. But nothing I can give you can sufficiently express my heartfelt gratitude from the core of my being.” “Don’t thank me. Thank God,” Elisha must have told him. And the general took two mule-loads of earth back with him, so he could worship the God of Israel while standing upon sacred soil.

When we feel entitled to receive from God’s hands every grace and blessing and whatever we ask, our gratitude can seem rehearsed and insincere. And when we do not get what we ask for, we can give in to anger and sulking and resentment. If you love me, God, you would do what I ask. Much like a child leveling demands—If you love me, mom and dad, you would do what I ask. Yet seldom do mom and dad hear thanks for the daily graces and blessings they send our way each day, a warm bed, nourishing meals, a welcoming home, clothes on our back, patience, kindness, all before we even realize they do all these things because they care about us very much. But do they even hear an unsolicited “Thank you”? It’s like pulling teeth. And they are undeterred in the face of cluelessness and arrogance and ingratitude.

Ten lepers cried out to Jesus from down the street. They knew to keep their distance, just in case they were disappointed. They were not important people like Naaman, the army commander of the king of Aram. They had no letters of introduction, no servants to accompany them, no gold coins and expensive garments with which to show their gratitude. They came in filthy rags, sounding their arrival with a warning bell if the stench of their disease did not precede them and send any unfortunate onlookers heaving their lunch. They had everything to gain—returning to their family, their livelihood, regaining self-respect, and their rightful place in the community. And they had nothing to lose. You would think they would be grateful. Maybe they were, but only one returned to say thank you, an outsider, even before he was officially declared clean, even before returning to his family. He came back to say thank you.

Although we easily find fellowship with those who can relate with our need and our misfortune, maybe because misery loves company, but more likely because misery isn’t satisfied until it can claim to be more miserable than anyone else, perhaps the opposite takes greater effort because no one wants to hear about our good fortune. And unless someone else brings it to our attention, we are not as mindful of our blessings nor as willing to admit that we have reason to be grateful.

“Thank you Jesus.” Say it with me. “Thank you Jesus.” If it still feels strange to say it out loud, say it quietly in your heart. Jesus will know if you mean what you say.

Rolo B Castillo © 2019