One year, when my children were much younger, I crawled out of bed the day after Thanksgiving to be at the local Kmart when the doors opened. The Black Friday sales circular we received with the newspaper, back in the days when we received newspapers, advertised a couple of things my children wanted, at crazy-low prices. It was certainly worth missing a couple of hours of sleep, since I’m an early riser anyway. So, somewhere around 5am, I got into a very cold car with a list. An hour or so later, I returned home empty-handed. None of the advertised items were in stock, and they were not providing rain checks. I should have stayed in bed.
A few years later, stores got an earlier start on Black Friday by opening at midnight Thanksgiving Day, asking us to stay up late for a deal, rather than get up early. In the last few years, some stores pushed it back farther, opening the evening of Thanksgiving Day, 6:00 or 7:00pm prompting people to say Black Friday now began on Thursday.
This year Kmart got some negative publicity when they announced their stores would open at 6:00am Thanksgiving Day, and they would stay open until the end of business on Black Friday, because, as we all know, we need 41 hours of straight shopping to make the season bright. Many other stores have been advertising Black Friday prices this week, so they can be closed on Thanksgiving, and I saw a news piece on one of the local channels about a Best Buy that this past Tuesday, 10 days before Black Friday, already had tents out front with people camping out to be first in line for some Black Friday deal.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to organize a rally intended to force these stores to close on Thanksgiving Day. If a company thinks they can make money, and people are willing to give up their day, then so be it. I’m also not going to rant about the commercialism of Christmas. While I think we need to mitigate the seasonal craziness in our lives, I enjoy the shopping, the decorations and music in the stores, seeing Santa at the mall, and I got my first Gingerbread Latte at Starbucks the other day. But I think we are missing out on something vital when we lose the ability to pause and give thanks because we are rushing off to celebrate something else.
I have always enjoyed how the season plays out – a day to give thanks for all we have, before we put together our wish lists for all the new cool stuff we don’t yet have. Thanksgiving is gloriously present free, and has us focusing on the people in our lives – family and friends (and food and football) – with whom we gather around the table.
Our eagerness to run off and celebrate before giving thanks is misguided.
Jesus and Lepers
Today’s scripture lesson is about just that. 10 people with skin diseases come before Jesus, asking to be healed. As they are going to see the priests, as Jesus had told them to do, healing occurs! One of them, when he notices the disease has left his skin, heads back toward Jesus, starts “praising God with a loud voice” (Luke 17:15), falls before Jesus’ feet, and thanks him.
Jesus then asks, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they?” (Luke 17:17). We know the answer to that. They are off to celebrate. Like a nation in a hurry to run off and celebrate Christmas, they are off and running without a word of thanks.
9 out of 10 do not take the time to give thanks. I want to be in the 10% that does. So, my question is about that one. What made him thankful? Why did he, and he alone, turn back to praise God and say thank you to Jesus?
I recently read the biography of 16-year-old Malala Yousafzai after seeing a clip of her appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Malala is a native of the Swat Valley in Pakistan. She is a brilliant girl, evidenced by these two sentences written about a difficult time:
I tried to distract myself by reading Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, which answered big questions such as how the universe began and whether time could run backward. I was only eleven years old and already I wished it could. (Yousafzai, end of chapter 12)
Yes, didn’t we all read Stephen Hawking to relax in 6th grade!!
Malala describes the Swat Valley as a little slice of heaven, with lush hillsides and peaceful small towns. It sounds like it was a wonderful place to grow up. But then the Taliban came to Swat and imposed sharia law, which she describes as a distortion of Islam and the Quran. Soon the Taliban was closing schools to girls. The primary role of a woman, according to the Taliban, is to raise children and to make a home for her husband. So there is no need for even a basic education. This was quite a step backwards for Malala, her family who owned the school which she attended, and her friends.
Malala soon became an advocate for education, having a diary published in an English newspaper, and speaking out wherever and whenever she could. Eventually the Taliban targeted this then 14-year-old girl for assassination. She was shot in the face coming home from school, on the equivalent of a school bus, and miraculously survived.
She now lives in England where she continues to speak out for education, especially for girls, believing education is the true avenue to peace. This remarkable young woman, who would be a sophomore or junior in one of our local high schools, is the youngest person ever nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
In her interview with Jon Stewart, she talked about why she is such an advocate for education. In this one-minute clip from that interview, she talks about where her passion originated
Only used 1 minute of this extended interview.
It is true isn’t it? Most of our children of comparable age were rooting Thursday night for the snow to close school on Friday, a day many had been longing for since the weather turned cold. And Friday, when D38 was closed and D20 was on delay, few of our students were upset over their schools being closed to them.
Malala says in essence the same thing. Before the Taliban arrived and started closing schools to girls, she never really gave it a thought. She took school for granted. She wasn’t giving thanks for her education. Sure, it was a place where she excelled and something she enjoyed, but she never thought she would defend it until it was threatened and eventually taken from her. Only then, when she was not the one in power, when she no longer had a choice, that she noticed what a gift her schooling truly was.
There are many things in our lives for which we never pause to give thanks because we cease seeing them as a gift. Going to school becomes a burden with all of the homework and reading we need to do, not to mention the friend drama. Our jobs, with all the office politics, and bosses who make bad decisions, and promotions we were passed over on, make it difficult to see them as gifts when they are so stress inducing. Our families, with bills to pay, and petty disagreements, and struggles with our children, can also be difficult at times to see as a gift.
Which brings me back to that one leper. Why did he turn around? What made him grateful? There are a couple of subtle details in Luke’s telling of the story which point to the source of his gratitude.
“On the way…”
The first comes right at the opening of the story. Luke writes, “On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee” (Luke 17:11). Whenever you come across a seemingly extraneous detail like this in the Bible, ask why. Why would Luke, a gifted storyteller, tell us the geographic location of this healing when he doesn’t for others? To explore this we need a little background.
Luke, like all the gospel writers, is more biographer than reporter. He is not writing newspaper accounts, but is telling the story of Jesus’ life which he sees in three phases. Chapters 1 through 9 detail Jesus’ early ministry – birth, growing up, calling disciples, and his preaching, teaching, and healing that occurred in Galilee. Then at the end of chapter 9, Luke transitions from “the early years” to a new section with these words, “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51). On this phrase the narrative shifts, and for chapters 9 to 19 we read of Jesus’ “Journey to Jerusalem,” which culminates with him entering the city riding on a colt. The final section of Luke’s gospel then deals with Jesus’ time in Jerusalem, including his arrest, trial, crucifixion, and resurrection.
Today’s passage from Luke 17, is part of the “Journey to Jerusalem” section, which Luke reminds us of right at the beginning of this story (hmm…), and adds that they were traveling in the region between Samaria and Galilee (some translations render it “along the border.”) On one hand this makes geographic sense. Jesus’ journey is from Galilee in the north to Jerusalem in the south and the border runs from northeast to the southwest, so they are traveling in the right general direction. Also, you may remember how Jewish people were so adamant about avoiding Samaria that they would go more than a day’s journey out of their way to travel around the Samaritan region. So traveling the border might make sense in that way too. But why would Luke include this detail unless something else is going on? And as you might imagine, I think there is.
When we look closely at the beginning of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem in chapter 9, we read these words, “On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem” (Luke 9:52b-53). This places Jesus in a bit of a metaphorical no-man’s land – rejected by the Jewish authorities because he’s not playing by the rules, and rejected by the Samaritans because he is mistrusted as a Jewish man heading to Jerusalem. Literally and symbolically, Jesus is traveling in the margins. It is here on the border between two people who reject him, Jesus meets ten lepers.
Jesus with Leper
In addition to having a debilitating disease, lepers were routinely rejected by society, forced to live in colonies, literally out on the edges of town and the margins of life. Separated from family and friends, they were also told they were separated from God. They were not allowed to participate in the Temple practices because they were unclean, unholy.
Can you imagine what it must have been like for them to be healed? One of the reasons Jesus sends them to the priests is so they can be declared clean and welcomed back into the Temple. This would have also meant they could re-enter society, and could once again fall into the arms of their families and friends. Nine take off running in their excitement to get the party started. One turns around praising God in a loud voice and falling at Jesus’ feet to thank him. What makes him different?
Luke give subtle detail number two: “And he was a Samaritan” (17:16). This fact is not lost on Jesus who says in verse 18, “Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Interesting. The one who turns around is not just another one of the ten, he is different. He is not Jewish; he is a foreigner, a Samaritan.
Simply by virtue of his birth, and no fault of his own, this man would have been considered unclean with or without his leprosy. He is not one of the “chosen people” who claims a special relationship with God just because of his family tree. He’s an outsider, seen as undeserving, so he does not take his healing for granted. His humility makes him grateful.
Nine healed lepers thought they had a special relationship with God because of their birth, so when they are healed they think God is just doing what God ought to do with people as deserving as they. One man, a Samaritan, was humble enough to know how undeserving he was. He was the one who turned around and gave thanks. When taking her education for granted, as something she deserved, Malala didn’t pause to give thanks. When the Taliban took it away, she realized what a gift her schooling is, and began to give thanks. When we run off to provide a magical Christmas for our loved ones, we think it is something we deserve. Then we are reminded that everything we have is ultimately a gift from God, and we are humbled and give thanks. May we not be so prideful that we miss seeing all the gifts with which God has so richly blessed us.
This Thursday, many of us will offer a word of thanks for the many blessings in our lives as we gather around a table to enjoy a feast. This morning we have the opportunity to do the same. May we be humble enough to pause, “praising God with a loud voice,” and give thanks.
Let me close with one more illustration:
We used this without the alternate endings.
You full? I’m full. Let’s eat!