By Paul Koch –
This day is truly a wonderful day. It is a day of family and friends, a day of food and football, a day where everyone gets a little time off from their usual grind and just stops in order to give thanks. And though our days of innocent bliss from our childhood have grown cold, though we no longer want to dress up like puritan settlers or native Americans, we still find value in a holiday like this one. We may have grown more cynical and skeptical about family and our traditions but still there is something that we think is good about taking time to simply give thanks. It is good to give thanks for this great country we live in, to give thanks for those who make our lives better, richer and more exciting, to give thanks for the many gifts we’ve received for our heavenly Father.
Both inside and outside of the church Thanksgiving, as a national holiday, is marked by its own peculiar traditions. Every family has their own version or twist on the different foods consumed and rituals engaged in around the table or afterwards in front of the TV. You might be still using great grandma’s secret stuffing recipe, or teach your children to make the post dinner turkey sandwich just the way your dad taught you how to make them. In some families, they take a moment around the table where everyone offers up just what it is they are thankful for. The interesting thing about this particular tradition that is wonderful when the thanksgivings flow effortlessly from each person. But there is always that one person who is like a kid going to confession for the first time who feels the pressure to say something really profound, really meaningful, and because of the pressure they can’t think of anything at all. They end up muttering something dumb and feeling embarrassed.
For all the things that Thanksgiving can and even should be, I don’t think it should be a time for public shame or emotional torture. But we have this tendency to make a day a thanksgiving into a day where you better give thanks and give it well; and if you don’t, why, you’re not much of an American, and perhaps even a worse Christian. In fact, the standard reading you will hear at church for Thanksgiving is from Luke 17, the story of the ten lepers that were healed as our Lord was on the way to Jerusalem. And this text is usually used to show us how seldom it is that we actually give thanks. It shows how weak and fragile that thanks tends to be and how you ought to try and little harder, search a little deeper to better give thanks for the blessings you have in your life.
But is that what is really going on with this text? Jesus enters into a village and he is met by these ten lepers. Now, the lepers are standing at a distance and when they see Jesus they begin to cry out saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” They are at a distance not only because they might be contagious but because the disease of leprosy made one ritually unclean. Their distance from everyone else was not only a symptom of their affliction but a proclamation of their separation form the household of faith. As unclean, they were cut off from the community. So that distance isn’t just common courtesy, like covering your mouth when you cough, it was a testimony about their welcome amongst the faithful.
Jesus’ command is simple and straightforward. He says, “Go and show yourselves to their priests.” You see, to be welcomed back into the community and be restored, you had to present yourself to the priest so that he might verify that you’ve been healed. So off they go, and while they are going they are healed. We are told that one of them, a Samaritan, an outsider, when he realized he was healed he came back and praising God with a loud voice fell at the feet of Jesus giving him thanks.
Now what we usually do at this point is demonstrate how we are to be like this Samaritan and give thanks. We are not like the other nine jerks who just went off to the priest to show themselves. And so, we are well armed for the dinner table to make sure that everyone gathered together today knows how
to give thanks, what to give thanks for, and where to direct their thanksgiving. But is this really the focus of this text? Now, I’m not saying that we can’t get that from this text, but if this is all we get I think we are missing the real focus of it.
This text isn’t about shaming the ungrateful but about focusing us on the center of our hope and confidence. In fact, it is more about the location of our salvation then it is about how thankful we are for it. Look, all ten lepers were told by Jesus to go to the priest. They all headed off happy to go and present themselves at the temple, present themselves to that place where God resides and promises to meet them in his mercy and in their sacrifices to restore them to the community. No longer would they have to be at a distance but would again be part of the household of faith.
So it’s not that the nine are unfaithful. They are doing exactly as they were commanded by Christ and they seem to have faith that God will in fact heal them. Instead, what this text gives to us is an illustration, a confession if you will, of where we are to find the presence of God. The Samaritan’s return to give thanks at the feet of Jesus is an indication God’s presence has shifted from the temple to Jesus himself. Instead of going off to the place where sacrifices are made for atonement, we are now directed to the finals sacrifice for all sin in Jesus of Nazareth. This text then calls us back to the heart and center of our faith, to the only place for confidence in eternal life, to the feet of Christ himself.
It is fitting that it is a Samaritan that makes this confession. It is an outsider, a foreigner. For this is exactly who you are. You are the outsiders who find yourself at the feet of your Lord giving thanks. And the gift that Christ gave to him wasn’t dependent upon the ability of the Samaritan to give thanks, rather the thanks flows from the gift given. And so it is with you. On this Thanksgiving Day, you find that you have been healed, you have been forgiven, you have been reborn all in the gift of Christ alone. He has called you by name. He has washed you in the waters of Baptism. He has fed you with his own life-giving body and blood and so you give thanks and praise.
And so it does not matter if you can give a well-articulated speech about what you are thankful for or if you felt a little uncomfortable and silly saying anything at all. In the end, we come again and again to the gifts of our Lord, to the only source of eternal life. And here falling at his feet we once again hear him declare, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.”