It is easy for people to fall prey to the passions of fear, worry, and anger in response to the great challenges that our nation and world face today, as well as to those we encounter in our families and in other areas of our lives. In such circumstances, we must not ignore the importance of one of the most basic virtues necessary for human flourishing, namely, gratitude. Psychologists report that writing down five things for which you are grateful each day is good for your health, both mentally and physically. Doing so is linked with lower rates of depression, anxiety, and pain, and also with a greater sense of well-being. This reflects the profound truth that to be a human person is by definition to be the recipient of God’s blessings. Thanksgiving for all that God has done for us is absolutely essential for the healing of our souls, as well as for responding to the grave challenges of life in holy ways.
The word “eucharist” means thanksgiving, and in the anaphora of the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, the priest thanks God for bringing us into being out of nothing and for raising us up from slavery to sin into the blessed life of the heavenly Kingdom. When we realize that our very existence, as well as that of the universe itself and of all our blessings, is completely dependent upon the unfathomable love of God, we simply must give thanks. God’s blessings are so overwhelming that we surely cannot name or count them fully: “For all these things, we give thanks unto Thee and to Thine only-begotten Son and Thy Holy Spirit: for all things we know and of which we know not, for all the benefits bestowed upon us, both manifest and unseen.”
How tragic it is, then, for our spiritual vision to be so out of focus that we become blind to the beauty all around us and lose faith in the abiding presence of our Lord, Who has conquered even the grave itself and promised to be with us always even to the end of the world. Those who believe that there is no truth or hope beyond this life and trust in no one other than themselves will inevitably be captive to fear, worry, anger, ingratitude, and a host of other spiritual diseases. The hard truth is that this is not a temptation only for atheists, for there is often a great contrast between what we say we believe and the actual state of our souls.
That was the case for the nine lepers who did not return to give thanks for their healing from leprosy in today’s gospel reading. They were Jews who had called out for Christ’s healing and had obeyed His command to go to the Temple in Jerusalem to show themselves to the priests. Since they were cleansed of leprosy as they went, they got what they wanted from the Lord and moved on with their lives from there. They took the tremendous blessing they had received, which had transformed their lives completely, for granted. Like Adam and Eve eating the fruit in disobedience to God’s command, they were concerned only with fulfilling their own desires. Their spiritual blindness was such that they saw no further than getting what they wanted for their own bodies.
It is easy for us to become just like them when we fail to appreciate the great profundity of God’s blessings in our lives. His gracious divine energies permeate all reality, and we are guilty of self-centered ingratitude whenever we do not offer any dimension of our life back to Him. The Samaritan leper provides an example of what that looks like. He could have simply gone on his way without giving Christ a second thought. That is precisely what would have been expected in that time and place, for Jews and Samaritans had nothing to do with each other. Indeed, the great shock of this story is that the only one of the ten lepers who returned to give thanks for healing from the most dreaded disease of that time was a Samaritan, who was considered a foreigner and a heretic by the Jews. Leprosy separated its victims from anyone who did not have it. The men had stood at a distance from Christ when they called out for healing, for they were considered dangerously unclean. After being delivered from such a terrible malady, only the Samaritan fell down before Him in gratitude. Then the Lord said, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.”
If we want to cultivate the kind of faith that makes us well and gives us the spiritual clarity to be grateful for our blessings regardless of what is going on in our lives or in the world around us, we must become like the Samaritan. Unfortunately, doing so is not easy. The Samaritan’s entire encounter with Christ was not easy, for he knew what the Jews thought of people like him. Nonetheless, he obeyed the Lord’s command to head toward Jerusalem, which was the location of the Jewish, not the Samaritan, Temple. The priests surely would not have welcomed him there. Nonetheless, he had the humble faith to obey Christ. And when he realized that he had been healed, he alone returned to thank the Savior for this life-changing miracle.
Perhaps the Samaritan did so because, more than the others, he knew that his healing had been completely dependent upon the mercy of Christ, a blessing that he in no way deserved or could expect. At least the Jewish lepers could have reasonably expected the Messiah to heal them and to direct them to obey the Mosaic law by showing themselves to the priests. The Samaritan had no such expectations; indeed, his very existence as a Samaritan normally would have excluded him from the entire scene. In the midst of such a shocking miracle, the eye of his soul was opened such that he knew he had encountered God. He was able to see that this astounding healing was not simply a restoration of physical health, but an epiphany of overwhelming divine love and grace. How else could cleansing from leprosy have come to someone like him in this way?
Unlike the Samaritan, we often lack the spiritual vision to see our blessings or ourselves so clearly. We may think that God has simply given us our due as those who are righteous. Recall, however, how Christ taught that it is simply the human condition to be the recipient of God’s blessings, “For He makes His sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” (Matt. 5:45) The Bible is full of warnings against the temptations faced by those who seem to have the most in life. Contrary to popular opinion then and now, there is no reason to believe that those who are successful by worldly standards are being especially rewarded by God.
Throughout the Lord’s ministry, those who responded to Him with humble gratitude were not those who were full of the pride of life. Instead, they were typically people who had been broken by life’s trials and disappointments, such as incurable disease, demonic possession, the loss of loved ones, falling into a disreputable occupation, or being on the wrong side of a religious or ethnic divide. They had learned through bitter experience that they could not rely on their accomplishments in this world for their salvation. That is how, like the Samaritan, they were able to develop the gratitude to appreciate how dependent they were upon the mercy of Christ.
Our temptations to fear, worry, and anger today are surely no greater than those experienced by people like the Samaritan leper. Following the example of that righteous man, we must cultivate an abiding awareness of our dependence on the grace of God, not only for the good things of life, but for life itself. We must name and give thanks for our blessings each day as we offer them and ourselves to the Lord for the fulfillment of His purposes for us, our neighbors, and our world. The more we fill our minds with thanksgiving, the less room there will be for the distractions of dark thoughts that serve only to fuel our passions. That is how we will gain the spiritual clarity to see that the Lord Who has conquered death is always with us and will never abandon us. How, then, can we not give thanks?