In antiquity, the only measure that could be adopted to curtail leprosy and prevent contamination was the creation of boundaries similar to other boundaries that figure prominently in the Bible. Here are the most well-known: No impure foods must cross the boundaries of the human body, no contact with women on certain days each month, no contact with a corpse or with anything else deemed impure. Everything and everyone impure had to be kept outside the boundaries of the human body and outside the boundaries of society as a whole, lest contamination would occur.
Hence, foreigners such as Naaman (2 Kings 5:14-17), the commander in chief of the Syrian army and the Samaritan in the Gospel of Luke (17:11-19), found themselves barred by a double boundary: the one of leprosy and the one of being foreigners i.e., not born within the chosen people of God. Thus, the lesson taught us by what happened to these unfortunate outcasts is nothing short of uplifting and refreshing.
Thanksgiving is just a few weeks away but, in the wake of so many senseless acts of violence, losses of all kinds, uncertainties stemming also from utterances of sheer idiocy and from jolts to our peace of mind, some of us might find it hard to come up with a list of reasons for which to be thankful to God. This lesson is meant for those among us who are angry with God for insisting on His so-very-slow timetable of intervention in wicked human affairs that undermine the collective wellbeing of the community.
However, what does this lesson mean for those who are grateful to the Lord almost “habitually?” Well, they might lack passion and due intensity of intent in their display of gratitude. To be sure, there are two elements in expressing gratitude that we might find innovative. The first is the absolute gratuitous nature of God’s favors bestowed on anyone as He pleases; inside and/or outside set boundaries. And the second is that He is the only One on the face of the earth to whom we ought to be truly, wholeheartedly grateful.
Both Naaman and the Samaritan acknowledge the supremacy of God over any other creature. The Samaritan even begs the Lord to be moved with compassion toward him. For the Bible, compassion is a unique and exclusive gut feeling which is so powerful that the one feeling it experiences in his/her own flesh the pain, the exclusion, the dejection of the one who is begging for compassion. Consequently, in this truly biblical context, God alone breaks down the double barrier facing these two unfortunate people. God alone has genuine compassion especially in Christ Jesus who is God in human flesh.
Following this divine logic, at first, Naaman insists on repaying the man of God, the prophet Elisha, then, he settles for some sacred soil to take home to Syria and on which to offer to the only true God a fitting sacrifice of thanksgiving. Unable by the boundaries imposed on him to give thanks to God in the temple of Jerusalem, the Samaritan returns to offer to Jesus the sacrifice of thanksgiving, thus recognizing him as Lord.
All this contrasts with the attitude of the chosen ones, including the nine who were reinstated inside the boundaries of God’s people by Jesus’ compassion. They fail to worship God with a sacrifice of thanksgiving because they take for granted not only their election as chosen people and the gratuitous favors of God but even their miraculous cleansing.
Umm, we, born into God’s new people through Baptism, might want to think this through: it is possible to be less than passionate in our gratitude to God if we see Him as a convenient, powerful, well-stocked spiritual “vending machine” always ready to grant us whatever is often expressed only by a quick prayer of petition. Gratitude could also be lukewarm if we see Him as a master from whom we can expect payment for a job well done.
In these two cases, the step from being chosen to idolatry is a small one indeed. It depends on whether we are constantly surprised by God’s blessings, or if we begrudge our response to Him and expect favors the way spoiled kids expect new toys every week. Yet, the second aspect of the lesson is even more challenging: God alone is owed our thanksgiving.
True thanksgiving is the highest form of worship. Repeatedly, God requires this of His chosen ones as the only acceptable sacrifice befitting Him besides endless glory and praise. For the Bible, being grateful to another human being for a favor is an expression of good manners. Being grateful to God is acknowledgment that our entire life depends on Him.
We might have to rethink our posture. We should express our appreciation for whatever we receive. Yet, at both ends, as givers or as recipients of favors, we should reserve our thanksgiving for God who touches the heart of the givers and opens the eyes of the recipients to see His generosity in all the good that is done. The sooner we adopt this attitude the more fitting our worship, the more rewarding our Eucharistic celebrations (which are true thanksgiving), the more balanced our life, the healthier our relationship with God as the source of all good things, including those that He grants us through people around us.
So, we might be at a turning point in our life of worship and, consequently, at a turning point on how to enjoy life. If we become convinced that there is nothing we can do to deserve God’s gifts, that He routinely knocks down barriers because all are His children within and without boundaries; if we begin to open our eyes and see all those countless favors that we, thus far, overlooked or took for granted, our life would become so much more enjoyable, so much more rewarding, so much more free of apprehension.
At this Eucharist, we are urged with Paul and Timothy (2 Timothy 2:8-13) to rejoice in the gratuity, the unmerited gift, of God’s grace and to bring as many as possible to rejoice in the same event that removes and surpasses all boundaries and makes all of us unworthy recipients of God’s generosity. See, the Lord knew already that today we would feel the need to give Him thanks around this Table of the only Sacrifice acceptable to Him. He also knew that from now on, very often we could be thanking Him very spontaneously, with shrieks of joy like kids opening a new present.