Thanksgiving Day (A): Giving Thanks
By: The Rev. Caleb Tabor
This is a story about giving thanks! So, let’s use it on Thanksgiving! The lectionary folks really were just looking for key words on this one (sorry to be catty, it’s been a long year). Giving thanks is a big moment in this story, but I don’t read this as a story about thanks. I read it as a story about healing. It is also one of those ones best taken step-by-step, so here we go!
On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee.
Jesus was walking the line. From the perspective of a traditionalist at the time, one might say that he is not just walking geographic border, but he’s walking a bigger metaphorical line. People on one side were God’s people who did things the right way. People on the other side were not because they didn’t pray the right way, weren’t the right skin color, didn’t have the right last names, had a heretical religion, didn’t have the right customs, and eat the right foods. And the bad people were the…Samaritans. Jesus was walking this line by going through this region between these two places. We tend to think of Jesus as on either the good or the bad side of things, not spending a lot of time in the gray area between.
As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him.
Whether a Galilean, a Samaritan, or a Roman citizen, if you were a leper, no one wanted you around. They were equally bad, threatening, and scary for folks. It is important to recall that many folks might have even felt that the lepers brought their illness upon themselves due to their sinful ways that displeased God (any person nowadays with an STI, HIV, trauma-induced addiction, etc…) While Jesus was in a land that no one liked, ten people that no one wanted came up to him.
Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”
Keeping their distance. Maybe because they were sick and didn’t want to get Jesus sick, but that doesn’t seem like a right reading to me since they are asking for the rabbi’s mercy. More to me it seems like maybe they have been harassed by others and were afraid to get close to anyone, not the least a community leader or a religious figure. A lot of people presently stay away from Jesus because they’ve been hurt by the communities that gather in his name.
When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean.
This seems like a terrifying prospect. Nearly everyone they know would change their minds about them if the priest ruled that they were “clean” again. However independent from our leaders we may perceive ourselves, as it turns out, most people follow the example, word, or ruling of the leaders they respect the most, whether a minister, a jurist, or a president (please stay off of Twitter). The lepers were made clean as they left and did as Jesus commanded. It is interesting that this is one of those healings where Jesus doesn’t touch anyone. He just wills something, and it is done.
Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him.
One of them didn’t follow Jesus’s instructions. Anyway, one of them comes back and his himself a little thing folks in my evangelical friends call a “praise break.” Now, not thinking about the story itself, but thinking about the reception, it seems reasonable to me that folks at this point are really on this ex-leper’s side. He’s showing gratitude for being healed. Piety, joy, love, and a witness to a miracle. What a hero. I wish I was that grateful for most of the mercies in my life, but honestly, I usually just take them for granted.
And he was a Samaritan.
Aaaaand there it is. This is when the gospel lets the other shoe drop. It gets us all on this person’s side and then tells us that he is one of them. This is where one is tempted to take refuge in the idea that the Samaritan who was healed didn’t actually follow Jesus’s instructions. There’s hope yet for us, friends, that the Samaritan may get a good chiding from Jesus for not following a divine command. Just like a Samaritan to get God’s instructions wrong.
Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”
And, if we’ve really been following the themes of this story, then we’re not happy here. Jesus praises the person with the heretic religion, the stupid culture, the dumb habits, and the gall not to follow Jesus’s instructions like the others did. At this point, we should be the ones begging Jesus to have mercy on us and declare the degenerate unclean again. Alas, we suffer still. And that’s all he’s got to say to us about it.
Now, the reflections above are precisely why having this as the reading for Thanksgiving Day is really only moderately relevant (read: sloppy). Giving thanks is an important function in an overall story about Jesus pulling a switch on us by transcending our prejudices. That borderland between Galilee and Samaria is a powerful metaphor for the reader if we take the time to look deeply and contextually. It is the border between the people we like and the people we fear. That border is everywhere in this world. It is everywhere because is exists primarily in human hearts, and just plays itself out in ways that diminish, hurt, ruin, and even end human lives. I’ll bet you more money than I’ve got that each and every one of us has that border in our own hearts too.
This is a story we need at the moment. As I write this, the 2020 elections haven’t yet been held. I’m no prophet, but I imagine that things won’t be much better afterwards. This is not an invitation to make peace with injustice and it isn’t a “bothsidesism.” It is a plea not to forget the humanity of the people you hate, dislike, or fear. Robbing someone of their humanity is easier than you think. Often, it isn’t a drastic step, but rather a series of little moves that takes us down a truly cruel path. In this story we get an invitation to break the dehumanizing cycle we trap one another in. May we be wise enough to accept it.
 Some commentaries suggest he did. You can die on that hill if you want to, but I just don’t see it, honey.
 You can fill in the blank here on what “them” is in your life; a flaky liberal, a conservative bumpkin, someone who wears white after Labor Day, etc…
You know how those people are…
The Rev. Caleb Tabor is the chaplain for Episcopal Campus and Young Adult Ministries in Raleigh, North Carolina. He was educated at Elon University, Emory University, and Virginia Theological Seminary. Originally from Efland, North Carolina, he has settled down close to home, where he lives with his husband.