What a great Gospel for the Thanksgiving weekend! Jesus heals 10 lepers and one of them, a Samaritan, realizing that he had been healed, turns back, prostrates himself at Jesus' feet and gives thanks.
Jesus naturally wonders what happened to the other nine. "Where are they?" His main attention, however, is reserved for the Samaritan who gave thanks.
It may help to know that leprosy in biblical times is not what it is today. Biblical "leprosy" could refer to a wide variety of skin ailments, most of them far less serious than the horrible effects of Hansen's disease.
Nevertheless, these skin ailments were seen as caused by the devil and so it was the priest, not a medical healer, who was called upon to diagnose, prescribe a time away from the community and then to perform the rituals that the cleansed "leper" had to undergo before being allowed back into the community.
These ailments were considered serious enough that the Book of Leviticus devotes two lengthy chapters to laws and rituals surrounding leprosy.
'Oh sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvellous things.'
It may have been the fact that these skin ailments were relatively routine diseases that the nine Jewish sufferers did not bother to return and say "thank you." It was all covered in the Law.
The Samaritan leper, however, perhaps ignorant of the all the Jewish rigmarole around leprosy, is the one who responds appropriately. He understands his cure as a gift, something undeserved, an act of God.
How many of us, on this Thanksgiving weekend, will prostrate ourselves before Jesus in gratitude for the great gifts he has given us? How many will even offer a prayer of thanks amidst the festivities?
We have so much, and we too often take it all for granted. Our wealth can make us blind to what we have been given. Our tendency is to see our prosperity, good health, families and freedom as entitlements, not as gifts.
When we mistake gifts for entitlements, we shrivel up inside. We seek to protect what we have and to grasp for more. But if we see our bounty as gifts, then we want to give too. A gift is undeserved; when we are conscious of someone giving us something we do not deserve, the only suitable response is to pass it on – to give freely to others.
Pope Benedict XVI, in his encyclical Caritas in Veritate, made this notion of the freely given gift the foundation of a good social system. Gratuitousness expresses fraternity and builds unity. "The unity of the human race, a fraternal communion transcending every barrier, is called into being by the word of God-who-is-Love," the pope wrote (34).
Gratuitousness does not eliminate the need for justice, but justice without a preponderance of freely given gifts makes for a cold, regimented world. Pope Benedict went so far to say that unless gratuitousness comes first, justice cannot exist at all.
Conversely, if the bottom line dominates, workers will see themselves as cogs in a profit-making machine. The dignity of the human person is crushed.
But when the basis of our human relations is gift and charity – random acts of kindness – rather than contractual relations of tit-for-tat, society is transformed and people are transformed. One no longer needs to constantly look over his shoulder for when the axe might fall; trust predominates.
The Samaritan leper sees the truth clearly – he has been given a gift, one he did not deserve or expect, one that was not a reward for his contribution to the bottom line.
So, he responds in the most appropriate way – with an outpouring of praise and thanksgiving.
The Responsorial Psalm this Sunday expresses that praise. "O sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvellous things. . . . Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises."
One can imagine the Samaritan leper singing that praise as an effusive expression of his gratitude.
The greatest gift we have been given is the promise of eternal salvation. "Eternal" in this context means not only forever, but also refers to a life in union with God now. How can one be indifferent to such a gift?
The gift of healing that the leper received was wondrous; how much more wondrous is the gift of salvation? How much more grateful should we be for that gift?
When we celebrate Thanksgiving, let it not be just a feast of consumption. Let it also be a time of enhanced praise and thanksgiving to the God who has given everything so that we might have fullness of life.