Thanksgiving Devotion by Rev. Ryan Matthias
Thanksgiving is always about the one who returned, isn’t it? “On the way to Jerusalem, Jesus was passing between Samaria and Galilee. And as he entered a village, he was met by ten lepers who stood at a distance” (Luke 17:11-12). There is an anonymous leper in an anonymous village who encounters One who is predictably prepared to deal with this moment as almost an anonymous Being. This moment is a tidal wave of, well, ickiness. I’ve been in a room with one really sick person. These ten are the perfection of the hideousness of the fall. They waft through life waiting for their extremities to slough off. They are untouchable, terminal and beyond love.
They are worthless.
But somehow, they find their worth when Jesus shows up—never before. Their voices return. They are not announcing “Unclean!” as he draws near. They are as dripping statues with voices. Have you ever seen a hopeless one hope? Their bodies convulsing with exuberance, somehow, they know that this One, this Jesus, this Master, brings mercy in his presence. This troupe has compared and contrasted the levels of disease and dis-ease every day. They know which of them is NEXT. Maybe it is our Samaritan.
That Luke shows us this moment is really quite astonishing.
They are of the periphery.
That is their world. They have a hallowed halo that surrounds their bodies. Six feet! (Yes, that was the proscribed void even back then.) And yet, at a long distance, they peek into the cosmos and spy Jesus. How they know, we are not told. They only scream out a solitary name. It is not “Mom” or “Abraham” or “Elijah.” It is the name they have heard whispered throughout the countryside for the last three years.
“When he (Jesus) saw them, he said to them, ‘Go show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went, they were cleansed” (Luke 17:14).
No one SEES them. Come on. People eye them, but don’t really consider them human. Not with their molting skin and their misshapen existences. They are not deemed worthy to be considered anything other than an outcast.
Can we pause just a moment on the fact that Jesus “sees” them? This is the phrase that humanity has always longed for—even in our worst moments. We want someone to notice us despite our monstrosities. But it is not just us. Just as this solitary leper, we are in the midst of the perfectly imperfect. There are nine to our one.
But when this becomes an event, it is as if the world narrows. It is not about us, but it sure seems like it for a split second. We have our own leprosy, but also deeper down we have the incipient broken nature of our own “foreign-ness” also. How unworthy can we possibly be? How filled with the Samaritan vices can I be filled? Surely, Jesus’ miracles have more worthy targets.
And then it happens for them. From a distance, they all begin trying to find a priest, or even better, plural priests. Can you imagine them stumbling, one after another, like Forest Gump with his braces, and then boom? A pause and a moment of solidarity. George has his fingers back. Norm’s nose has regrown. Lou’s lips have returned. Staring wide-eyed, wild-eyed at each other, they must find the priests! They sprint with new-found stamina towards the synagogue. To the holy men! Arms flailing and throats giggling, that haven’t had this much energy since…
One watches their dust plume from the earth. He turns his head and stares back at the one they had all called “Master.” He looks at his fingers and palms his cheeks. He feels the tears furrowing down his face.
“Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back praising God with a loud voice, and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks. Now he was a Samaritan” (Luke 17:15-16).
Luke lets this moment with Jesus slip—a tiny blip in history and his ministry. This man is almost an afterthought; he appears in a flash of insignificance. He is among the ten and not worthy of even a name. We can almost imagine him stumbling back, though all is now right in his world. He can stand, but he falls face down in front of Jesus. He praises God at the feet of God. All is Edenic in the universe in this one moment. This is what it is supposed to look like. He is not “Samaritan” now. He is of faith. He is complete.
Jesus questions the man in such an extraordinary way. “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” (Luke 17:17-18).
This…this is the moment we’ve all been waiting for in terms of our Thanksgiving weekend. We can pat ourselves on the back and celebrate how we would have done the same thing. But let’s just leave the laudatory moment to the man.
Are you sure you would have returned?
We are often commanded this weekend to return. We are compelled by a sense of churchly “guilt” (is that the wrong word?) to make sure we lawfully say enough thanks. How much is ever enough? We are, I suppose, pushed to look intently inside ourselves and see if we have the intestinal fortitude to praise at Jesus’ feet to the fullest extent of our strength.
There are many…some…ok, probably, possibly (?) one that would have returned. But that is really not the point of all of this, is it?
This is about Jesus. Jesus comes to see, and to heal, and to forgive despite our returning or not, and we should take great joy in that. He has come to witness our faith that he has blessed us with. He has come to walk through the valleys of our shadows of death and to pull us out.
For you are worth it to him. He does it for ten and he does it for one. He is the divine rescuer, and we dare not ever forget it. You may be of the periphery, but he does not NOT see you. Ever. This is the drama of “Thanksgiving.” It is not a man-made holiday, but a remembrance of past, present and prescience. This is God seeing. And God acting. And God loving.
You are worth the gospel.
“Worth” meaning that you have nothing and need everything. That is what the Gospel is for. That is our Advent adventure.