These two simple words are among the most powerful in any language. As parents, we teach them to our children from the time they first begin to use words, along with “please” and “you’re welcome.” Even before they can speak the words, children who learn baby sign language can begin to use the signs for them correctly.
“Thank you” establishes a mutual relationship between two people. A gift has been given and received. In the acknowledgement of the giving and receiving, a relationship is established that with time becomes mutual. Sometimes I am the giver. Sometimes I am the receiver.
There are many ways to express gratitude. When in person, a big smile and the spoken words are very appropriate and common. When the giver and recipient are not together, it’s a bit more challenging. Phone calls, letters, texts, and so forth are all ways of conveying gratitude.
I think one of the big challenges we face as people who live in larger communities and not in small family villages is the best way to express our gratitude. The moment in which a gift is received is not always the one in which it is possible to offer a personal response of gratitude. Gifts are placed in the mail and sent around the country and the world. When they arrive, they are opened in the privacy of home. It’s not always possible to call the sender immediately. Then a day or two pass, then a week or two, then it gets embarrassing that so much time has passed and nothing sent to the one who has given us the gift. Sometimes we’re so overwhelmed by the generosity of the gift, that we don’t have the words to express our amazement and gratitude, so we delay until it seems too late to say anything. It’s not, but it feels that way and so we don’t.
Naaman finds healing
This challenge is not new to our lives and times. In the time of Elisha the prophet, Naaman, a military commander in the army of King Aram, suffered from a skin condition that was called leprosy. It may or may not have been the condition we now know as Hansen’s disease. Any condition that made the skin splotchy in color or with flaking or scaly texture was called leprosy. Lepers among Israelites had to live away from the community until their skin returned to a normal condition.
Naaman was not an Israelite. He was from a neighboring country. But one of the servants of his wife was a child who had been captured from an Israelite village during a raid. The child noticed his skin condition and suggested that Naaman might be healed by the Israelite holy man and prophet. Naaman traveled with his own king’s permission to visit the king of Israel and ask for healing. Eventually, he was directed to Elisha, whom he and his large retinue visited in the desert. Elisha did not come out to meet Naaman. Instead, he sent instructions that Naaman should go to the Jordan River and plunge into it seven times in order to be healed.
The Jordan River was not a pristinely clean waterway. It was muddy and not at all appealing. Naaman was used to beautiful, clean rivers. He felt quite insulted and was inclined to turn around and go directly home. Fortunately for him and for us, his advisers suggested that he give it a try. After all, if Elisha had asked him to do something hard, he would do it. Why not try the easy thing? So Naaman went to the Jordan and plunged into it seven times. When he emerged after the seventh plunge, his skin had been restored to the condition of a child. The lesions were all healed and the skin looked young again.
Naaman returned to Elisha to give his thanks and offer payment for the great gift he had received. Elisha refused to accept any payment. The healing was a free gift from the God of Israel. Elisha had simply been the channel through which the instruction had passed.
Naaman was blown away by this notion of God’s care and healing with no price attached. He asked Elisha to allow him to take two mule-loads of soil from Israel back to his home country. He intended to place the soil over the ground there and build an altar on top of it. In this way, he would be able to worship the God of Israel who had saved him. Elisha granted his request.
Why did he need to take soil with him, you ask? Well … it’s because in those days people believed that gods were local. They only ruled in certain areas. When you left that territory, the god you had worshipped was no longer going to be able to protect you. This was one of the amazing discoveries that Abram had made centuries earlier when he traveled from Ur of the Chaldees to Palestine and found that God was there too! Naaman had not had this experience of a God who was present everywhere. He took some soil home so he could worship the Lord to whom he now gave his allegiance. He had received the gift of faith in the Lord. (2 Kings 5:14-17).
A Samaritan finds healing
Lepers continued to be isolated from the community in Israel into the time of Jesus. We may shake our heads with amazement at this practice today, but the past two years of experience with COVID-19 around the world make this ancient reaction to contagious disease more understandable. When there is no known cure for a disease that is easily transmissible and for which no one understands the transmission process, isolation of the ill person is the fastest and most certain defense for the larger community. In ancient times, skin conditions, including Hansen’s Disease, were difficult or impossible to treat and could lead to serious deformities and death. Until all the skin looked the same again (either with no lesions or completely covered with lesions), the individual could not rejoin the community. Priests had to certify that the person was once again whole before they could return to their families and normal community life.
Jesus was traveling on his way to Jerusalem, according to St. Luke, when ten lepers met him at the edge of a village. (Lk 17:11-19) They called out to him, “Jesus, Master! Have pity on us!” They had heard of his power to heal and hoped for this gift themselves. Jesus didn’t touch them or approach them directly. Instead, he called out to them, “Go show yourselves to the priests.” Without any evidence of healing having been received, they headed off to find the priests. It was only as they traveled forward that they realized they had been healed. With great amazement and joy, nine of them continued on the journey. But one of them stopped, turned around, and went back to find Jesus. The man spoke of the goodness of God for healing him, fell at Jesus’ feet, and thanked him.
At this point, Luke tells us that the one who returned was a Samaritan. As you will remember, Samaritans and Jews did not get along with each other. They avoided each other as much as possible. Jews sometimes even traveled far out of their way to go around Samaria when they traveled between the Galilee and Judea. Yet the one who returned was from Samaria and was grateful. Jesus spoke and asked, “Where are the other nine? Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God?” He told the man, “Stand up and go; your faith has saved you.” This non-Jew, this man who was not one of the Chosen People, had received the gift of faith and gratitude because he said, “Thank you.”
Paul continues in faith
Several decades later, St. Paul was nearing the end of his life. He had become a Christian a few years after the Resurrection of Jesus, and after being one of the leaders of the first persecution of Christians. He had spent nearly thirty years traveling through the Middle East/Asia Minor, preaching the Good News of Jesus’ coming and of the Resurrection. Now he was in chains in Rome, awaiting trial as a Roman citizen for treason. He was facing death. He wrote to his friend Timothy, who was one of the many men and women who became Christians due to his teaching and ministry. “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendent of David…” (2 Tim 2:8-13)
We too speak in our liturgies of remembering the Lord. Part of what we do at each Eucharist is to remember and enter again into the mystery of this coming of Jesus into our world and the reuniting of our humanity with the God who loved us into being.
Paul notes that the gospel, the good news, for which he is suffering as if he were a dangerous criminal, cannot be chained. Nothing can stop it. It has been passed on to others, who will themselves continue to pass it on to more people. His continued witness will help strengthen them in faithfulness and trust. “If we have died with him we shall also live with him; if we persevere we shall also reign with him…”
It’s our turn to be grateful
Jesus has come. Salvation is here. Our response of gratitude and service to others will pass it forward to those we meet. Whether we respond in love and service or not does not change the reality of the coming of salvation to those who will receive it.
May we be found among those who have accepted gratefully the gift of salvation, of becoming one of God’s children, a sister or brother of Jesus and of all those created by our Father.
Today, I send my thanks to you who read these words for the time you spend reading them, to those whose vision made possible this means of sharing the good news, and to those who have encouraged me to write.
I thank those who have supported me from childhood into later adulthood: my parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings, cousins, husband, children, grandchildren, extended family, teachers, friends, and others – and all those who formed and loved them. We are all part of a great web of being, sustained in love.
Thank you. Two simple words that open new worlds of connection. May they be our common entry into a life of deep joy and inner peace.
Readings for the Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle C