2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-16
It has become habit, when paying your check after finishing a meal at a restaurant to include a tip in your payment – 10 to 15 percent. It’s the accepted way to say “thank you” for the service received. This common courtesy is diminished when the menu or check either instructs you to include a tip or notifies you that a service charge has already been added on. Your gratitude is no longer a voluntary choice, but forced on you. I’m convinced we should eliminate all forms of “tipping” except for extraordinary service!!! That goes for barbers, taxis, letter carriers, et. al., at Christmas!
Although followers of Christ are not to expect thanks for sharing the Good News entrusted to them, this does not mean that no gratitude is necessary in religion. For faith, ingratitude is a tragedy. As King Lear said in the day of his own tragedy, “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child.” So many never even give to God a grace before a meal, but feel compelled to offer a tip to the server afterwards. Writes the Psalmist: “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits.”
Important for Christian experience is the recognition of the one from whom all things come. It is always necessary to give thanks to God. It’s got to be more than tipping! Tithing!
In the first reading, Elisha cures the foreigner, Naaman, of leprosy. Elisha refuses to accept his gift of gratitude. Elisha believes that he has been acting as an agent for God and will not be compensated for what God has done. God alone is to receive thanks.
It is significant that in this story, Naaman, a man not of the Israelites, not of their faith, comes to recognize the absolute authority and allegiance due to God. The cured Naaman would prefer to worship the Lord only. He asks to take home two mule-loads of earth from Israel – the idea being that a God could not be worshiped apart from his own land – literally! Further in this chapter of the 2nd Book of Kings, additional emphasis is given of this need for gratitude to be expressed to God alone.
The sequel of our passage tells of the curse upon the avaricious Gehazi – the servant of Elisha. Gehazi thinks, “My master has let that Aramean Naaman off too lightly by not accepting what he offered … I will run after him and get something out of him.” Elisha’s servant uses the pretense of aiding two other prophets who have just arrived to gain gifts from Naaman for his own benefit. Upon his return, Elisha perceives what the culprit has done and lays a curse on him. “The leprosy of Naaman shall cling to you and your descendants forever.” So, we have in this Elisha saga, two stories: a typical Hebrew literary device, an antithesis, a dramatic rhythm and balance of the whole in doublet form!
Where Naaman is shown as proud when he is sick and humble when he is healed. The noble pagan is a leper at the outset, while Gehazi, the servant, is a leper at the end. And the overall antithesis is of the unselfishness of Elisha and the avarice of Gehazi.
Both readings, Old Testament and Gospel of Luke, have as their theme stories of a cure for leprosy, and the response of thanksgiving. The absolute necessity to be a thankful people is given serious attention.
Basically, it comes to this: God gives, we receive, and receive and receive! Unless we give thanks as individuals and as nations, something goes wrong. We become unhealthy, no longer whole.
There is the story of a doctor in South Wales who would prescribe in certain cases of neuroses what he called his “thank you cure.” When a patient came to him discouraged, pessimistic and full of his own woes, but without any symptoms of a serious ailment, he would give this advice: “For six weeks I want you to say ‘thank you’ whenever anyone does you a favor. To show you mean it, emphasize the words with a smile.” The patient might complain, “no one ever does me a favor.” Whereupon, the wise old doctor would reply with a quote from scripture, “seek and you will find”. Six weeks later, more often than not, the patient would return with quite a new outlook. He was freed of his sense of grievance against life, convinced that people had suddenly become more kind and friendly.
Living unthankfully to God is living with a low-grade fever, as dangerous to our health as leprosy. Not contagious or dangerous in itself, it leads to disfigurement, decay! Living gratefully to God, on the other hand, gives us a healthy glow that comes from turning to our Creator. Giving gratitude to God means coming to feel good about ourselves.
In the story of the cure of ten lepers, Jesus praises the one who gave praise to God. God expects our thanks. I’ve discovered from my traveling abroad that when you find yourself in a country where you don’t speak the language, and very few of the natives speak English, that it is important to learn at least two phrases in the native tongue. The first will be some kind of greeting and the second is “thank you.” It’s always good to acknowledge another person’s presence and be ready to say “thanks.”
Visitors to Honolulu frequently make the error of guessing that the meaning of the word mahalo is “trash.” It’s a natural mistake, since the word is seen printed on street wastebaskets all around town, so It is a natural mistake. But the meaning of mahalo is not “trash,” but “thanks” – for depositing refuse in containers.
Oscar Wilde once defined gratitude as a lively appreciation of favors to be received. Wilde was a cynic. Unless we too are cynics or confused, like visitors to Hawaii, we need to be aware of the importance of “thankfulness” as a healthy part of living. We need to be able to say “thank you” in whatever circumstances we are. For, it is obvious our family, our schools, our church, our friends have all made investments in us.
It’s certainly true in dollars and cents. I read that parents alone have spent more than $120,000 on each child by the time he or she finishes high school. And that doesn’t include the investment of energy and emotion – late night feedings, walking the floor and waiting out the time your teenager returns home with the car! Less obviously, our country, our culture, all past history – these and countless other elements have contributed favorably to what we are. People need to be able to say “thank you.” But with a difference.
The truly grateful do not think of themselves – they think of God and are thankful!
Thanks must be directed outward in a positive way. Thanks must be for, not against; negative gratitude is expressed in such statements as “I’m grateful I’m not him, he has it rough” or, “I thank God things aren’t that bad.” That’s negative gratitude – being thankful for what isn’t, instead of for what is. It’s an “in spite of gratitude.
Jesus set the example in positive thanks. He didn’t wait until afterwards! He gave thanks before an event – he gave thanks before he raised Lazarus from the dead – he gave thanks before he gave bread and wine to the disciples at the last supper for the forgiveness of sin.
Edward Arlington Robinson wrote, “Two kinds of gratitude: the sudden kind we feel for what we take, the larger kind we feel for what we give.”
This “larger kind” of gratitude is the one we need more of– the kind that is given – given to God and given for others. Learn to say “thank you” not just on Thanksgiving Day, but learn to say it the rest of the year!
In the story of the ten lepers healed by Jesus, it was only the Samaritan who returned to thank Jesus for cleansing him of disease. Jesus had given them all directions to follow the Law of Moses for the cleansing of leprosy. The nine were simply following his instructions. But the tenth one, the outsider, recognized the hand of God in the healing and knelt at Jesus’ feet in order to give thanks.
Only the one who was otherwise out of place, except for the common condition and isolation of the disease that brought him together with the other nine – only this one was able to see clearly the importance and source of his cure and the need to be thankful.
Thanks is not a tip we give. Thankful is what we are!
This, says Jesus, is faith!
© Copyright 1999, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
This essay first appeared in Faith in Action. Articles in Faith in Action may be reproduced for use in ELCA and ELCIC congregations provided each copy carries the note:
© Copyright 1999, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Reprinted with permission.