One’s attention is naturally drawn to the Samaritan in the story before us now.
At first the ten are all of a group:
- All stricken by the same deadly disease.
- All drawn together by a fate that erased the differences which had separated them before this awful diagnosis.
- All desperate enough to call out in unison to Jesus today.
- All cured by their willingness to follow Jesus’ direction to go to the priest to have this miracle verified.
But of course there is something different about this one. And don’t we quickly notice that difference in his recognition that gratitude was his first and only response to a healing which gave him his life back in countless ways? As for me, it seems that ‘difference’ must have been there all along — somehow nurtured through a lifetime so that in this critical moment, it would be obvious to everyone. Thinking of it in this way, one might argue that even when he was still so very ill, he was already whole in all that ways that matter.
Here is why I am thinking of this in this way:
I have officiated at a grueling stretch of funerals these last couple of weeks — and at the end of this week they are capped off by those of a couple of precious old men who I was blessed to walk with in their last years. Unlike some of the others who I came to know only through the memories of their children and grandchildren, these two were lifelong members of the community of First Lutheran Church. They were baptized into the faith here. They were both confirmed in the class of 1944. They were married here, raised their children here, and one buried his beloved wife here just a few short months ago. Each of them in his last days showed the rest of us the wholeness which marked his life in spite of the devastating effects of age and disease. A wholeness which was made evident in joy and in wonder and in gratitude.
Don was diagnosed with Parkinson’s years and years ago. I have seen this debilitating disease steal so much from so very many. In his case his gait was altered and his speech was nearly gone for much of the time I have known him. In these last years he was less and less able to take care of his own needs. And yet, somehow through it all, his eyes still danced every single time I saw him. In fact, as he sat in a chair in a hospital room late last week, coughing from the pneumonia which would soon take his life, his daughter leaned over and asked him if he was ok. With a smile on his face he whispered, “Of course not. I have Parkinson’s.” And then he shook with laughter at this joke he told on himself. Oh, I don’t believe his eyes stopped shining until they closed and they simply could not shine in this life any more.
Paul’s health, on the other hand, declined differently than Don’s. In the end, it was a cancer diagnosis which marked his last days. Only it was not that diagnosis which defined him. When he learned what it was that was making him so miserable, he said his wishes were that nothing more be done. He had had a good life and it was enough. I saw him when he was still in the hospital and we spoke then of the grand reunion waiting for him — in particular with a beloved daughter who he has been missing these thirty years. It would be the last conversation I would have with him for once he returned to the nursing home, he would not be able to speak again.
I think of these two remarkable men and I know that they did not become people who could die with such grace over night. As the Samaritan responded with gratitude in what was perhaps the most pivotal moment of his life, in a very real way so did they. So. Did. They. And I just can’t believe that is by chance.
And yet, I do wonder now what makes this possible.
- Is gratitude and wonder and joy simply a disposition born in us, or is it something we can cultivate and grow?
- And if it is cultivated and grown, how do we go about doing so?
- Indeed, are we able to trust there is ‘something wondrously more’ by accident at the end of our lives or are we especially able to do so because we have been nurtured in this hope all of our lives?
In Jesus’ surprise that only one returned today to give thanks — and that one in whom it would not have necessarily been expected —- it would seem that these are gifts which can be nurtured and grown. Which, in fact, need to be nurtured and grown.
So it is I am wondering now what this looks like in my life and yours. In the life of my congregation and yours.
- What practices ought we undertake, with what stories might we surround ourselves, with what rituals might we allow ourselves to be shaped, so that when the time comes — and it will to all of us — we might respond with gratitude and joy? If not to an actual cure then to and with the One who makes us well, who makes us whole, in all the ways that matter?
- What do you think made the Samaritan different from the other nine? I am presuming that the characteristic of gratitude was his long before he became ill and long before he met Jesus on the road that day. What do you think?
- I have offered a couple of examples of those who responded in much the same way as the Samaritan in this story. In whom have you seen this response live out? What stories will you remember and tell this week?