Francis of Assisi provided the focus this last week for my E-news epistle that comes out every Thursday. In it, I asked do we have the courage to allow ourselves to be touched by the generosity of God? Like Francis, to be touched by the generosity of God is to become a conduit for the flow of God’s generosity into our spiritually parched world? Individually, we may not match up to Francis. Yet, as a community, we can become opaque screens upon which God projects the change he longs for us to be. As Pope Francis seeks to do, we too must strive to emulate Francis’ in the face of the calculated hardness of the human heart. Do we have the courage to take such a risk?
Stepping into the text
The middle chapters of Luke’s Gospel describe Jesus on the move as he makes his way from Galilee to Jerusalem. In chapter 17 Luke places Jesus in the no-man’s-land region between Galilee and Samaria. Only Luke reports a number of encounters that Jesus has along the way, either with Samaritans or in the region of Samaria.
Samaria was once the Northern Kingdom of Israel destroyed by the Assyrians in 721. The Samaritans of Jesus day were the descendants of the Israelite peasantry left behind when the nobility was sent into captivity, never to return. The Assyrians resettled Samaria with foreign groups with whom over time the Israelite peasantry intermarried, thus defiling themselves in the eyes of Galilean and Judean Jews.
The particular story in chapter 17 involves Jesus healing of ten lepers. The gist of Luke’s account is that of the ten who follow Jesus’ instruction to go show themselves to the priests as a confirmation of being healed, only one returns to give thanks. You guessed it. The one who displays gratitude is not a Judean or Galilean, but a Samaritan.
Gratitude is the key
Gratitude touches the most unlikely of people. Gratitude is encountered often in those areas of our experience in life where we might least be looking for it. For gratitude and the experience of outsider-ness and exclusion seem to be universally connected. Surveys reveal that gratitude lies not among those who enjoy abundance but flows among those whose experience is marked by limitations of various kinds. Likewise, within ourselves, we encounter our gratitude not so much in the areas of personal experience where we feel confident and strong, but in the areas where we feel most vulnerable and aware of our poverty.
The healing miracles of Jesus are not the equivalent of medical cures. Their primary function is to signal the boundless extent of God’s generosity. God’s unbounded generosity is an offer requiring an act of acceptance. Without our acceptance, God’s generosity remains only something offered; not yet realized. The realization of God’s generosity comes only through our encounter with gratitude. The stronger our gratitude, the more open we are to receiving generosity, making us more likely to risk living generously.
What distinguishes the Samaritan who returns to give thanks is that his whole perspective on life is radically transformed by his experience of gratitude. We don’t know about the other nine lepers who went off to show themselves to the priests. Yet, we detect a hint of something provisional about their healing. Jesus tells the Samaritan who returned to give thanks to God that his healing is the result of his faith, which alone has made him well. This raises the question about the other nine. Is it possible they were cured but not healed? Jesus’ final command to the Samaritan is: Get up and go on your way; you faith has made you well. The man is not only cured of his illness, he is made well. In other words, his return to give thanks for God’s generosity, occasions his healing!
Cure, healing, and human well-being
In our materialist medical worldview to be cured is seen as the miracle. If we long to emulate the magnetism of Francis then we will find ourselves longing for more than cure. For us, the longed-for miracle is to be healed of what ails us. We long for wellness, a quality of wholeness. In our pursuit of becoming whole, we want something beyond an eradication of illness.
Amazing advances in the ability to cure more and more illness marks the achievement of medical science. We thank God for such advances. Or, do we really? For most of us, after an initial sense of relief, in a loose way of speaking we are thankful for a return to the status ante, i.e. life, as we knew it before illness struck us down. I say, thank God I have my life back. Yet in so many instances to be cured of illness is not the same as being healed of what ails us.
Human well-being sometimes referred to as wellness or wholeness, or as Francis demonstrates holiness, requires the alignment of body, mind, and spirit. A physical or somatic cure can be part the process of healing but healing may also take place without being accompanied by a somatic cure. For healing is a holistic process of realignment that affects body, mind, and spirit, – soma, psyche, and pneuma. Wholeness-wellness -holiness – the interconnected elements that when realigned produce a transformation of perspective we call, healing.
It’s this transformation of perspective that is hinted at in Jesus’ words to the Samaritan. He is not only cured of his leprosy, his life is transformed in a new way that is so much more than the absence of illness. This is the experience of healing as practiced by Jesus. To be healed is to be ushered into a new dimension of perception and perspective that unblocks the wellspring of gratitude to overflow in us, and it is this that results in our becoming healed – reclothed in gratitude for God’s generosity.
My reflections this last week on Francis reminded me that if we as a parish community are to meet the challenge facing us it will require more than the good stewardship of bricks, mortar, and institutional life. It will require of us to risk becoming healed. Francis was touched by the generosity of God and this made him a conduit through which the generosity of God flowed into a spiritually parched world. A man who in many ways remained a broken human being became a magnet for others drawn to the experience of God’s generosity. Do we have the courage to allow ourselves to be similarly touched by the generosity of God? Individually, we may not match up to Francis. Yet, as a community, we can display Francis’ quality of magnetism and so change our world as he changed his? Do we have the courage to take such a risk?
Our materialism hides so much from us concerning what truly ails us. Cure for what afflicts the body brings us no nearer to a healing of that which ails our hearts and souls.The fruit of gratitude is to no longer resist new opportunities to be generous. As we transition from October to November, towards our great act of national Thanksgiving, the interconnections between gratitude as the response to the experience of generosity and generous living as the fruit of gratitude – form a virtuous cycle. A virtuous cycle that we will need to more fully explore.
In the meantime let’s meditate on the question: Will we be the one who returns to thank God?