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(October 2017)

On Gratitude towards Our Lord and Creator

A homily on the Gospel on the Healing of the Ten Lepers by St. Nikolai Velimirovic, bishop of Ochrid, from “Homilies, vol. Two: Sundays after Pentecost,” Lazarica Press, Birmingham (1998), pp. 299-306.

As Jesus entered into a certain village, there met Him ten men that were lepers, which stood afar off; and they lifted up their voices, and said: “Jesus, Master; have mercy on us!” And when He saw them, He said unto them: “Go shew yourselves unto the priests.” And it came to pass that, as they went, they were cleansed. And one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, and with a loud voice glorified God, and fell down on his face at His feet, giving Him thanks; and he was a Samaritan. And Jesus answering said: “Were there not ten cleansed, but where are the nine? There are not found that returned to give glory to God, save this stranger.” And He said unto him: “Arise, go thy way: thy faith hath made thee whole.”

[Lk 17:12-19]

† † †

We are taught through small things, not always being able to grasp big ones. If we are unable to grasp how God sees all men, let us see how the sun shines and sheds its light on all things on earth. If we are unable to grasp how a man’s soul cannot live for an instant without God, let us see how a man’s body cannot live for a moment without air.

If we do not know why God seeks obedience from men, let us understand why the head of a family seeks obedience from its members, a king from his subjects, a commander from his soldiers and an architect from his builders. If we do not know why God seeks gratitude from men, let us reflect and understand why a father seeks gratitude from his children. Let us pause for a moment on this subject: why does a father seek obedience from his children? Why does a father insist that his son take off his cap and make a reverence to him, and say “thank you” for everything, large or small, that he receives from his parents? Why do parents have to do this? Are they enriched by their children’s thanks, or made more powerful or more eminent, or do they have more influence in society? No; nothing of all this. So, when parents gain nothing personally from their children’s gratitude, is it not strange that they constantly teach their children to be grateful, and make them practice gratitude—and this not just on the part of devout parents, but also that of unbelievers?

This is not in the least strange, but is, rather, sublime. It is the parents’ selfless love that drives them to teach their children gratitude. Why? That it should be for the child’s good. That the child should grow up as a cultivated fruit tree and not as a wild thistle; so that it should go well with the child in this transitory life among men, among friends and enemies, in villages and towns, in authority and in commerce. A grateful man is everywhere valued, liked, invited and assisted. He who learns gratitude learns mercy, and a merciful man walks more freely in this world.

Let us now ask ourselves why God seeks men’s thanks. Why did He seek of Noah, Moses, Abraham and other of our forefathers that they offer Him sacrifices of thanksgiving (Gen 8:20-21; 12:7-8; 35:1; Lev Ch. 3)? Why did the Lord Jesus every day give an example to the world of how we must give thanks to God (Mt 11:25; 14:19; 26:26-7)? Why did the apostles do the same (Acts 2:47; 27:35), commanding all the faithful to give thanks to God in and for all things (Eph 5:20; Col 3:17)? Do we find great Isaiah’s words incomprehensible: I will mention the lovingkindness of the Lord, and the praises of the Lord, according to all that the Lord hath bestowed on us, and the great goodness! (Isa 63:7)? Or what the gentle Psalmist advises his own soul: Praise the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits. (Pss 102/103:2)? Why, then, does God seek men’s thanks, and why do men give Him thanks?

It is out of His endless love for mankind that God seeks that men give Him thanks. The thanks of men will not make God greater, more powerful, more glorious, richer or more alive, but they will make men all of these things. Man’s gratitude will not add anything to God’s peace and contentment, but it will add greatly to man’s. Thanksgiving to God will in no way change God’s state and being, but it will change these in a grateful man. God has no need of our gratitude, nor are our prayers necessary to Him. But it is this same Lord who said: Your Father knoweth what things ye have need of; before ye ask Him (Mt 6:8) who at the same time recommended that men ought always to pray, and not to faint (Lk 18:1). God may not feel the need of our prayers, but He nevertheless tells us to pray. He may not feel the need of our gratitude, but nevertheless demands it of us—the thanksgiving that is nothing other than a form of prayer, a prayer of thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving to God raises us mortals out of the corruption of mortality, releases us from that from which we must all at some time be released, whether we will or not, and binds us to God the living and immortal; if we are not bound to Him in this life, then we shall never be in His presence in eternity. Thanksgiving ennobles the thankful and nourishes good works. Thanksgiving inspires benevolence in the world, and gives freshness to every virtue. The mortal tongue of man is far from being able to represent either the beauty of gratitude or the ugliness of ingratitude as graphically as both are presented in today’s Gospel.

At that time, As Jesus entered into a certain village, there met Him ten men that were lepers, which stood afar off; and they lifted up their voices, and said: “Jesus, Master; have mercy on us!” There were ten lepers. It is terrible to see one, let alone ten at once. A body covered from head to foot firstly with white spots and then white, festering scabs, that first itch and then burn like fire. A body that is decaying and falling apart. A body in which there is more pus than blood. A body that stinks without and within. This is a leprous man. When the leprosy strikes at the nose, the mouth, the eyes, imagine what sort of air is breathed through the pus, what the food is like that is eaten with it and what the world is like when seen through it!

According to the Law of Moses, lepers were forbidden to come into any sort of contact with other people. This is still the case today in areas where leprosy exists. To stop anyone approaching a leprous man, the leper had to cry from a distance: “Unclean! Unclean!” This is spelled out word for word in the Law: And the leper in whom the plague is, his clothes shall be rent, and his head bare, and he shall put a covering upon his upper lip, and shall cry: “Unclean! Unclean!” (Lev 13:45). His clothes rent—that the leprosy on him may be seen; bareheaded—again that it be known that he is leprous, as leprosy makes the hair fall out; with his mouth covered—again as a sign for recognition by passers-by; and over and above all this, being forced to cry out: “Unclean! Unclean!” They were driven out of the cities and villages and lived a life lower than that of the beasts, driven off, despised and forgotten. He is unclean, it is written in the Law, he shall dwell alone; without the camp shall his habitation be. (Lev 13:46). They were considered as dead, although their fate was more terrible than death.

One day the Lord Jesus, the Source of health, beauty and strength, passed by these ten ragged and stinking remnants of life. When the lepers discovered that it was He, they, from afar off, lifted up their voices, and said: Jesus, Master; have mercy on us! How were these wretches able to know of Jesus and His power to help them, when they had no contact with other men? Someone must, throwing bread to them on the road, have given them the news. The fame of this one new thing in the world that could be of interest to them must have come to their ears from afar. All else that happens in the world: changes of ruler and wars among nations, the building and destroying of cities, festivals, fires and earthquakes—all this was meaningless to them. Clad in suppuration, they could only think of their miserable clothing and, perhaps, of Him who was able to strip this clothing off them and clothe them in the raiment of health. Hearing of the Lord Jesus as an almighty healer, they had also certainly heard of specific cases of Christ’s healing of lepers like themselves (Lk 5:12-13). They must therefore have longed for the happy chance that they might meet the Lord. Somewhere on the edge of the Galilean plain, where the road begins to climb into the hills of Samaria, they were awaiting Him. He was passing that way on the road to Jerusalem. And lo, the happy chance had now come, not by chance but by God’s dispensation. They saw Christ passing with His disciples and, seeing Him, they cried out with one voice: Jesus, Master; have mercy on us! Why did they call Him “Master”? Because it is a more dignified and meaningful word than “Teacher,” for a Master is one who is not just a teacher but a spiritual guide, who by his words, example and care leads men onto the path of salvation. Why, then, do they not call Him “Lord”, which is an even more dignified and meaningful word than “Master”? Because they had not yet come to know of this dignity of Christ’s.

Have mercy on us, they cried aloud. And when He saw them, He said unto them: Go shew yourselves unto the priests. And it came to pass that, as they went, they were cleansed. In an earlier instance of the healing of lepers, the Lord stretched out His hand and touched the leper, saying to him: Be thou clean. And immediately the leprosy departed from him. (Lk 5:13). In this instance, though, He not only did not touch the lepers, but was not even close to them, for they stood afar off and cried out to Him. He had, then, to call to them from a distance.

Why did the Lord send them to the priests? Because it was the priests’ duty to pronounce lepers unclean and exclude them from society, and also to pronounce the healed clean and healthy and permit them to return to the society of men (Lev 13:34,44). The Lord will not break the law, especially as the law does not hinder His work, but rather endorses it in this case, because the priests themselves would be in a position to be convinced that the ten lepers were healed, and themselves confirm this and testify to it. Hearing, then, what the Lord said to them and whither He was sending them, the ten lepers set off to their village to do this. But lo, as they went, they looked at themselves and their leprosy had disappeared: As they went, they were cleansed. They looked at their bodies, and their bodies were healthy and clean. They looked at each other, and were convinced of their health and cleanness. The scabs and pus and stench had all disappeared, leaving no trace of the horrific leprosy that had covered them.

Who could say that this miracle of Christ’s was not greater than the raising of the dead? Go a little deeper into the fact that, at one mighty word, ten leprous human bodies, eaten up by the disease, suddenly became healthy and clean. When you go deeper into it, you will easily acknowledge that this word could not have come from a mortal man; that it must have been spoken by God through the physical lips of a man. A human tongue, it is true, pronounced this word, but the word came forth from those same depths from which there came the word of command that the world be created, and it was so. There are words and words. There are pure and sinless words that are therefore words of power. These words come from the primal Fount of eternal Love. The doors of all creation open before them; all things, men, sicknesses and spirits submit to them. And there are words that are fragmented, blunted, deadened by sin, that have no greater effect than the whistling of the wind through a reed-bed; and however many of these dead words are pronounced, they remain as weak as the buffeting of smoke on an iron door.

Think, moreover, what an indescribable comfort it is to us when we know in what a powerful and loving Lord we believe. Whatsoever the Lord pleased, that did He in heaven and in earth. (Pss 134/135:6). He is the Lord of life, the Ruler of sickness, the Lawgiver of nature, the Conqueror of death. We are not created by mindless and irrational nature, but by Him, the Most Wise. We are not slaves of natural law, but servants of the living God who loves mankind. We are not playthings of chance but creatures of Him Who created all our elder brethren, the angels and archangels and all the immortal hosts of heaven. If we suffer in this life, He knows the meaning and goal of our suffering; if we are made leprous by sin, His word is mightier than leprosy, whether physical or spiritual; if we drown, His saving hand is near; if we die, He awaits us on the other side of the grave.

Let us now return to the Gospel story of the healing of the lepers, and take a look at this clear illustration of gratitude and ingratitude. What did these lepers do when they noticed that they were healed of their leprosy? This is what they did: only one of them turned back to thank Christ, while the other nine went on their way with no further thought for their Benefactor and Saviour:

And one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, and with a loud voice glorified God, and fell down on his face at His feet, giving Him thanks; and he was a Samaritan. This one grateful man, on seeing that this terrible disease had fallen from him, took breath in his soul as though a writhing mass of vicious snakes had fallen away from him, and his first thought was to thank the One who had saved him from his inexpressible wretchedness. As he had so short a time before raised his suffering voice and cried through suppurating lips: Jesus, Master; have mercy on us!, so he once again raised his voice, a strong voice from a healthy breast through clean and healthy lips, and thanked God with a great cry. Even this was not enough for him, and he ran back after his Benefactor, to express his thanks to Him. When he came to Christ, he fell right down before Him, no longer on painful knees with open wounds but on healthy ones, and thanked Him. A body full of health, a heart full of joy and eyes full of tears! That is a true man. Moments before, a heap of suppurating flesh, but now a man once more. Moments before, refuse cast out from the life of men, and now once more a worthy member of human society. Moments before, a sorrowful trumpet that sounded forth only one note: “Unclean! Unclean!,” but now a joyful trumpet of thanks and praise to God.

This one and only grateful man was not a Jew but a Samaritan. The Samaritans were not Jews, but were either pure-blooded Assyrians or of mixed Assyrian and Jewish stock. They were those Assyrians whom King Shalmaneser at one time settled in parts of Syria, having first re-settled the Jews from there in Assyria (2 Kings 17:3-6, 24). That this grateful man was a pure-blooded Assyrian is clear from the Lord’s calling him a stranger.

And Jesus answering said: “Were there not ten cleansed, but where are the nine? There are not found that returned to give glory to God, save this stranger.” Do you see how gently the Lord rebukes ingratitude? He only asked whether they were not healed, and why they had not come back to say “thank you.” He did not ask because He did not know that they were all healed; no, He knew that they would be healed before He saw and met them. But He put this question as the gentlest of reprimands. How every one of us, when he gives a penny to a beggar, explodes and yells if the beggar does not thank him! And just think how every one of us would furiously denounce nine sick men were we, let us say, capable of restoring their health and they did not even say; “thank you” for such an unrepayable debt.

How full all our days are with men’s fury against the ungrateful! How laden is all the air on earth with hatreds and cursings that pour forth every day from men’s lips from dawn to dusk against the ungrateful! How small, however, is that which man does for man compared with the great things that God untiringly and unceasingly does for men from the cradle to the grave. And God never yells or scolds, or curses the ungrateful, but reprimands them gently, asking those who worship Him at home or in church: “Where are My other children? Have I not given health to thousands of them, and here are only you ten at prayer? Have I not given the sun’s light to millions, and only you hundred are grateful? Have I not beautified the fields with harvest and filled every man’s sheepfolds, and there are just a few of you who kneel before Me in thankfulness? Where are My other children? Where are the mighty and powerful who rule over nations by My power and might? Where are the rich and successful, who have enriched themselves with My riches and come to success through My mercy? Where are the healthy and the merry, who are filled with their health and merriment from My fount? Where are the parents whose children I help to grow and become strong? Where are the teachers to whom I give wisdom and knowledge? Where are all the sick whom I have healed? Where are all the sinners whose souls I have washed from sin as if from leprosy?

See, only this stranger! He alone has returned to give thanks. But is anyone a stranger to Christ? Did He not come to save all men, and not just the Jews? The Jews were proud of being chosen by God, and of their knowledge of God, that surpassed that of all other nations on earth. But here is an example that shows their darkened minds and hardness of heart. An Assyrian, a pagan, had a more enlightened mind and a nobler heart than the self-congratulatory Jews. Sadly, this history is repeated in our day with the chosen and the non-chosen. Today, some pagans have a more open mind and grateful heart towards God than very many Christians. Many Muslims, Buddhists or Parsees can put many Christians to shame by their heartfelt prayers to God and the ardor of their thankfulness to Him.

The parable ends with the Savior’s words to the grateful Samaritan: And He said unto him: “Arise, go thy way: thy faith hath made thee whole.” See the greatness of the Lord’s humility, and also His gentleness. It is a joy to Him to call men fellow-workers in His great and good works. He desires by this to raise the dignity of‘ the humiliated and subjugated human race. High above human pride and vanity, He desires to share His merit with others, His riches with the poor, His glory with the needy and the sorrowing. Thy faith hath Made thee whole. This Samaritan had indeed believed, as had the other nine lepers; had they not believed in the Lord’s power, they would not have cried out: Jesus, Master; have mercy on us! But of what use was their faith?

They could, with the same faith, have cried out to thousands of the world’s most famous doctors: “Have mercy on us, and heal us!,” but all would have been in vain. If any of these thousands of earthly, mortal doctors had healed them, do you think that he would have ascribed the healing to the sick man’s faith and not to his own skill? Is it not the custom with earthly, mortal doctors that each of them deliberately passes over in silence any merit on the sick man’s part in his restoration to health, in order thereby to emphasize, as strongly and exclusively as possible, himself and his own merit? This is the behavior of man to man.

But Christ the Lord deals with men very differently. Christ has provided His wagon-load of wheat, and the leprous Samaritan has thrown one grain of wheat onto the load. Christ’s load of wheat is His divine power and authority, and the leper’s one grain is his faith in Christ. Christ, the true Lover of mankind, will not belittle that one grain, but will, on the contrary, give it more honor than His own whole load of grain. He therefore does not say, as all mortal men would say in this instance: “My load of wheat will feed you.” He does not say: “I have made you whole,” but Thy faith hath made thee whole. What greatness of soul there is in these words! What great teaching to us all! And what a great reprimand to human selfishness and pride!

Let all who conceal another’s grain of merit and lay emphasis on their own wagon-load draw near in shame and learn from Christ the Righteous One. They are no less robbers and thieves than the rich man who adds the poor man’s tiny field to his own vast acres. Let all the generals who conceal the part their soldiers have played in the victory, and spread abroad the fame of their own merit, draw near in shame and learn from Christ the True One. Let all engaged in commerce and industry, who play down the merit for their success that belongs to their workers and helpers, and ascribe this entirely to their own zeal, wisdom and luck, draw near in shame and learn from Christ the Humble One. Finally: let the whole human race, who in their proud blindness ascribe all good, all skill, all success to themselves alone, and conceal or forget God’s enormous share in it all, draw near in shame and learn from Christ the Lover of mankind. Let them draw near and learn how the true God does not conceal a single grain of man’s merit in the great wagon-load of His merit but, on the contrary, conceals and keeps quiet about His own, emphasizing that of men.

Can there be a greater blow and a more terrible reprimand to men for their thieving, brigandry, roughness, pride and lack of love towards man and God? Truly, he who has a sense of shame will be ashamed before this humility of Christ’s. He who has one spark of unextinguished conscience will repent of his vulgar and stupid self-congratulation and self-display, and will become grateful to God and men. And gratitude will teach him truthfulness, righteousness and humility.

Oh, if we Christians knew the variety and number of the spiritual diseases from which Christ the Lord heals us every day, we would quickly turn to Him, fall at His feet and thank Him from this moment to the hour of our death—which hour is not far from any one of us. To our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ be glory and praise, together with the Father and the Holy Spirit - the Trinity consubstantial and undivided, now and forever, through all time and all eternity.