Is Jesus Being Petty?
How many jokes turn on God being petty like us? He sends a lightening bolt to strike a golfer for cursing after he misses each shot, but when the bolt misses God says, "Blankety blank I missed." In the spelling test that everyone needs to pass to enter heaven, He asks those He wants in heaven to spell, Mark, Luke, or John. To those he doesn't want, God says, "Spell Mephibosheth." Is God really petty like we are?
He appears so in our text, doesn't He? After healing 10 lepers only 1 comes back, and Jesus says, "Where are the 9?" Doesn't it appear that Jesus is saying, "Why aren't there 10 former lepers at my feet, groveling in the dirt, thanking me? Those ingrates! What slobs! Didn't anyone ever teach them to say thanks!"
That's how we are, isn't it? Ingratitude dries up the milk of human kindness. We say, "That's the last time I'll do that for him; he didn't even say thanks!" And no one will challenge us. It seems right and proper to do nothing for ingrates. It seems perfectly acceptable to remember forever that someone didn't say thanks for something we did. As new brides are told, if you want to be remembered forever, just don't write thank-you notes for wedding gifts.
But is Jesus petty like we are? Do you honestly think He needs to be thanked or He stops giving grace and every blessing? Does He do to us what we do to others? "You didn't say thank you for this blessing, so I won't send it anymore?" How could that be? Ingratitude can dry up the milk of human kindness but how could it dry up or even sour the milk of divine kindness? Doesn't God say that He makes the sun shine and the rain fall on the unjust? Wouldn't that include the unthankful?
The milk of human kindness dries up in the face of ingratitude because we carry it around in those little 8 ounce milk cartons. But God has an ocean full that can never dry up. God declares dozens of time that His mercy endures forever. These lepers came asking for mercy. Do you think 9 not turning back could do what eternity can't; do you think 9 ingrates could exhaust the mercy of God that endures forever? Think again.
Besides, if God is really petty like us, then our thankfulness comes from a twisted arm. "All right, I'll say thank you; just don't cross me off Your blessing list." Is that you're view of God? "I had better thank the Lord for this year or watch out for next." Do you think your God wants the sort of thanks that comes from a twisted arm? Even noble pagans know better than that. Seneca, the pagan 1st century Roman philosopher, said, "Although it may be a most honorable thing to give thanks, yet it ceases to be honorable if it comes out of necessity."
We may be petty in the way we require thanking, but Jesus isn't. What He's concerned with in the text and in our life is bringing us to Him for salvation. I can show you this in our text. It says, "But one of them, seeing that he had been healed, did return with a mighty voice glorifying God and he did fall upon his face beside Jesus' feet giving thanks to Him."
The emphasis in this verse is NOT on the leper glorifying God or thanking Him. It's on the fact that He returned and fell at the feet of Jesus. The grammar tells us this. The Holy Spirit made the glorifying and the thanking participles, "i-n-g" words, and the return and the fall at Jesus' feet verbs. "I-n-g" words modify the main action; they can never be the main action. The really startling thing in this text is not that the leper came glorifying and thanking but that he returned to JESUS and fell at HIS feet.
All the gifts of God have this as their goal. They seek to turn you to Christ and bring you to fall at His feet for salvation. That this is what happened in the case of the leper is seen in the last verse. Jesus does not say, "Your faith has made you well," referring to being healed from leprosy, but "your faith has saved you." This faith that turned you around, this faith that dropped you at my feet has saved you.
All the gifts of God you have experienced this year were to draw you to God. They were never to be ends in themselves. But that's how the 9 lepers viewed God's gift. They were healed as they journeyed to the priests but they didn't turn back. But don't think that's because they were not thankful; who would dare say that?
Leprosy was considered living death. You can look in the writings of the time and you will find no medical or magical suggestions to treat leprosy or even ways to comfort people with it. It was considered a tortuous death sentence. And you don't think those men thanked God for their healing? You don't think they fell down on their knees, lifted their eyes to heaven and said, "Thank you?" Than you have never been miraculously delivered from an impossible illness, situation, or problem. All I know who have, have said thank you.
But the healing was an end in itself for 9 of the lepers. Their only focus was that God had healed them. They did not follow this gift where it pointed. Back to Jesus. Remember the leper had returned glorying GOD but at whose feet did he fall? Jesus'. The point is he recognized Jesus as God in flesh and blood, and this was more important to him than even his being healed.
Friends, this unique American holiday called Thanksgiving can make the gifts of God an end in themselves. It can give you what Luther called a "fools sense of blessedness." A fools sense of blessedness comes from things not from God. The 9 who did not come back had their sense of blessedness from being healed. The 1 who came back and collapsed at the feet of Jesus had His sense of blessedness from God in flesh and blood.
Luther explained it this way, "One must trust neither IN temporary nor in spiritual goods, but THROUGH temporal and spiritual things in God alone. So one does not look at air and light but THROUGH air and light at an object." The 9 focused on the air and light ignoring the true object of their worship and thanks. The 1 looked through the healing to the One who worked it, God in Christ.
I am calling on you today not to count your blessings but to look through them. Don't be satisfied with a fools sense of blessing. Look through your blessings all the way to God in Christ. Look through all that you have received this year to the Christ behind it. Then the gifts of God will not be an end in themselves, and then even if you lack such gifts your heart will still be thankful. You know Jesus didn't heal every leper He met, and not every year has lots of good things. Many have more sickness, troubles, and turmoil than gifts. So if we focus on gifts, we'll have to focus on the lack of them too.
It's true; the presence of many gifts or one great one may block our view of Jesus, but so also can the lack of them cloud our view. That's why we are to look past our gifts, or the lack of them, and focus on God in Christ. This is what the prophet Habakkuk does. Listen how he does this: "Even if the fig tree does not bloom and the vines have no grapes, even if the olive tree fails to produce and the fields yield no food, even if the sheep pen is empty and the stalls have no cattle, even then, I will be happy with the Lord. I will truly find joy in God, who saves me." Habakkuk looks THROUGH what he doesn't have to the God who saves him.
From all that I've said, you should be able to see what Jesus is really saying when He asks, "Where are the nine?" He isn't being petty; He's wondering out loud why His gift to them did not draw them back to Him. You can see this in the rhetorical question Jesus asks, "Were not all 10 cleansed?" Jesus is amazed. Could it be that His power failed to miraculously heal all of them? Was only 1 out of 10 healed while 9 were left in their living death? Did they fail to receive His gift? Is that why they did not return?
And so I ask you? Did you fail to receive the gifts of the Lord Jesus Christ this year? Did He fail to beat your heart, feed your kids, or fill your mouth with good things? Can you see that through these things your Jesus is calling you to Himself? Can you see that He doesn't want you to stop at the gift but move on to the Giver?.
But what if this has been a terrible year? Sickness, sadness, death and disease have stalked you. What about your spiritual gifts? Was Jesus here every Sunday to forgive your sins? Did He even once fail to give you His body and blood for salvation? Did you ever go to your baptism and find that if failed to forgive your sins, deliver you from death and the devil, and give you eternal salvation? Did you ever get a busy signal when you prayed or an "out of area" message when you called on your Lord in the day of trouble?
Of course not. No matter how bad your physical year was, your spiritual year was filled with grace and every blessing. But if this is where I leave your thankfulness, at the doorstep of even your spiritual gifts, I have left you with the 9 healed lepers on they way to Jerusalem. I have left you staring at gifts physical and/or spiritual rather than looking through your gifts to the Giver. I have left you at the feet of your gifts rather than at the feet of your Jesus.
This is not where Jesus would have you, and this never is where Christian truth leaves you. Do you know what the chief thing Christians have always been thankful for is? Christ Himself and in particular His presence among us in the Holy Communion. Another name for Holy Communion is Eucharist. Eucharist is the Greek word for thanks. Our text says the leper returned "eucharisting" Jesus; that is giving thanks. St. Ignatius in the early church had only one name for the church gathered together in worship: eucharistia because it's one big thanksgiving.
And what do we do at the Eucharist? Do we dwell on blessings we do or don't have whether spiritual or material? No, we come forward and fall at the feet of Jesus, just like the 1 leper did. And Jesus gives us salvation just like He did the 1 leper sending us away from this altar strengthened and preserved in the true faith, that is with our eyes refocused on Jesus alone.
We give thanks by receiving from the Lord's hands forgiveness and salvation. Our Lutheran confessions say that receiving the forgiveness of sins in Christ "is the highest way of worshiping Christ" (Apology, iv, 154.). So it is also the highest way of thanking Him. That's what Psalm 116 says: "How can I repay the Lord for all the good He has done for me? I will take the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord." We thank the Lord by doing what God says to do in another Psalm, "Open your mouth wide and I will fill it." We thank the Lord by going to Him for more.
Jesus in our text is not being petty about being thanked. He is trying to deliver us from a petty tallying up of what we have and what we don't have. He is calling us to turn to Him and fall at His feet. He is calling us to Eucharist, to thanksgiving, where we open our mouth wide and He fills it not merely with physical gifts or even the spiritual gifts of forgiveness and salvation, but with Himself. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin Texas
Thanksgiving Eve, 11-24-99; Luke 17:11-19