This weekend as families sit down and pray there will be much thankfulness. Thankfulness for the many gifts received in this life. Food and family, house and home. Friends and loved ones so near and dear. Even in this selfish and self-centered world of ours it is nice to know that people can still find at least one day to be thankful for all that they have. But such thankfulness is only half the story!
Many marginal Christians, and even some non-Christians will join us believers in saying a few words of thanks before the plates are passed and the dishes are served. But how many will take the time to come back and return thanks when the meal is done? Why would you even need to? The blessings have been asked and the food received. The gifts given and enjoyed, what else is there but a loosening of belts, clean-up and the kick-off! Returning thanks is a habit not nearly enough of us do. And even the ones who do, don’t always appreciate the reason for it.
Also, after eating, they shall, in like manner, reverently and with folded hands say: Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good. His love endures forever. [He] gives food to every creature. He provides food for the cattle and for the young ravens when they call. His pleasure is not in the strength of the horse, nor His delight in the legs of a man; the Lord delights in those who fear Him, who put their hope in His unfailing love. Then shall be said the Lord’s Prayer and the following: we thank You, Lord God, heavenly Father, for all Your benefits, through Jesus Christ, our Lord who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit forever and ever. Amen.1
I will be honest, it is not something we often do in my own household. Grace always come first, but sometimes it feels like it is all we can do to hold the table together until the majority are done eating before each one is scattered to the winds once again. Did you know that returning thanks is the second half of true thankfulness? Being thankful for the gifts is not enough. And our story from the Gospel today shows us why.
11On the way to Jerusalem [Jesus] was passing along between Samaria and Galilee. This introduction to our story is the third travel notice Luke gives us in his Gospel. The third reminder that Jesus is on His way to Jerusalem to suffer and die for the sins of the world and bring salvation and healing to His creation. Yet, see how He pauses along the way to do just that to these few lepers in desperate need.
The account begins and ends with a cry for and a declaration of salvation: 12And as he entered a village, he was met by ten lepers, who stood at a distance 13and lifted up their voices, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” … 19And he said to him, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.” Hear the cry for mercy as Jesus approaches the city. These lepers have no reason to expect it. Only faith leads them to ask. He has shown His mercy to others like them before, maybe He will do the same again. And see the end of the story. Mercy indeed wrought their salvation and that salvation comes through faith!
The story deepens as we see the parallels between these words: 14When he saw them he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went they were cleansed. 15Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, … Now he was a Samaritan. 17Then Jesus answered, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? 18Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” How is that mercy enacted? How does that faith work? Jesus sees and speaks. He answers the lepers’ cry with a command. And here is the amazing part, by faith they believe the gift being offered … and all ten are cleansed. All of them begin traveling to the temple with the full expectation they will be cleansed. But here is the difference, only one after the cleansing was willing to return to give glory to God – in the person of Jesus. Only one is moved enough to return thanks.
And here then, is the center of the story, the crux of the matter, the heart of the teaching: [he] turned back, praising God with a loud voice; 16and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks. The Samaritan returns to Jesus, glorifying God the Father for the miracles that He is bringing to the world through Jesus. By faith he recognizes that the glory he gives to God is to be expressed in the worship and thanksgiving given to Jesus, God Himself in the flesh. The key word here is eucharisteo. Understand this, dear friends, every other instance of eucharisteo is one giving thanks to God. This is the only place in the entire New Testament where eucharisteo refers to the giving of thanks to Jesus!
True faith gives thanks not just for the gifts given. True faith returns thanks to the one who brings the gift of salvation. True faith stops in the midst of gifts received and returns thanks to the giver of all good gifts. The Samaritan turned back to give thanks to the one who Himself would not turn back in His quest to save mankind. For Jesus was on His way to not heal not just that man’s body, but his soul as well. Not just to give him renewed health but everlasting life. Jesus was on His way not just to heal us but to save us.
And so we fall down at the feet of Jesus and return our meager thanks. We put aside the enjoyment of our gifts and give thanks to the glorious giver. Indeed, the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, is where we still prostrate ourselves in the presence of the crucified and risen Christ, who gives His body and blood. It is the family meal where His divine cleansing is again given to all who, like the Samaritan, are saved through faith.
The nine who were healed did not lack faith, but they did lack thankfulness. They were so intent on the gift they forgot to thank the giver. This Thanksgiving weekend, whatever gifts we have been given – and we have been given a lot – let us not follow in their footsteps and miss the most important half of the story. Let us instead strive to be like the one who returned to give thanks. For the Lord delights in those who fear Him, who put their hope in His unfailing love. It is all about returning thanks, not just for the gifts, but first and last the glorious and gracious giver of every gift – especially our salvation in Jesus. Therefore do we thank You, Lord God, heavenly Father, for all Your benefits, through Jesus Christ, our Lord who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit forever and ever.
1Luther’s Small Catechism, Section 2, Daily Prayers. Returning Thanks.