IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER, AND OF THE SON, AND OF THE HOLY SPIRIT. AMEN.
Man is a twofold being composed of body and soul, both of which have their corresponding passions and virtues. Bodily virtues, such as self-control, fasting, the acceptance of hunger and thirst, are considered tools of virtue. The virtues of the soul consist of courage, moral judgment, self-restraint, and justice, which, in turn, give birth to many other secondary virtues. The importance of knowing the different virtues and vices of the soul and body is because through these, and more particularly, through the virtues of the soul, says St. John Damascene, we approach God and enter into spiritual communion with him.[i]
Although some of us are weak, others are strong. Some are sickly, and others in full health. Some are old, and some are young. Nevertheless, Christ, who is the Lover of mankind, will not break a bruised reed, nor quench a smoldering wick, therefore when the body is strong, asceticism and all other hardships are indispensable and extremely beneficial, but when the body is weak, and with the help of God to overcome these passions, holy humility and thanksgiving suffice for everything. [ii]
The Gospel passage we have just heard is relatively straightforward, limited in its details, and seemingly has an obvious intent. There are several points to consider, but we will not be able to cover them all today.
The Lord was on His way to Jerusalem through Samaria and Galilee, and before entering a town was approached by ten lepers, who, standing apart from him, asked Him to have mercy on them. He responded by instructing them to go and show themselves to a priest, and as they were on their way, they were all healed of their leprosy. After realizing he was healed, one of the lepers, a Samaritan, turned around and went back to Christ and thanked Him. Jesus replied, asking where the others were, and addressed this one, saying that his faith had made him whole.
In its simplicity, even a child could tell us that the purpose of this incidence is the importance of thankfulness to God, but what is the importance of thankfulness? Is it only a matter of politeness or good manners or a sign of a well-bred individual? Perhaps there is a social code that is important to keep, which amounts to my being upset if you do not thank me for something I have done for you. Even if these questions are worthy of consideration, the point in question is much deeper and has further-reaching effects.
I. The virtue of the lepers
First, we should notice how virtuous these lepers are. They believed that Christ could help them, and they trusted Him. Approaching Him, they asked Him to have mercy on them. How does he respond, “Go show yourselves to the priest.” At this point, perhaps we will recall the Apostles who were fishing all night and caught nothing. Later that morning, Christ instructed them to launch out once more and cast their nets, and although they were all experienced fisherman, and spent a tiresome night reaping no fruit from their labor. Simon responded by saying that they had no success last night and worked so hard that they did not even have time to eat, yet, because Christ asks this of him, he will do it. Similarly, we find these lepers – outcasts, impure, unable to partake of temple worship or even to dwell in towns, continuously in quarantine, but they approach Christ asking for mercy, and without contradicting Him, they leave from Him and go to see the priest and received healing while going to do what Christ had commanded. However, despite being healed of their sicknesses, only one comes back to thank Christ for this healing.
II. What is more excellent than trust in Christ and obedience to His command is to combine thankfulness with these virtues.
The Israelites lack of thankfulness
There are many examples throughout the Old Testament, wherein the Lord mourns Israel’s lack of thankfulness despite His continued goodness and longsuffering towards them. Perhaps, no depiction is so explicit as the one spoken by the prophet Ezekiel wherein he describes the goodness of God towards His bride, the Israelites, beginning from the vulnerability of their birth to their protection in infancy and growth into maturity, only to be repaid by having His gifts rejected, neglected, and abused. He writes:
On the day you were born your cord was not cut, nor were you washed with water to make you clean, nor were you rubbed with salt or wrapped in cloths. No one looked on you with pity or had compassion enough to do any of these things for you. Rather, you were thrown out into the open field, for on the day you were born you were despised.
Then I passed by and saw you kicking about in your blood, and as you lay there in your blood I said to you, “Live!” I made you grow like a plant of the field. You grew and developed and entered puberty.
Later I passed by, and when I looked at you and saw that you were old enough for love, I spread the corner of my garment over you and covered your naked body. I gave you my solemn oath and entered into a covenant with you, and you became mine.
I bathed you with water and washed the blood from you and put ointments on you. I clothed you with an embroidered dress and put sandals of fine leather on you. I dressed you in fine linen and covered you with costly garments. I adorned you with jewelry: I put bracelets on your arms and a necklace around your neck, and I put a ring on your nose, earrings on your ears and a beautiful crown on your head. So you were adorned with gold and silver; your clothes were of fine linen and costly fabric and embroidered cloth. Your food was honey, olive oil and the finest flour. You became very beautiful and rose to be a queen. And your fame spread among the nations on account of your beauty, because the splendor I had given you made your beauty perfect …
But thou didst trust in thine own beauty, and playedst the harlot because of thy renown, and pouredst out thy fornications on every one that passed by;
In all your detestable practices and your prostitution you did not remember the days of your youth, when you were naked and bare, kicking about in your blood. (Eze. 16.4-15, 22).
That is, they did not recall God’s goodness to them, nor were they thankful.
Here, we should note the beginning of our answer to the purpose of thankfulness. God has bestowed every gift upon the Israelites, but they chose not to remember them and therein chose not to thank God for His goodness. In this, we see that what thankfulness does is draw us into God’s favor because we acknowledge what He has done for us. As the Apostle Paul wrote, “What do you have that you did not receive?” (cf. 1 Cor. 4.7) whether it be intelligence, or a spiritual father, or a friend, or a spouse, or a child, or health or the sun to shine on our face, rain to nourish our crops, gas to power our generators, the gift of prayer through which we can come before our Creator when in plenty or in want.
Recognizing the presence of God in the mundane
It is a common response that when one is asked how their day is that you will often hear, “Same old, same old.” However, the Prophet Jeremiah writes that God’s mercies are new every day for great is his faithfulness towards us (cf. Lam. 3.22). From a Christian perspective, each day is not the same as the previous with no hope for anything different or anything better. We are not just another day older. No, instead, every day is new. Every day is a new beginning, or do we think that God cannot break into this day, to grant us His grace, to help us to pray, to help us overcome our weaknesses, to help us get along with others, to help us love our neighbor, to help us love Him? Or do we lack the faith that God will make Himself known to us each day, to make His reality present to us, that He will not hear and not answer our prayers?
St. Symeon the New Theologian says that our lack of recognizing the little ways in which God is with us each day, combined with our lack of faith that this will change, results in our lack of thankfulness and, therefore, the reason for why we deserve greater punishments. He writes,
I grieve, I exhaust my heart, I pine for you when I bring to mind that we have a Lord so bountiful and compassionate that simply if we have faith in Him, He grants us gifts beyond our imagination – gifts we have never heard or thought of and that ‘man’s heart has not grasped (1 Cor. 2.9). Yet we, like beasts, prefer the earth and the things of the earth that through His great mercy it yields in order to supply our bodily needs; but if we use these things modestly, then our soul may ascend unhampered toward divine realities, nourished spiritually by the Holy Spirit according to the degree of our purification and to the level to which we have ascended.
This is our purpose, for this we were created and brought forth: that after having received lesser blessings in this world we may through our thankfulness to God and our love for Him enjoy great and eternal blessings in the life to come. But, alas, far from having any concern for the blessings in store, we are even unthankful for those at hand, and we are like the demons, or – if truth be told – even worse. Thus we deserve greater punishment than they, for we have been given greater blessings.[iii]
For St. Symeon, thankfulness is a means through which we draw closer to God and when combined with love, the means through which we receive the blessings of God.
What is thanksgiving?
Thanksgiving is a virtue that links us to our Creator and Savior, Jesus Christ. When we are weak and unable to engage in ascetic acts, thankfulness combined with humility suffices for everything, says St. John Damascene, as we noted at the beginning. Thanksgiving and love towards God procure the great blessings of God for us each day and eternally, says St. Symeon. What is more, in our contemporary time, the newly canonized Paisios of Mount Athos notes the importance of gratitude when he defines the Greek word philotimo, a word which characterizes the life of godly people, when he describes it is as “the reverend distillation of goodness, the love shown by humble people, from which every trace of Self has been filtered out. Their hearts are full of thankfulness towards God, and to their fellow man, and out of spiritual delicacy (sensitivity), they try to repay the slightest good which others do them.”[iv]
Thankfulness is not first and foremost a matter of politeness, good manners, or a social code, but a spiritual act by which we commune with God and through which God also communicates with us. All of the virtues are actively acquired, not passively. We have to struggle for them, or else they will not be ours. If we do not struggle for them, then we are actively spiritually blinding ourselves so that we will not be able to see what God is doing in our life. As the Apostle Paul says, although “they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor were thankful and their foolish heart was darkened” (cf. Rom. 1.21).
What hinders thanksgiving
Three ways in which we can hinder thanksgiving are by envy, familiarity, and ignorance.
- ENVY - Comparing our life to those of the saints is beneficial when it produces humility and repentance and a striving towards God. However, if we envy someone, be it spiritually or materially, we are not able to see what we are and have for what it is. In this way, we become blind to all that God has given us and are only able to see (so-called) misfortunes.
- FAMILIARITY with our surroundings, be they people, our home, our monastery, or even ourselves, decreases our ability to see the workings of the grace of God because familiarity does not expect change, nor does it accept change easily even when people or events are moved by God.
- IGNORANCE of the spiritual life, be it the Scriptures, the Lives of the Saints, or other spiritual books, stunts our ability to trust God in our day-to-day affairs, blinds our eyes to God’s constant goodness, and accuses God instead of thanking Him. The ignorant cannot give thanks unto the Lord, for they do not see that He is good and that His mercies endure forever.
On being thankful
So how are we to do this? How do I become thankful when I am not? The answer - we become humble through acts of humility; we become loving by acts of love, and we become thankful through acts of thanksgiving.
“But I’m not thankful,” someone may say, and maybe, by doing “acts,” I’m only fooling others, or even trying to fool myself. “No,” actually, it’s about learning to be thankful, not about fooling ourselves or others into thinking we are someone that we are not.
This is where we are to begin. If we are one of the nine lepers who did not return to give thanks, this is where we need to start because the grace of God has revealed His goodness to us. We need to respond. Even if we do not feel thankful, by acts of thankfulness, the change of heart will come through the grace of God.
If we are one of the unthankful lepers, St. John Cassian observes that when the one leper returns to Christ, Christ asks, “Where are the other nine?” and St. John comments, “the Lord, asking for the other nine and praising the one, showed that he exercises an unceasing concern even with regard to those who are unmindful of his kind deeds. For this very thing is the benefit of his visitation – that it both receives and approves the grateful and seeks out and reproves the ungrateful.”[v]
May each one of us turn back towards Christ, come to Him in thankfulness, and recognize that we have received all things from Him for us. As the Lord told the leper that his faith had made him whole, so our faith will be shown through our thankfulness, and by His grace, we will commune with Him and be made whole.
THROUGH THE PRAYERS OF OUR HOLY FATHERS, LORD JESUS CHRIST, HAVE MERCY ON US.AMEN.
[i] “On the Virtues and the Vices” in Philokalia, trans. G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware. (Faber and Faber: London, 1984)2:334-335.
[iii] St. Symeon the Theologian, “On Faith” in Philokalia, trans. G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware. (Faber and Faber: London, 1984)4:21.
[iv] Athonite Fathers and Athonite Matters (Souroti:The Holy Convent of John the Theologian, 1993), 20, footnote 7.
[v] “Third Conference” in The Conferences. Trans. Boniface Ramsey (New York: Paulist Press, 1997), 137.