All That Jesus Asks: How His Questions Can Teach and Transform Us
You would think that with continuing high rates of unemployment, people would be especially grateful for their jobs this Thanksgiving. You would be dead wrong.
In this precarious economy, many employers have had to trim workers, forcing those who remain to pick up the slack—or a pink slip. Resentment and misery are building among those with jobs, to say nothing of the unemployed.
Gallup says that nearly three-fourths of us with paid positions are phoning it in; 55 percent are "disengaged" (emotionally detached) at work, while another 16 percent are "actively disengaged." The actively disengaged are costing their companies about $350 billion each year. The damage to their self-esteem and emotional well-being—not to mention their souls—is incalculable.
Ingratitude is hardly a modern phenomenon, of course. One day Jesus encountered it while on the way to Jerusalem, traversing what Puritan commentator Matthew Henry called "the frontier-country, the marches that lay between Samaria and Galilee."
On the way to Jerusalem he was passing along between Samaria and Galilee. And as he entered a village, he was met by ten lepers, who stood at a distance and lifted up their voices, saying, "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us" (Luke 17:11-13, ESV, used throughout).
Jesus is called aside by the plaintive shouts of men afflicted with a serious skin condition that present-day translators render as leprosy. Bible scholars generally don't believe their disease was the same as modern-day leprosy, but clearly it fell under the unhappy strictures of the Old Testament law intended to keep communicable disease from spreading.
These ten men knew the law. They had to; it was a matter of life and death. But they also knew something of the kindness and power of Jesus. His fame had preceded him, even in this seemingly godforsaken dead end. Surely, they must have thought, if Jesus can cure the blind, heal the lame, and raise the dead, he has the power to help us, too? They were already outcasts and had nothing to lose, so they raised their voices in desperate hope.
When he saw them he said to them, "Go and show yourselves to the priests" (Luke 17:14a).
The Master simply tells them to go to the priests, who were the first-century referees as to whether a healing had taken place. Any cure, according to the Book of Leviticus, would need the equivalent of a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, so that the formerly suffering could be ritually restored to the community. It didn't matter whether a well-known healer such as Jesus had performed a miracle. The ten men would still have to do the paperwork.
I am reminded of the Old Testament story of Naaman, the Syrian general healed of leprosy by Elisha. When the prophet told Naaman to bathe in the Jordan, initially he balked. The strange task seemed much beneath the dignity of a great military commander. But a wise servant encouraged Naaman to swallow his pride and do it in faith. He did, and healing quickly followed.
Here the ten face a similar test. Will they go to the priests who must certify their healing? How can they, since Jesus has done nothing outwardly to assure them of a cure? "This," Henry notes, "was a trial of their obedience." How would they respond to the Lord's command? Something in the reputation of Jesus, or perhaps in the way he looked them in the eye, encouraged them that they had met not divine indifference, but God's mercy, on the road.
And as they went they were cleansed (Luke 17:14b).
Note the progression: "as they went they were cleansed." The obedience precedes the healing. It seems clear: If they had not gone, they would have remained lepers. No obedience, no blessing. The obedience was part and parcel of receiving God's unmerited grace. The same is true today for all who encounter Jesus on the way.
Trust And Obey
While we can never earn God's grace, in everyday life we can short-circuit it with our self-destructive disobedience. Robertson McQuilkin of Columbia International University emphasizes two critical factors—trust and obedience—as integral to the walk of faith. Trust is one step, obedience the other. With both we move forward in the Christian life. Emphasizing one over the other will leave you, in McQuilkin's words, "hopping mad." Here the ten do both—trust and obey—and receive the blessing.
Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus' feet, giving him thanks. Now he was a Samaritan (Luke 17:15-16).
The men go as directed, and then their healing comes. We don't know how far they traveled toward the priests before it dawned on them that they were cured. We do know it could not have been a great distance, because the Samaritan who turned back is able to find Jesus, who is heading south for Jerusalem. Also, apparently the disciples could hear the man's loud praising before he got to them.
I'm guessing that the return trip for this man was more than a few steps; otherwise, there is no compelling reason why the other nine would not have come, too. Going back to Jesus definitely involves a detour, a change in plans.
Until this point, the ten lepers have acted in concert: They had lived together, they had cried out together, they had gone off together, and they had been cleansed together. Now, however, one peels off like a jet leaving formation and heads for Jesus. Something is different: Perhaps his skin is clear, or the constant itching and pain are gone. Whatever has happened, the man knows he has been blessed, and the blessing requires a response. First he sees, then he turns, then he praises.
According to Robert Emmons of the University of California-Davis, the word thanks and its cognates appear in the Bible more than 150 times, and gratitude has been a cherished virtue down through church history. Jonathan Edwards, in his classic work A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, notes approvingly the "gracious stirrings of grateful affection toward God." These the Samaritan displays with joy.
And then, with the Samaritan still humbly at Jesus' feet, come three pointed, rapid-fire questions that cast a shadow over the celebration.
Then Jesus answered, "Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?" (Luke 17:17-18).
I must confess, these questions have always bothered me. At first blush they seem to reflect a childish need for praise and recognition on the part of Jesus. Wasn't performing the miracle enough for him? Isn't doing a good deed its own reward? Why did he need to be thanked?
A Joyful Inevitability
I am more troubled by Jesus' response to the nine than by their apparent lack of gratitude. Weren't they doing what he had asked, going to the priests? And wouldn't turning back be, in some sense, a sign of disobedience? Additionally, going to the trouble of finding the Healer again would take time and effort and delay their restoration to the community. Jesus would understand their lack of thankfulness. They were only following orders.
Only Jesus didn't understand. Though already having rewarded their obedience, he wanted something more. He sought their gratitude. And after they had received a new lease on life, was this really so much to expect? "Gratefulness," Emmons notes, "is a knowing awareness that we are the recipients of goodness." Didn't these men know?
The nine who did not give thanks were not only rude. They were also ignorant, misaligned with the truth of the universe: We are the recipients, not the creators, of goodness. In acknowledging this simple truth we ennoble ourselves. "God," John Piper says, "is the one Being in all the universe for whom seeking his own praise is the ultimately loving act."
Given that fact, praise is not a mere option. It is a joyful inevitability in a world designed and upheld by God. The only question is whether we will add our voices to the choir. When Jesus entered Jerusalem during the last week of his earthly ministry, the crowd of disciples erupted in praise, echoing the Psalms: "Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!" Some of the Pharisees, however, growled, "Teacher, rebuke your disciples!" But Jesus rightly answered, "I tell you, if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out."
If the history of humanity reveals anything, it is that we are dependent creatures. We depend on the rain falling, the sun shining, the doctor curing, the asteroid missing. And in our best moments, we know it, and that knowledge produces gratitude. In 1998 Gallup reported that 54 percent of Americans express gratitude to God "all the time."
And when we turn our focus from ourselves to him, paradoxically we are the ones who benefit. "The self," in the words of Emmons, "is a very poor place to find happiness or meaning in life." Studies show that gratitude is associated with "pro-social behaviors" and with improved emotional well-being.
Organizational consultant Sean Doyle suggests that "by reframing the events of our lives in positive ways and including a glimmer of gratitude, we … increase our sense of coherence with the world." Such glimmers can lighten our misery and energize us for more effective service—in the workplace and in life.
And he said to him, "Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well" (Luke 17:19).
I wonder how the nine felt when the man, rising from his worship, finally caught up with them, telling of his grateful exchange with Jesus. They had missed the opportunity to deepen their elation by giving thanks. Henry says that the grateful man received more than the other nine because "he had his cure confirmed particularly with an encomium: Thy faith hath made thee whole …. Temporal mercies are then doubled and sweetened to us when they are fetched in by the prayers of faith, and returned by the praises of faith" (emphases in original). The nine had their cure; the one had his cure, plus a relationship with Jesus.
As with the ten, just as there are no barriers to experiencing God's grace, neither are there excuses. If we want more of his blessings, we must praise him for those we already have. A thankful heart always leads to more blessings, even if, as for many of us in this economy, we seemingly don't have a lot to be thankful for. The blessings may come quietly, unexpectedly, or in disguise, but come they will. But we must choose gratitude to receive them, for our own good.
"For everyone who has," Jesus said, "will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him." God's blessings are available to us, if we will but take them, with thanksgiving.
Stan Guthrie is a CT editor at large. This article is adapted from his new book, All That Jesus Asks: How His Questions Can Teach and Transform Us (Baker Books, 2010). Used by permission.
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