Thanksgiving from a Hebrew Perspective

[Read the story of Jesus Restoring the 10 Men with Leprosy (Luke 17:11-19)]

Only with more recent readings of the text have I seen — and begun to understand — an important distinction in the text.  In verse 14, we are told that all 10 lepers were “cleansed.”  But only one of these perceives himself as “healed” (rooted in the word for “whole” and “saved”) and returns to give thanks. (vs. 15)

To our ears and eyes and common sentiments, the relationship (between healing/salvation/wholeness and thanksgiving) may seem casual, loose, linear.  The one leper sees that he’s been healed and simply returns to say thanks.

Considerations, though, of cultural norms and etiquette in the Middle East (today… and in Jesus day) helps us to see the real link between the thanksgiving and a faith that heals.  Here, I draw upon the works of Bruce Malina, a cultural anthropologist versed in the social habits of Jesus’ day.  In his Windows on the World of Jesus: Time Travel to Ancient Judea, Malina makes two distinct points about the ways that the Samaritan’s thanks would register in Jesus’s day (and ours) for a Middle Eastern audience:

    Saying “thank you” was and is not practiced among friends and equals in the Middle East…  Thank you is reserved for high ranking social superiors from whom an undeserved favor has been received… Thanksgiving redounds to the honor and glory of the high-ranking social superior…
    [In specific regards to Luke 17,] the fact that the nine did not express gratitude might indicate that Jesus was not considered a high-ranking, social superior by those were heal from the house of Israel. (p. 13-14)

     Judeans refrain from saying “Thank you” because the phrase is actually used to mean “Enough, thank you”…  To thank someone for his or her help means “I will not be needing you anymore in the future”…
    Given attitudes toward gratitude, one might empathize with the nine who did not come to say “Thank you,” since they might require Jesus and his healing power once more in the future. Why thank him and break off the interaction?… 
    On the other hand, the Samaritan’s “Thank you” indicates that this person saw no more need for any further recourse to Jesus [at least in regards to his leprosy].  His healing was once-for-all.  This person fits Luke’s understanding of Jesus and his ministry as a new Jubilee in which God would refashion everything, making the sick whole once-for-all.(p. 14)

Put them together and you arrive at the following affirmations about thanksgiving in Jesus’ day – and the deeper and fuller meaning of the Samaritan’s thanks in the text before us: 1) it acknowledges the  clear superiority of the One thanked, and 2) it acknowledges the completeness and fullness of that Other’s gift, power, and provision.

In a flash, in the twinkle of an eye, the Samaritan sees below the surface of his outward cleansing.  More deeply, he perceives the King of Kings whose activity goes beyond all we could ever ask think or imagine.  (1 Timothy 6:15, Revelation 17:14, Ephesians 3:20)  And as much as it is a thought-out response (i.e., returning and giving thanks), there’s an impulse of the soul to run back and kneel and bow and confess that Jesus is the anointed one of God! (Philippians 2:10-11)

Here, the text can take off into so many different quarters of our lives and living…

  • Of how Jesus’ plan of restoration is holistic – embracing the fullness of what we are… and not just the surface! (An important message, I might add [outside the church and in] where too many limit their focus to presenting a clean outer shell – neglecting the deeper life and living that surrounds wholeness and healing and salvation!)
  • Of how an outsider (one considered to be on the outs with the surrounding culture) has much more of an inside with Jesus than those born in the proper house! Yes, good Samaritans abound in Jesus day – much to the embarrassment of cradle and cradled believers!

Preaching this message to two country churches this last weekend, I left them with a benediction along the following lines that “hearing these lines…

does not diminish our need to be thankful
to waitresses and waiters and civil servants
(because they are paid to serve us)
or doctors and nurses
(because we know we’ll need them again).

No, a Hebrew perspective on giving thanks…
should have us affirming the worth of all others
and the value of all that others do for us.

And, it should have us acknowledging that,
when it comes to thanking God,
we are on a entirely different plain of gratitude.

Maybe that’s what distinguishes
what Christians call “Praise” from regular thanksgiving:
embracing the unique supremacy of God and God’s ways…
and appreciating the ways that these truths embraced
can bring greater healing and wholeness
(and not just a surface cleaning).

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