Although the Thanksgiving holiday traces its roots back to the 17th century and was first observed nationally under the presidency of George Washington, it did not become an annual holiday until 1863 by proclamation of Abraham Lincoln. In Lincoln’s address regarding the Thanksgiving holiday, he noted that all blessings “are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.” His statement is reminiscent of Habakkuk 3:2 in which Habakkuk prayed, “LORD, I have heard of your fame, I stand in awe of your deeds, O LORD. Renew them in our day, in our time make them known; in wrath remember mercy.” It is only fitting that recalling God’s awesome blessings and seeking His constant mercy, like Habakkuk, should ignite within us a heart of gratitude. But are we constantly grateful or does the thanksgiving mentality only impact us once a year?
On one occasion as Jesus was on His “way to Jerusalem…and passing…between Samaria and Galilee,” He came in contact with a colony of lepers (Luke 17:11). These ten men had been isolated from social contact and participation in temple worship since they contracted that dreaded disease. They were poor, miserable, lonely, embarrassed, avoided and untouchable. Somehow they knew about Jesus. Somehow they knew that He was a miracle worker. Somehow they knew He had the ability to cure them. So, as they “stood at a distance” they called out to Jesus saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us” (Luke 17:12-13).
As had happened many times before, Jesus had compassion on them and simply instructed them to “Go and show yourselves to the priests” (Luke 17:14). Now, showing one’s self to the priest was a requirement under Mosaic Law for one who had be healed of leprosy to be pronounced clean (Leviticus 13). At the point of this instruction, these lepers had not yet been healed. They began their journey to the priest while they still bore the mark of leprosy. Their willingness to go showed that they had faith in Jesus. They trusted His words without first seeing the evidence of His work. As they were en route to see the priest suddenly their leprosy disappeared. Certainly their faith had made them well, which is exactly what Jesus told to the lone leper who returned in Luke 17:19.
When Jesus healed these men He not only restored their health but also restored their lives. They could go back home to their family and stop living outside of town. They could go back to their jobs and stop begging. They could go back to the temple and worship their God with the community of Israel. One would assume that such a blessing would surely evoke gratitude from these men. Earlier in His ministry, Jesus healed a single leper which caused that leper to talk incessantly about Jesus to the point that Jesus could no longer enter the surrounding towns (Mark 1:40-45). However, only one of these ten healed lepers returned to thank Jesus. Only one was so overwhelmed with gratitude that he changed course in order to find Jesus. We’re told that he “turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus' feet, giving him thanks” (Luke 17:15-16).
What about the other nine? Were the other nine lepers grateful that Jesus healed them? I would assume that one would have to be grateful in such a situation. So why didn’t they seek out Jesus to show their gratitude? Based on this story, I don’t believe it is because they did not understand the source of their healing since they recognized who Jesus was and demonstrated faith in His ability to heal them. Instead, I think it is because they simply did not prioritize gratitude. Maybe their priority was in fulfilling Jesus’ order to show themselves to the priest. Maybe their priority was to reconnect with their family. Whatever their priority was, regardless of how appropriate it may be, it prevented them from prioritizing an expression of gratitude to the One who blessed them.
In the end, the lone leper’s return showed how important expressing gratitude was to him, and the absence of the nine lepers created uncertainty regarding their appreciation for what had been done for them. Notice how Jesus responded when the lone leper returned. He said, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner [a reference to his Samaritan ethnicity]?” (Luke 17:17-18). His words reveal appreciation for the leper who showed gratitude and disappointment in the lepers who did not.
The lesson to be learned from this story is that we should prioritize showing gratitude because God deserves our gratitude. That’s why Paul makes it very clear that showing gratitude is a Christian’s responsibility. He instructed us in 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 to “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” He said in Colossians 3:17, “whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” In fact, Paul even went so far as to say in Colossians 2:7 that we should be “overflowing with gratitude” or “abounding in thanksgiving.” When you read Paul’s statements about gratitude you can’t help but sense that God not only deserves our gratitude but expects our gratitude. In fact, Paul indicated that thanksgiving should be a frequent part of our prayer life when he told the church in Philippi to “not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:6). So, if you do not express gratitude then you are withholding something from God that He deserves and expects.
May we always be the one and never the nine. May gratitude consume us on a daily basis and not just this month or this week. May we always “stand in awe” of and say “Thank you” to God knowing that it is He “who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing” (Ephesians 1:3).