Amy McCullough: Gratitude That Saves

If one sought a journal for recording gratitude, then a quick Amazon search would reveal a myriad of choices. “Start with Gratitude” reads the book whose cover depicts a sunrise. “Chart your thankfulness” suggests another, offering timetables of one, three, or five minutes per day. “Good days start with gratitude” proclaims yet another, the statement written in cursive and surrounded by flowers. For the more digitally inclined comes a fillable worksheet or an app to download. Instruments for cultivating gratitude have boomed in popularity in recent decades, with everyone from Oprah to Pope Francis encouraging us to express our thankfulness. Psychologists affirm the benefits of this practice, which include decreased stress, improved immunity, and deeper self-awareness. “Gratitude,” says Arianna Huffington, “is like white blood cells for the soul, protecting us from cynicism, entitlement, anger, and resignation.”

But is gratitude only a health initiative, a tool utilized toward an improved life? This utilitarian approach to expressing gratitude misses the fact that we are thankful for something, something typically outside ourselves. Gratitude used only as a means toward increasing positivity misses the fiery pink beauty of a sunset, the awe of majestic mountains, the poignancy of a kindness laid across our path.

When the person cleansed of leprosy returns to thank Jesus, the gesture signifies an inward transformation, a healing happening beneath the skin. “Your faith has made you well,” declares Jesus. What is meant by Jesus’ affirmation? How does gratitude have the power to save?

Ten persons stricken with leprosy are stationed on the outskirts of the village, Luke writes, reminding us with his word choice that human beings are always more than their disease. The white rash spreading across their bodies, with its boils, swelling, and disfigurement, have cast them out of their communities, set them apart from their families, have rendered them religiously suspect. “Unclean” is the warning they must shout to anyone who passes by, confirming their status by tearing their clothes and tangling their hair. Their village sits on the borderland between Galilee and Samaria; they exist a far distance from community, purpose, welcome, and hope.

Consider the weight of such a shaming isolation. Their bodies hold pain, their social networks have shrunk to others similarly shunned; their faith communities have renounced them, too. This is Hester Primm walking through town with her scarlet A affixed to her pinafore, barred from entering respectable society. This is the person infected with HIV-AIDS in the early years of the disease, let go from their job, dismissed from their social clubs, refused admittance in the local hospital. The exclusion is comprehensive, the barriers inhumane, and the person is defined only by what others have deemed as unclean.

The group of ten call out to Jesus as he makes his way across that regional dividing line, traveling his own far journey from hometown protection toward the dangers of Jerusalem. They ask for mercy. Although the text does not describe Jesus stopping for a lengthy encounter, it does name that Jesus sees them. Jesus sees the boils covering their arms, the broken skin tracking across their feet, the tattered clothes and knotted hair. Despite these external distractions, Jesus sees them, the person alive behind the outward appearances. Jesus looks at the disgrace written across their faces and notes how their bodies fold into themselves, contorting away from others. Jesus charts all these details but sees their personhood, their singular pain and their deep need.

And so, Jesus heals them. He cleanses their skin without fanfare or loud announcement. He simply sends them on their way down the road to restoration. “Go to the priest,” he says, “let him confirm your cleanliness and offer you the rites of reinstatement.” The group follows his command, perhaps because they had no other real option, but more likely because they sought to trade a life of exclusion for the embrace of family, village, and faith.

Luke’s gospel is filled with stories of healing: injured persons being noticed and tended to on the roadside, rebellious sons coming to their senses and being welcomed with celebration, women, bleeding or bent over, being relieved of their ailments. Each healing, proclaims Luke, signals God’s in-breaking kingdom. Restored to health, reconciled in relationship, or returned to dignity, each healing harkens God’s reign. The ten persons suffering with leprosy experience such a healing. One moment they are begging for small coins from which they will scrape together dinner. The next they are watching their skin recover its rosy glow and smooth texture and rushing toward home, in their gladness glimpsing God’s kingdom.

All, that is, except one. One person perceives the layers of release Jesus’ command has set into motion. This one cannot embrace his new life without acknowledging the gift he has been given and the one who gave it so freely. This tenth one sees that Jesus has seen him. He responds relationally, seeking an extended encounter with the One able to call him back from the far country of shame. Catching a glimpse of God’s kingdom, he wants time to express his astonishment, to embody his overflowing heart.

For many years when reading this text, I’ve veered toward viewing the story as one with moralistic overtones, a not-so-subtle reminder to be grateful. Like a journal commanding “start your day with gratitude,” its message felt well-intentioned, even spiritually astute, and yet fell flat. Jesus’ reaction to the fact that only one person returned to express thanks appeared to confirm this interpretation. “Where are the other nine?” Jesus asks with a hint of indignation. “Why is it that none of the others whose skin has been cleansed have returned?” I heard warning in his words. Mind your manners. Write your thank you notes. Improve yourself.

But true gratitude is not forced. It flows from a nourished soul, a person seen, welcomed, and restored. The tenth one prostrates himself at Jesus’ feet, with words of thanks pouring from his lips. His actions are spontaneous, a gesture of love to the one who has acted in love toward him. His return enables a meeting between one in need and Jesus who saves. Your faith has saved you, says Jesus – or, your faith has made you whole. Moments when we experience Jesus seeing us are healing. They nurture our faith in the One who can transform us from isolated exiles into beloved children. The returnee’s wholeness is itself another gift, offered solely from the saving power of Jesus’ presence.

I have never met a person who does not carry some type of wounding, who has not been standing, at some point, helpless on the roadside, crying out for mercy. Jesus sees deeply into each situation, noting the ways our lives have become isolated, shame-filled, and diminished. And into these moments he extends the saving power of his presence. His seeing of us enables us to see ourselves anew: freed, claimed, and welcomed into God’s kingdom. Our gratitude at Christ’s healing presence becomes a piece of our restoration, a means by which our ties to him grow ever deeper, our eyes perceive more easily how he is working, and through our heart-filled praise, we too can glimpse God’s kingdom.