Ingratitude exposed

Pentecost 21

Luke 17:11-19

Marian Free

In the name of God, to whom we owe all that we have. Amen.

This morning I would like to share with you something of the story of CorrieTen Boom[1]. Corrie and her sister Betsie were the unmarried daughters of a Dutch watch-maker. During the Second World War the family provided refuge to a number of Jews. They were found out and sent to German prison camps. Towards the end of the war, as defeat loomed for the Germans, prisoners, including Betsie and Corrie, were sent to camps further and further to the east. At last the sisters found themselves at Ravensbruck. There, the conditions were absolutely appalling. Their new home, Barracks 28 seemed to have half its windows stuffed with rags where the glass had broken. “The place was filthy, the plumbing had backed up and the bedding was soiled and rancid. There were no individual beds, but great square piers stacked three high, and wedged side by side and end to end with only an occasional narrow aisle between.

When the sisters reached their beds they had to climb to a second tier, crawl across three other straw covered platforms to reach the one that they would share with who knew how many. The space between platforms was so narrow that they could not sit up and so they lay back on the rancid straw. Suddenly Corrie leaped up, bumping her head on the bed above. “Fleas!” she exclaimed. “The place is crawling with them. How can we live in such a place?” While Corrie wailed, Betsie calmly prayed: “Show us how.” She reminded Corrie of the Bible passage they had read that morning: ‘Rejoice always, pray constantly, in everything give thanks …’ (1 Thess 5). “We can start now, thanking God for everything in this new barracks, Betsie announced. “Such as?” was Corrie’s surprised reply.

“For being together, for being able to keep our Bible, for all the women who will meet God through these pages, for the overcrowding which means that they will hear us when we read,” began Betsie. “For the fleas” she continued. This last was too much for Corrie – thanking God for the fleas? But Betsie insisted: “for everything give thanks.” And so they stood between the tiers of beds, in that hell on earth, and said “Thankyou to God for the fleas.”

Ten lepers are healed, but only one gives thanks. It is the outsider, the Samaritan, who returns to glorify God. The antagonism between the Samaritans and the Jews went deep.  The Samaritans trace their ancestry to the Israelite tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh and are adherents of an Abrahamic faith.  They separated from the Jews when Eli the priest who built a new holy place, abandoning (so they thought) that which had been established by Joshua. One theory suggests that the Samaritans were left behind when the Judeans were taken into exile in Babylon. The Samaritans claim that theirs is the true expression of the faith of the ancient Israelites and that Judaism is a version of the faith which was corrupted and added to during the time in exile.

The Samaritans believed that Mount Gerizim, not Mount Zion was the holy mountain and their scripture consisted only of what we would identify as the first five books of the Old Testament. The resentment between the two groups depended, at least in part, on their competition for authenticity and historicity. As the New Testament suggests, the Jews despised the Samaritans. Leaders on both sides – Jewish and Samaritan – discouraged contact with the other which including travelling through their territories and even speaking to them.

According to today’s gospel Jesus heals ten men of their leprosy and only one returns to give thanks. That it is a Samaritan who returns is not only a surprise, it is an affront to Jesus’ Jewish audience. Surely it should be one of their own, not a reviled Samaritan who sets the example, who receives recognition from Jesus. A Samaritan would have been the last person whom they would expect to hear commended.

In the gospels the outsider if often used to show up the religious people of the day: the Samaritan, the Roman centurion, the Canaanite woman, the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet, Zaccheus the tax collector and the woman with the flow of blood are all presented as exemplars in one way or another. The actions or faith of these outsiders expose the false piety and arrogance of the scribes and Pharisees. In the gospels, faithfulness, trust and gratitude are more often shown, not by those who believe themselves to be the children of God, but by those whose occupation, race or condition put them on the outskirts of respectable society and lead them to be considered with contempt by the so-called religious people of the day.

I’m sure that we all know people who show us up, who expose our arrogance, our anxiety, our lack of faith – the person living with constant pain who still manages to be cheerful and content, the person who remains sanguine even though their business has failed and they have lost everything or the person who remains calm in the face of chaos. Most of us do not like to have our weaknesses revealed. We prefer the world to see the front that we choose to show. It is natural to want to protect ourselves from criticism and derision, however if we are to grow and mature, we have to learn to open ourselves for inspection, to allow a light to be shone into those parts of ourselves that we would rather not see. We have to be challenged and not threatened by those whose lives demonstrate a holiness, a contentment or a calm that is deeper or stronger than our own.

Giving thanks – for fleas of all things – in what was already an horrendous situation, a Samaritan – of all people – being the only one to return to give thanks – these are actions that have the potential to expose our own pettiness and ingratitude, to reveal our self-centredness and thoughtlessness. At the same time they provide opportunities to re-examine our own lives, to re-think how we respond to life’s challenges and to determine to live differently – grateful for the abundant goodness which God has showered and will continue to shower on us.

[1] Corrie Ten Boom. Her Story. New York: International  Press, 1995, p144-5.


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