In the first reading, we hear the end of the story of Naaman, a Syrian general, who has just been cured of his leprosy. But we don’t get to hear the start of the story. It turns out that when Naaman comes to Israel he encounters the prophet Elisha. Naaman has come bearing all manner of riches and gifts, but Elisha wants none of it. He simply instructs Naaman to wash seven times in the Jordan. Pretty simple and ordinary, yes?
Lots of ways that Naaman could react. Scripture tells us he is not pleased. In effect he responds, “Are you kidding me? This nasty little river? I have great rivers in Damascus. Couldn’t I have washed there? And, aren’t you supposed to have magical sounding words, incantation, a bunch of hand-waving, gesturing, and put on a big show? This was a serious waste of time.” And at that he turns to leave and go home.
But one of Naaman’s servants comes and says (with the help of my embellishment!) “If the prophet had told you to stand on one leg, holding a pigeon as an offering, repeating the name of the God of Israel 100 times, while chewing a rare earth root, you would have thought, ‘OK…this is it!’ Why is it you can’t see the miraculous in the midst of the ordinary?” Fortunately for Naaman, the servant’s appeal finds a home and Naaman follows the simple prophetic instructions – and is cleansed.
The story does not follow Naaman all the way back to his home country. But I imagine him arriving home, now cured of leprosy, and encountering a friend who ask, “How are you?” It is a question that we hear every day of our lives. It is an ordinary question. Ordinarily, we respond “good” or “fine” and then repeat the question to the other person. I wondered how Naaman responded.
In the gospel, ten lepers were cured – and consequently they are naturally surprised, overjoyed, ecstatic. Lots of choices for their response. But one among them, in the range of all the emotions attending his miraculous cure, chose gratitude and made the choice to return and express his gratitude to Jesus and to God. He could have chosen to run to his family and friends. His joy and a whole range of emotion could have led him to choose any manner of celebratory actions. But he chose to return and express gratitude.
Gratitude is indeed a response to the blessings of life, but it is also a choice to see those blessings, name them, and express our gratitude in word and deed.
There are lots of events we encounter in an ordinary day. Sure, there are reasons for gratitude, but those reasons are mixed in the cauldron of life along with frustration, fear, feeling foolish; regret, remorse, reluctance; anger, apprehension, apathy. We have a whole range of emotions to choose from. Which do we choose most often? The choices we make develop the habits we form and the person we become.
I can’t imagine life as a leper in Jesus’ time. They were forced to live apart from hearth and home, family and friends, and reduced to a life of begging outside the city proper. If that was your life would you choose to be grateful? Even more, would you choose to express that gratitude? Our Samaritan leper had a whole range of emotion he could have chosen in the course of any ordinary day. I wonder if he had a lifetime of choosing and expressing gratitude.
Gratitude, like all of our other options, becomes easier to choose as we practice it. Gratitude, like faith and hope and love and commitment, are not inborn traits that some have and others don’t, but rather gratitude is more like a muscle that can be strengthened over time. And as you practice giving thanks and more frequently share your gratitude, you not only grow in gratitude but create an example for others. More than that, you create a climate in which it is easier to be grateful and encourage those around you to see the blessings all around us. Blessings that are there in the ordinary. An ordinary day, a less-than-ordinary river and the simple instructions to wash seven times, and the in daily choices we make that have become our own “ordinary.”
A Samaritan leper chose gratitude – and maybe it came easy to him after a lifetime of practice.
I am sure it wasn’t easy in the beginning. There were days he was overwhelmed by grief, loss, anger at his misfortune at life. There were days when he did not chose gratitude. But in time, it came. Gratitude is never a command. It is always an invitation; one God never tires of making. One we are called to accept.
Being a grateful person has power in the world. I suspect there is another grateful character in our readings: Naaman’s servant. Where Naaman was only prepared to be grateful in the context of the extraordinary, his servant could point to the possibilities in the ordinary river and the ordinary washing. I like to think this unnamed servant lived a life in chosen gratitude. I imagine the servant’s demeanor and attitude began to rub off on Naaman, so that by the time he arrived home and was asked, “How are you?” – I hope his response was “I am grateful.”
As it says in 1 Thessalonians 5, “In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.” And there it is – the invitation to choose and practice gratitude in the course of all our days, ordinary or no.
So let me ask you this, “How are you?” [This where you say, “I am grateful.”]
A simple reply to the simple question, “How are you?” Let it become the faithful choice we make in order to develop the virtuous habit we form so that the person we becomes hears the Lord say to us “Stand up and go; your faith has saved you.”