March 15 2015 - Lent 4
‘Minding Our P’s and Q’s’
2 Kings 5:1-19
One day, a family gathers around a table to have meal together. They ask 4-year-old Tommy to give thanks to God for the meal. So everyone closes their eyes and bows their heads as little Tommy starts praying.
He starts his prayer by giving thanks to God for his friends, which he names one by one: Bill, Garry, Robert, Andrew, Susie, Linda, Derrick, and, of course, little Bob. Then he gives thank for his mommy and daddy, brother and sister, grandma and grandpa, all of his aunties, uncles, and cousins. He then starts thanking God for the chicken, the rice, the curry, the lasagna, the apple, the fruit salad, the orange juice, and, of course, the mud cake.
But, then, he suddenly stops without saying amen. After a long silence, his mother asks him why does he stop. Little Tommy looks up to his Mommy and says, “If I thank God for the broccoli, will God know that I’m lying?”
Friends, think about the many occasions when we also have to say, “Thank you”. Do we really mean the words when we say them? Do we really feel a sense of gratitude for the blessing and kindness that we have received? Or, do we say, “Thank you,” because it is the correct thing to do or only as an automatic response to something?
When I was still a student in Perth, I always caught public transport wherever I went. Bus was the main public transport that I used the most. I still remember that we’re supposed to say, “Thank you,” to the driver before we left the bus. But I often wonder whether or not the passengers who said, “Thank you,” to the driver, saying it because they felt a sense of gratitude to the driver or simply out of duty. In my own case, 8 out of 10, I have to say that I said “Thank you,” to the driver out of a sense of duty, not gratitude.
I reasoned that I had paid for the service so there was actually no need to say, “Thank you,” because I deserved the service. Indeed, living in a society like ours, driven by its economic impulses, the words, ”Thank you,” have often lost their true meaning.
What about the two characters in our Bible readings this morning: Naaman and the leper from Samaria? What were their intentions behind their gratitude? Were they genuine or was there a hidden agenda behind the gratitude?
After he was healed, Naaman was trying to give gift to Elisha. It seems that Naaman saw the healing as a debt to be paid or as goods that could be purchased. He failed to see that the healing was a gift from the God of Israel to him, a foreigner.
Naaman came to Israel with his pompous companions. He was a great man from a foreign land, feared in Israel and beyond. So he expected Elisha to come out of his house to greet him and treat him as an important person.
But Elisha did not even come out of his house. Instead, he sent his servant to greet Naaman. The tables had been turned on Naaman. He was now being treated as a commoner with a commoner disease who begged for help from Elisha.
The instruction that Elisha gave to Naaman was even more insulting. Elisha asked Naaman to immerse himself into the river Jordan seven times. From what I hear from Naaman’s words, it seems that the river was not even a clean one. And, presumably, Naaman had to take off all his official garments before immersing himself into the water. He needed to put aside all of the ornaments that symbolised his importance.
So here, the great commander of the Aramaic kingdom, was reminded that in the eyes of God, he was just an ordinary man with a skin disease that a commoner used to have. The healing, therefore, was given not because he was a great man, but simply because God was compassionate enough to grant him the healing.
Indeed, there is a sense of powerlessness in accepting a gift; a feeling that a powerful man, like Naaman, certainly dislikes. Remember again time, like Christmas, when we accept a gift from a friend or a family. Do we not often feel the urge to return the favour? Do we not feel guilty if we do not, in return, give a gift at least of similar value?
That was what Naaman tried to do. He tried to show to Elisha that he could purchase the healing. But Elisha refused the gift. If he had received the gift, the healing would have not been a gift any longer; it would have become merchandise that could be bought. And Naaman would have not returned to his country with a deep sense of gratitude, but with a sense of pride as if he had won yet another battle.
But there was nothing that the Samaritan, who was healed by Jesus from his leprosy, could offer back to Jesus. Being a leper, at that time, meant being an outcast. A leper must leave his/her village/town to an asylum for lepers outside of his/her town/village.
In the story, Jesus met the lepers on his way to Jerusalem. They lived on the region between Samaria and Galilee. Being cut-off from the towns/villages where their livelihood depended on, those lepers must have lived in dire poverty. It is not surprising that the only thing that the leper, who returned to Jesus, could do was praising God, as loud as he could, thanking Jesus, and prostrating himself at Jesus’ feet. And this was the kind of attitude that Jesus expected: an acknowledgement of one’s own helplessness in God’s presence and a deep sense of real gratitude that was born out of such awareness.
Now some may wonder why the other nine lepers did not return to Jesus to say, “Thank you”. Luke did not give us any specific reasons. But, at the end of the story, he told us that the only person who returned to Jesus was a Samaritan. And Jesus himself made a comment that out of the ten lepers, only the foreigner returned.
So the other nine must have been Jewish. Thus we can assume that the reason they failed to return must have been because they thought that it was their right, as members of God’s chosen people, to be healed. They must have seen the healing as a right, not as a privilege.
The Samaritan, on the other hand, had no reason to be arrogant. He was, after all, a Samaritan, an enemy of the Jewish people. And if he, the enemy, was healed by the person who was supposed to be his enemy, than the healing was definitely not his right; it must have been a gift. That was why he returned to Jesus, praising God with a loud voice.
Friends, a deep sense of gratitude is born out of our acknowledgement that all that we have is a privilege, not a right. It is born out of an understanding that we have what we have not mainly because we deserve it, but because of God's grace and other’s generosity. Our well being, socially, emotionally, physically, and spiritually depends on the care and love given to us by those people around us. Even our very existence in this world depends on our environment that has provided us with a space good enough to live in and to prosper.
Since the Enlightenment, we, human beings, have fooled ourselves into believing that we are solely responsible for our very own survival and existence. The truth of the matter is, we are not. There are many things that we have no control whatsoever.
Therefore, living in a society where everything is measured by its economic value, we need to have contra-values. We need to start to learn again to give thanks to God for our own well-being, even for our own existence. Just like the leper from Samaria, we need to remind ourselves that without God, by our own effort, we would not be here. We need to have an open and humble attitude to accept the gifts from God that enable us to have richer and fuller life.
Going back to my experience on the bus, I need to remind myself that my safety on the road is not really because of the money I’ve paid, but because of the diligence of the driver. Therefore, I need to thank the driver, whether or not I like the person. I need to remind myself to mind my P’s and Q’s, because when we say thank you, we acknowledge our inability to pay back the act of generosity given to us.
During this season of Lent, we need to remind ourselves that we all are recipients of the greatest gift of all: the Son of God who died on the cross to bring healing to the world. We have done nothing that makes us deserve such gift. It is all given to us by the grace of God and not by our own effort or goodness. The only way appropriate for us to respond is to receive the gift with an open heart and a deep sense of gratitude. And, just like the video that we watched this morning reminds us, gratitude changes everything. Amen.