Where Are the Nine?
Luke 17 records the story of ten lepers who encountered Jesus and pleaded with Him, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” Jesus did not heal them then and there, but sent them to the priests, the only ones who could certify that a leper was healed and could be reintegrated into society. It was on their way to see the priests that they were healed. Luke tells us in verses 15-16, “And one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, and with a loud voice glorified God, And fell down on his face at his feet, giving him thanks….” Jesus asked the healed leper in verse 17, “Were there not ten cleansed? but where are the nine?”
Good question. It is a sad reality that the vast majority of humankind is naturally predisposed to be ungrateful. In fact, it’s at the root of the moral corruption of humanity. In his description in Romans 1 of the slide of the human race into sin and depravity to show that there is none righteous—not even one—and therefore none who is deserving of heaven, Paul begins his argument with these sober words: “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him…” (Romans 1:21)
Given that this is the general state of mankind, and even, sadly, even believers at times, the lack of gratefulness of the nine other lepers is not surprising. As I read this story from the Gospel of Luke, I wondered what the excuses might have been for the nine not returning to give thanks to Jesus. Here are some reasons they might not have returned to give thanks.
Maybe one decided it would be inconvenient to return to give thanks to Jesus. Really, it’s never convenient to be grateful. That’s why the writer of Hebrews referred to it as the “sacrifice” of praise. A sacrifice is by definition something that is not convenient, or costs something. We must make the effort to be thankful to God—even if it means inconvenience. It will never be convenient, but God always blesses us when we take the time and effort to worship Him and show our gratefulness to Him.
Perhaps the second leper was too proud. It takes a measure of humility to express thanks and appreciation, doesn’t it? That’s why a lot of people get all “tongue-tangled” when it comes to thanking someone for what they have done for them. It takes humility to say, “Thank you” because it shows that we need someone else, that we’re not sufficient on our own. But God puts a great priority on humility. (See Proverbs 22:4; James 4:6; James 4:10.) We should never be so proud that we cannot show gratefulness.
I wonder if the third one might have been too self-conscious. Maybe he thought, I wouldn’t know what to say. I wouldn’t know how to express myself. We need to learn the language of thanksgiving. It ought to be such a part of our lives that it becomes an ordinary part of our vocabulary, both in our prayers and with others. How sad that we are often negligent to regularly express thanks to God and others. It makes us be a blessing to others. My pastor used to say, “Some people are a blessing wherever they go and some are blessing whenever they go!” Thankful people are in the first category.
It could be that the fourth man felt sorry for himself. Maybe he had had leprosy for 22 years, while one of the others had had it only a couple of years. “Why didn’t God heal me twenty years ago like him?!” When we feel sorry for ourselves, we fail to see our blessings. We count our blessings on one hand but need a calculator to count our complaints. It is true that we face many trials, even awful troubles, in this life. Yet there is always something we can be thankful for. When the 17th century Bible scholar and commentator, Matthew Henry was accosted by thieves and robbed of his purse, he wrote these words in his diary: “Let me be thankful first, because I was never robbed before; second, because although they took my purse, they did not take my life; third, because, although they took my all, it was not much; and fourth, because it was I who was robbed, not I who robbed.” Even in a trial, Matthew Henry had a true heart of thanksgiving.
Perchance the fifth man said, “No use in me telling him my thanks; he knows it anyway.” We’ve all heard the story of the man who told his wife, after she repeatedly complained that he never told her he loved her, “Marie, I told you forty years ago when we got married that I loved you and if I ever change my mind, I’ll let you know.” It’s true, of course, that God knows whether or not we are grateful—but He desires to hear us express our thankfulness to Him for two reasons. First, thanksgiving brings glory and honor to whom it is rightfully due. That brings joy to God. Second, thanksgiving brings a sense of joy and peace to our hearts. Worship and thanksgiving from the heart always edifies us! God knows and loves us and wants us to experience the joy of worship.
Maybe the sixth leper got too busy with life’s cares. Too many of us are caught up in the materialistic spirit of our day. We have cars and money and all kinds of material things, yet we seldom pause to give thanks and praise to God. We just work harder and neglect God more to get more. We’re like the hippie couple back in the 70s. The hippie said to his wife, “I’m going over and pick up my unemployment check. Then I’ll drop in at the university to see what’s holding up my Pell Grant. After that I’ll pick up the food stamps. While I’m doing that, you go over to the free clinic and check your tests, pick up my free glasses at the health center, then go to the Welfare Department and apply for an increase in our eligibility limit. Then I’ll meet you at the Federal Building for the demonstration against this rotten establishment!” We’re sometimes like that aren’t we? We daily load up on all the benefits God has for us, but then we’re ungrateful and unthankful. God help us to be thankful, to take the time to thank God for His goodness and generosity to us!
Perhaps the seventh man didn’t know why he didn’t go back. For some reason, he just wasn’t excited about his healing. Why? Maybe because he was consumed with bitterness against a relative who rarely visited him or his rabbi who failed him when he had leprosy. Marie Paule Thielle of Metz, France, at only three years old, received the Bronze Medal for an act of courage and dangerous sacrifice. But the one she rescued doesn’t like her anymore. Why? When Marie’s playmate, two-year-old Dennis, fell into a pool, she grabbed him by the hair and held his head out of the water until her screams for help were answered. Marie said, “He doesn’t like me now because it hurt when I pulled his hair.” Bitterness and resentment will rob you of your spirit of joy and peace. In fact, bitterness and thanksgiving cannot coexist in a person’s life. One will always overshadow the other. The best antidote for bitterness is a thankful spirit.
I wonder if leper number 8 failed to return because he was waning in his awareness of all God had done for him. He quickly forgot God’s blessings. He was the kind of person who only calls on God when he has a problem. Graciously, God comes to the rescue, but then God doesn’t hear from him again until he has another problem. How would you feel if a friend never came to see you except when he had a financial crisis and needed money, barely nodding in appreciation each time, only to repeat the same cycle the next time he needed money? You would feel taken advantage of and unappreciated. I think that’s how God must feel sometimes. We ought to be ashamed of it!
It could be that number 9 just didn’t feel like returning to thank Jesus. He had waited a long time for Jesus. His healing was a very traumatic experience. He had already traveled far to see the priest as Jesus had instructed, so why bother to go back? He was controlled by his feelings instead of by what was right. One of the greatest truths you can learn in the Christian life is to do right because it’s right to do right—regardless of our feelings. If you wait to thank God when you feel like it—you may never get around to it. Remember, praise is a sacrifice. God help us to thank God even when we don’t feel like it! Paul says, “In everything give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you” (1 Thessalonians 5:18)
Do any of these hypothetical persons describe you? Are you one of the nine ingrates, or are you like the one who returned to God, grateful for God’s goodness in his life? This Thanksgiving, may we have an “attitude of gratitude. And may God help us not to be grateful just on Thanksgiving Day, but to live a life of thanks-living.