Thanks??!!—Because Western Bible readers use the expression “thank you” differently than does traditional Middle Eastern culture, invariably, we misunderstand the Samaritan Leper.
This Sunday’s Gospel reading, Luke 17:11-19, is often mistaken for being a story concerning expressing thanks. It is a story about ten people—nine Israelites and a hated outsider—with a polluting skin condition. All are healed; one gives thanks. Whatever the biological nature of the condition was, it almost definitely was not Hansen’s disease. Perhaps it was what we would call psoriasis.
In the whole New Testament, only one person ever thanks Jesus. And he was not even considered Israelite!
And one of them, realizing he had been healed, returned, glorifying God (doxazōn ton Theon) in a loud voice; and he fell at the feet of Jesus and thanked him (eucharistōn autō). He was a Samaritan.
Jesus said in reply, “Ten were cleansed, were they not? Where are the other nine? Has none but this foreigner returned to give glory to God (dounai doxan tō Theō)?”
But look how the New American Bible Revised Edition translates:
NABRE Luke 11:15-8
And one of them, realizing he had been healed, returned, glorifying God in a loud voice, and he fell at the feet of Jesus and thanked him. He was a Samaritan. Jesus said in reply, “Ten were cleansed, were they not? Where are the other nine? Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God?
No Thanks for Bad Translations
The NABRE has a disastrous translation of Luke 17:18—dounai doxan tō Theō. The Lukan Jesus was not asking “Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God?” In its desire to make the text say “Jesus is God!” the NABRE puts words into Jesus’ mouth that don’t match the Greek text.
This Samaritan would never have given thanks to God. While biblical people were very much indebted to God, and grateful to God, to say “Thank You!” to God was equivalent to suicide. We will see why below. Rather, the Samaritan THANKS Jesus, but he GLORIFIES ( = HONORS) God.
The Fourth Gospel informs us of important cultural background—“Judeans have no dealings with Samaritans” (John 4:9). The late scholar John Pilch says that this Samaritan was probably in the “wrong place at the right time.” Through Jesus’ brokerage (mediation), he receives healing along with the nine Israelites. This Samaritan is quite aware that he has a snowball’s chance in hell of ever seeing Jesus again. And we will soon learn that this is why he gave thanks to Jesus.
So the Samaritan praises God, the Source of his healing, and returns to thank Jesus (Luke 17:11-19), something he would never do to God. Reading the text honestly, we see that Jesus is silent about the Samaritan’s gratitude or it being missing in the nine. Homilists exploring this story are fond of focusing on gratitude or its lack. In doing so, they miss the point.
Why do Western commentators, teachers, and preachers invariably misunderstand and misinterpret this story?
Time-travel and Giving Thanks
So imagine that you are a 21st century Westerner who has access to a time machine. Say you go back in time to the first century Galilee, the New Testament world of Jesus. Let’s assume you can speak Aramaic fluently. You make friends with the locals and spend years living there, walking around Galilean villages, studying their ways. One day, you meet up with a friend who is a relatively well-off peasant with about eight acres of ancestral farmland.
This native greets you in typical Middle Eastern fashion: “My friend, the sun could not rise this morning without me seeing your face.” He follows this cheesiness up with three other compliments, each more excessive than the first.
And what do you do? Recall that you are an American—so exaggerated and glowing are his words, it all sounds pretty embarrassing and corny to you. But you smile back at him and tell your friend, in perfect American fashion, “THANK YOU!”
Your friend reacts to this by going silent. He becomes dark in the face. Angrily he glares at you and then, without explanation, stomps off. Why? Because you just insulted him. You told him you wanted to end the relationship. No matter what you meant to do, that is what you communicated.
Grateful Americans Coming to Dinner
Another example: say you don’t have a time machine and thus cannot travel back in time to first century Syro-Palestine. That is just like Richard Rohrbaugh and his colleagues of the Context Group of Biblical scholars. They have no time machines either. But they have the next best thing—decades of fieldwork in the closest reality to a living laboratory of the ancient Mediterranean world of the Bible, namely, the present-day Middle East.
So imagine just like Dr. Rohrbaugh and friends that you have lived for years in the Levant, working nearby Jerusalem. Your wealthy friend in Occupied Palestine invites you and your spouse to dinner at his home. This is a great honor. So you and your spouse, both Americans, go. Before arriving for dinner you grab some flowers as a gift. Reaching their residence, you knock on the door, and your friend’s father opens up. With honest smiles beaming on your faces, you present the old Palestinian man with the flowers.
Your friend’s father is visibly shocked. In unmistakable rage he takes the flowers and slams the door in your faces. You look to your spouse baffled. Before either of you can comment, male voices behind the door yell angrily in Palestinian Arabic.
Bad to Worse
Suddenly, the door bursts open revealing a young man you haven’t met before, possibly your friend’s brother. There is no hello. Outraged, he stares at you, and in a loud voice booming six inches from your face, asks: “Why would you insult my father in this way?” Before you can even realize what he asked, he slams the door in your face. Behind it, again you hear the terse arguing in their native tongue.
Finally the door opens once more. The old man and the younger son are back. The older man is holding his prayer beads, a treasured possession. With the younger man watching, this patriarch of the house presents you with his beads. Receiving them, still bewildered, out from your mouth comes the automatic American response, “THANK YOU.” You note the younger man reacts by rolling his eyes.
Sounds strange? This experience is exactly what happened to Dr. Richard Rohrbaugh and his wife, Mary. An extremely uncomfortable dinner followed. Can you guess why the Rohrbaughs were never invited back?
The Culturally-Specific Meanings of “Thank You”
Gratitude is panhuman but it is expressed quite differently by various cultures. John Pilch defined gratitude as a human response to kindnesses experienced or favors received. However, various societies see different meanings and ways to gratitude.
Americans say “thank you” and “thanks” all the time. We think that this way of ours is universal, but in some parts of the world no expression of “thanks” exists. If a culture deems there is no need for it, why would it trouble itself with inventing expressions for it? In many parts of the world beneficent social actions toward others is seen as fulfilling one’s social obligations. In other words, if I receive something, I deserved it!—that’s why I received it. No acknowledgement of this is required.
If you think about it, you should be able to see why some cultures might understand overtly expressing “thanks” places a finite value on the gifts you receive. This is because it may reduce the significance of the gift. In some parts of the world, like certain regions of India, saying “thank you” means you are ending a social relationship. In collectivistic societies, this could be dangerous, flirting with suicide. Would anyone want to “thank God” in this sense?Consider: How can one be certain that one won’t need the help of this donor again at some future time? The nine Israelites who were healed lack a guarantee that their polluting skin condition will not come back. If it does, they will have to see the folk healer Jesus once again! Therefore, why would they terminate their relationship with Jesus by telling him thank you?
Mediterranean and Middle Eastern Reciprocity
An Arab proverb illustrates well the Biblical understanding of “thank you” at work in this Sunday’s Gospel: “Don’t thank me; you will repay me.” The prevailing cultural idea is, I do you a favor or give you a gift, and by accepting it, you owe me a favor in return.
Put another way, the cultural idea is when you repay me, I owe you another favor, another gift, and so on without end. This is called informal dyadic contract. In this constant social exchange of obligatory reciprocal giving, bonds of human relationships strengthen. You see this handsomely in the Godfather movies.
The Godfather Trilogy and Reciprocal Giving
In The Godfather we learn that Nazorine the Baker sought the favor of his Patron, Don Vito Corleone, to help him with a problem. It was 1945. A young Sicilian, Enzo Aguello, a POW relocated to the States to help the war effort, had found work at Nazorine’s bakery in Little Italy, New York. But Enzo soon became infatuated with Nazorine’s daughter, Katherine. When the war ended, Enzo was going to be repatriated back to his native Sicily. More than ruining a romance, this would lead to scandal for Nazorine and his ruined daughter.
Fearing that his daughter and Enzo would elope, or conceive a child, Nazorine visited the powerful Don Vito Corleone. The Don ensured Nazorine that Enzo would remain in the States via his political connections. In doing this, Don Vito became Enzo’s patron.
Some time after, when Don Vito was shot up in an attempted Mob hit, he clung to life in hospital. Dutifully, Enzo visited his patron, finding the Don’s youngest son, Michael, alone in the building.
Realizing the danger, loyal Enzo stays. In a gesture of lifelong indebtedness for his Godfather, Enzo risks his life standing guard outside the hospital.
Nazorine the baker retired in the 1950s, and Enzo took over his bakery. Soon after, the new Don and Patron Michael Corleone made Enzo head pastry chef at one of the Corleone family’s top Las Vegas casinos, the Castle in the Clouds. Then, in 1979, when Don Michael Corleone received the Order of St. Sebastian, the ever-loyal Enzo prepared an enormous cake for the celebrations. Everyone knew who the cake was from. This is how it is in the Biblical world as well.
Anthropologists inform us that mainstream United States people, the most individualistic culture ever, are very different. At every turn in our social lives, we work to keep social obligations at a minimum. Our American “thank you” does not include or imply any obligation of social reciprocation, even though it does indeed express gratitude. As far as personal obligations to others go, we American individualists work very hard to avoid them.
We avoid “getting involved,” but even when we do, we would rather do it anonymously, like pooling donations in care for disaster relief. In corporate America this is seen also in the anonymity and “obligation-freedom” in “secret Santas,” birthdays, and wedding showers. Both donors and recipients remain free of excessive obligations. While someone hurting may gratefully receive benefits from some charity organization, they experience no obligations to the charity or its contributors.
This makes United States people and Christians here an anomaly among world cultures. Beyond the United States, almost everywhere else in world people see human relationships devoid of obligation as being insignificant. For most people on earth—including our New Testament ancestors in the faith—it would be nonsense to give anonymously. It would be meaningless. A gift without inconveniencing the donor holds little to no significance for the recipient.
Why American Thank You Doesn’t Work in the Bible
This background information helps explain the examples above. The hypothetical time traveling American in first century Syro-Palestine angers his Israelite friend because he is being an “ugly American tourist.” By saying “thank you” to the four compliments, instead of matching them, his friend infers that their friendship is over! By not even trying to match the four complements, the American conveys that this peasant isn’t worth the effort!
The Rohrbaughs were never invited back because their proper response to the great honor of a dinner invitation is not matching it with a culturally-inappropriate gift (flowers)! Showing up is the culturally-appropriate response to the invitation. The flowers were interpreted as an honor-challenge to the family, the donors, who now must match that gift (painfully, with the more precious prayer beads). And their typical American “thank you” iced the cake on this disastrous exchange. “Thank you” in the traditional Middle East means, “Get the hell out our lives!”
Concerning the Samaritan’s Thanks
Back to this Sunday’s Gospel, the anonymous author we call “Luke” reports ten people suffering scaly skin sickness, seen as a social malady that pollutes rather than a disease that makes one contagious. Approaching the folk healer Jesus, they ask for mercy (v. 13). In other words, they are asking Jesus to get God to fulfill his cultural interpersonal obligation by making them, his kin-like clients, clean so as to be restored to community (Matthew 8:1-2; Mark 1:40-45; Luke 5:12-16). In the Bible, asking for “Mercy!” means, “Give me what I am owed!”
There isn’t any mystery in the cultural world of the Gospels who alone does the healing—it can only be the God of Israel. As shamanic folk healer, Jesus is the “Tom Hagen” who gets you into see the Don. Jesus is therefore the “door” or broker or intermediary.
Nine of the ten healed go to Jerusalem so that, in the presence of the priests, they can give “praise to God.” But not the Samaritan. He gives “praise God” in the presence of the broker, Jesus. There is no way a Samaritan would have gained entry to the Temple to offer a sacrifice of lifelong indebtedness (wrongly called “thanksgiving”) to the God of Israel. And who would “give thanks” to God in this ancient Biblical sense of thanks? Terminate relations with God, the source of life? That’s suicide!
It was a fluke that he met Jesus in the first place! Indeed, wisely, the Samaritan recognizes it would be impossible to repay the Galilean folk healer. If and when this scaly skin condition returned—and it just might!—he would not be able to approach Jesus, unlike the nine Judeans, who, belonging to Jesus’ ingroup, could approach him at any time, anywhere. Likely, this chance meeting would never happen again!
The best and only thing that the healed Samaritan can do is thank Jesus. The social situation is terminated not out of rudeness or carelessness, but as final goodbye of gratitude. Samaritans and Galileans do no live or work together.
Surprisingly, perhaps in a way that would surprise the Matthean Jesus, the Lukan Jesus welcomes the healed Samaritan into the Jesus group.