A Thankless Job? Reflections on The Ten Lepers from Luke 17:11-19

Lectionary Reflections
October 13, 2013
Luke 17:11-19

My mother's generation was big on thank-you notes. My mother always said that you could tell a lot about a person depending on whether or not they bothered to write them. One time, she told me of a friend who, whenever a bride did not have the good manners to write a thank-you note for a wedding gift, would write her the following note (the names are made up):

Dear Amanda:

Thank you for inviting us to your lovely wedding. I am writing to make sure that you received our gift. If you didn't, can you let me know and I'll arrange for a duplicate to be sent to you?

Wishing you every happiness in your marriage,

Jean and John Smith

It sounds so passive aggressive, doesn't it? Or at least very Ann Landers. It puts the bride in a tough spot. Assuming she got the gift and has just not yet gotten around to writing thank-you notes or doesn't intend to do so, how is she supposed to respond?

Dear Jean:

I did receive your gift and apologize for not having written you a thank-you note yet. Please don't interpret this as lack of gratitude. I've just been very busy.



Dear Jean:

I did receive your gift but have made the decision not to write thank you notes since I'm very busy and they are very time consuming. You may, if you wish, send me a duplicate gift.

All good wishes to you in your marriage,


My mother's friend was sending ungrateful brides a message with her passive aggressive little note. She wasn't afraid her gift had not been received. She wanted the bride to receive the message that not sending thank-you notes is unacceptable, ill-mannered behavior. She wanted a thank you. And I see her point.

People should thank other people when they do kind things for them. When I invite several people to a picnic and one of them writes a thank-you note and none of the others even writes a thank-you email, I admire the good manners of the one who wrote the note and chalk the others' non-communication up to their being busy and having moved on to the next thing. It doesn't erode my estimation of them. Nor does it enhance it. I remember my cousin went to a lot of trouble a few years ago, to open her home to a family reunion. She had lovely food and was very hospitable. And I meant to thank her, but never did, except in my own thoughts. My mama taught me better than that. I taught my children to write thank-you notes. My son wrote one to a college professor he found particularly helpful and later was asked to work as a summer intern for the professor. When he asked him why he chose him, the professor said, "You wrote me that thank-you note. No one does that anymore. It made you stand out in my mind."

All right, I felt a little vindicated by the fact that my son thanked me for teaching him the value of thank-you notes. But I didn't teach him to write thank-you notes to be thanked for it. Doing things for the sake of being thanked is not a motivation for the long haul. It is too dependent on the whims of other people. My mother is right, though. While we don't do things to be thanked, whether or not someone thanks us tells us something about them.

Jesus didn't do things to be thanked. It's a good thing, too because people responded in lots of ways, but not often with thanks.

When Jesus cleanses a leper in Luke 5:12, the response of people is to crowd around him wanting healing for themselves.

When Jesus heals a man with a withered hand, the response of his opponents is to be filled with fury and begin plotting his demise (Lk. 6:11).

When Jesus raises a widow's son, the response of the crowd was to be filled with fear and to glorify God (Lk. 7:16).

When Jesus casts out a legion of demons from a tormented man, the Gerasenes ask him to leave because "they were seized with great fear" (Lk. 8:37).

When a woman is healed by touching the hem of his garment, he quickly sends her on her way. "Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace" (Lk. 8:48).

When Jesus heals a boy with a demon the crowds were astounded at the greatness of God (Lk. 9:43).

When Jesus heals a blind beggar near Jericho, the man "followed him, glorifying God and all the people, when they saw it, praised God" (Lk. 18:43).

He is not interested in having people hang around and thank him. Often, when he heals people, he doesn't say "Stick around and thank me." He says, "Go your way, your faith has made you well." I am reminded of the college president faced with a large graduating class. As each person came across the stage, he handed them their diploma, while shaking their hand and said, "Congratulations ...and keep moving." It was a stage direction to keep the ceremony moving, but it was also good life advice. Jesus says to those he heals, "Congratulations and keep moving. Don't stick around thanking me."

One of my students recounts how she was teaching a class of 2nd grade Sunday school children on the story of the ten lepers. "How do you think Jesus felt when only one person came back to thank him?" she asked. One boy raised his hand. "I think he would have felt happy that one person came back and thanked him."

Jesus' vocation was a thankless one. He poured himself out for others and, in return, his life's blood was poured out on the cross. The least we can do is fall at his feet and say thank you.

12/2/2022 9:10:37 PM
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  • Alyce McKenzie
    About Alyce McKenzie
    Alyce M. McKenzie is the George W. and Nell Ayers Le Van Professor of Preaching and Worship at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.