Avoiding Myself: "A Story of the Unthankful Heart!" – Luke 17:11-19

There is an old proverb that says “Instead of complaining that the rosebush is full of thorns, be happy that the thorn bush has roses.” It is right to think like that, but it is HARD to think like that! Have you ever been so overtaken with a complaining heart that even YOU can’t stand being around you? I have. It is embarrassing to admit it, but I can think of a number of times in my life when through poor planning of schedule or over commitment, I have become worn down and negative to an extreme. It is something I have to constantly guard against in my life, because I tend to over commit time.

The longer I live, the more I believe that most people spend their energy endlessly reviewing their past days, often murmuring and complaining of their present days, and beneath it all constantly worrying about their future days. I am reminded of the words of the poet and literary critic Randall Jarrett: “The people who live in a golden age usually go around complaining how yellow everything looks.” Sadly he wasn’t wrong. We often don’t realize the best days of our lives are the best until much too late. Even as believers, the deep cracks of a complaining spirit can easily show… and we don’t realize how destructive those cracks are in our lives. Complaining people aren’t thankful people – and believers begin their journey with Jesus in both awe and thanksgiving for His work done for us. Our most treasured meal is the little wafer of the Communion meal called the “Eucharist” -the Greek term for “Thank You!” Our faith is formed and rooted in thanksgiving.”

One of the reasons we are un-thankful is simply because we don’t see a complaining spirit through God’s eyes. I recall when that lesson first became real for me. In my early Christian life and experience I recall reading through the Pastoral Epistles for a High School class in Bible. I was fortunate enough to go to a great private Christian school, and had wonderful Bible teachers in my early formative years. During my first read through the words of Paul to Timothy and Titus, I was struck by some words that seemed misplaced in my young life. Because I was reading the verses from the King James Version, let me read them back to you as I was experiencing them, and see if you can identify my problem:

2 Timothy 3:1 This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come. 2 For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, 3 Without natural affection, trucebreakers, false accusers, incontinent, fierce, despisers of those that are good, 4 Traitors, heady, highminded, lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God; 5 Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away.

In that shopping list of sinful traits, I confess two portions of the reading bothered me. At the time, I was too young to know why.

The first part that bothered me was that some of the words seemed smaller than the others. Some sinful traits like “blasphemers” or “fierce” seemed extreme and powerful – while others seemed, well… ordinary by comparison. Did God view an “unthankful” person as he did a “blasphemer”? Was “disobedient to parents” a charge that should be on the same list as “traitors”?

• The second problem I had with the list was the end in verse five: “from such turn away”. The problem was that some of those items on the list were true of ME. I couldn’t figure out how I was supposed to stay away from people when I was ONE OF THEM!

Years have passed, and I think some maturity has helped me understand some of the problem – but not all of it. I recognize now that God DOES view disobedience to parents like He views pride and blasphemy. When I reject the authorities God places in my life, I am essentially rejecting Him, and acting arrogantly. I see that now. At the same time, some part of that list still haunts me – because if I am honest, I recognize that I am not nearly as thankful to God for what He has done and continues to do in and for me, as I was meant to be. Some days I should just be obedient to Scripture and AVOID MYSELF. Do you know the feeling?

Thankfulness is a godly characteristic. It is a holy trait. It is an essential statement of our recognition of Who our God is, and what He continues to do for us. Thankfulness is part of practical holiness and practical Christian maturity – but it is too little taught and emphasized. Today’s lesson is about this critical trait.

Key Principle: Real thankfulness is not about reveling in the things God has given, nor about celebrating the way He has fixed my latest problems – it is about looking past the issues and recognizing WHO God truly is, and what He is truly like.

Real thankfulness isn’t just about sentiment, it is about recognition of the truth. God IS good. He DOES love me. He KEEPS caring for me – in spite of my stubbornness. Thankfulness is that overwhelming sense of awe at the grace of God, the mercy of God and the goodness of God.

Tucked into the account of the Gospel according to Luke is a tiny story about this recognition of truth. Jesus told a story that explained the need for thankfulness, and illustrated how it actually was designed to work in us. For a view of the story in perspective, let’s take a moment and set the scene within the narrative:

At the risk of being too repetitious, let’s review the major themes of the Gospels. Remember that Matthew focuses on the WORDS of Jesus. Mark reveals the WORKS of Jesus. Luke is bent on exposing the CHRONOLOGY of the ministry of Jesus, while John focuses on the CONFLICTS in the background of the ministry of Jesus as set before the Temple leaders of Jerusalem’s aristocracy.

Because our story is in the Gospel according to Luke, let’s zoom in and set the book in its context as well.

• Luke was a Macedonian physician and biographer, and traveling companion of the Apostle Paul. He is the only known Gentile born writer included in the New Testament library.

• His two included works – the Gospel according to Luke and the Book of Acts appear to some scholars to be two works of an intended trilogy that was apparently either unfinished or the third part was lost.

• The works are addressed to one called “Theophilus” (friend of God), and has been widely thought to be directed to the lawyer that was defending Paul before Nero. The first part of the writing, according to that scenario, was likely done while Paul was imprisoned at Caesarea (that is, the Gospel) while the later work was done in Rome during Paul’s first house arrest (the Book of Acts).

• Luke says that he collected his accounts from eyewitnesses – so it is more a reporter’s version of the story in the Gospels. It contains more detail on many points than the others, because Luke took the time to ask many people about events.

The layout of Luke’s Gospel follows geography and a biographical form.

• The first two chapters contain seven reporters interviews of both the prophecy and coming of John the Baptizer, and the prophecy and coming of Jesus the Messiah.

• Breaking from standard form, Luke includes in chapter three a REVERSE genealogy of Jesus back to Adam – an apparent attempt to clarify that Jesus was truly human in contradistinction to some of the offshoot groups that were claiming Christ was a Divine entity but not fully human.

• Luke four picks up the life of Jesus when He reached about thirty, the time when a priest in the Temple would begin His holy ministry. The opening story is of a wrestling with Satan on how He would be made known, followed by an announcement of His ministry in a synagogue in Nazareth, His home town. With the extreme and negative reaction of his clan, Jesus relocated to the Sea of Galilee area and began to show extraordinary powers over demons, disease and nature. Luke five includes a number of such miracles, but also begins to show Jesus as a teacher.

• In Luke six through nine, Jesus called a large number of disciples with a smaller more intimate inner circle and began a teaching ministry to them – pouring into them His words and traveling with them to neighboring villages. By chapter ten He sent out the larger group to spread His message, and then entered the Perean Ministry – found in Luke ten through nineteen – an intense time of preparation of the Disciples for His departure.

• By mid-way through chapter nineteen, Luke records Jesus in the Passion Week, facing the Cross.

Our story is during that preparation of the Disciple by Jesus in the winter teachings in Perea. “Snow birds” from Jerusalem stayed in the warm area nearer to the Jordan during that season, so they could hear great Bible conference speakers while the cold rains swept across the Judean mountains. The moderate climate made the area much more pleasant, and the rabbinic teachers of God drew crowds near the Jordan. Jesus was periodically teaching and traveling – using these last months to prepare the Disciples for a time when they would carry the message without Him. They had no idea of the hour, nor of the coming trials.

Let’s pick up our story on the road traveling with Jesus in Luke 17:

Luke 17:11 While He was on the way to Jerusalem, He was passing between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As He entered a village, ten leprous men who stood at a distance met Him; 13 and they raised their voices, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” 14 When He saw them, He said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they were going, they were cleansed. 15 Now one of them, when he saw that he had been healed, turned back, glorifying God with a loud voice, 16 and he fell on his face at His feet, giving thanks to Him. And he was a Samaritan. 17 Then Jesus answered and said, “Were there not ten cleansed? But the nine—where are they? 18 “Was no one found who returned to give glory to God, except this foreigner?” 19 And He said to him, “Stand up and go; your faith has made you well.”

The Problematic Setting (17:11):

Luke first sets the scene by telling us of the place where Jesus was moving along the seam between Samaria and Galilee, a well known roadway etched into the base of the hills (11). Jesus had some measured popularity in the Galilee region, but was less regarded in the Samaritan hills.

Jesus had what could be described as a “complicated” relationship with the Samaritans. Early in the ministry, Jesus passed through Samaria with His first disciples (John 4) and gave the Gospel to them through the encounter with a woman at the well of Sychar. He signaled a willingness to encounter those who were on Judaism’s largely rejected fringes – and both the woman and the village responded in what appeared to be spiritual hunger. Some time later in His preaching ministry, He spoke well of some in His preaching – such as the “Good Samaritan” story in Luke 10. Yet, a careful look at the ministry of Jesus reveals that as time went on, Jesus didn’t expend any real effort revisit the people of Samaria. It was not until late in His earth ministry, during the last months before His Crucifixion. His disciples showed they had little love for the Samaritans (an understatement) and, in fact, had continued in a disdain for them.

James and John illustrated their bias openly just after the Transfiguration, when Jesus decided to pass back into Samaria on the way to Jerusalem, as recorded in Luke 9:51: When the days were approaching for His ascension, He was determined to go to Jerusalem; 52 and He sent messengers on ahead of Him, and they went and entered a village of the Samaritans to make arrangements for Him. 53 But they did not receive Him, because He was traveling toward Jerusalem. 54 When His disciples James and John saw this, they said, “Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” 55 But He turned and rebuked them, [and said, “You do not know what kind of spirit you are of; 56 for the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them.”] And they went on to another village.

The villages that rejected Jesus in Galilee brought no such words from James and John in the text – but these were Samaritan villages, and they didn’t like Samaritans much. Back to our story on the road… Luke reminds that the lepers included some Samaritans.

Isn’t it strange how prejudice drifts in the face of extreme pain and suffering. Subtle racism slips away when the nurse caring for you has different colored skin, but shows humanity, kindness and love in spite of your inner hesitancy. How small we are when we come to the place that we believe we can measure someone by color, or value someone less because of ethnicity. When we tolerate such small thinking, we show that we forget that God created from a pallet that included many more colors and designs than those we are most familiar with. The leperous Samaritans and Jews that approached Jesus for healing in Luke 17 were separated by theology, but bonded by physical sickness and calamity. We have seen the same from those who suffer from the aftermath of a powerful storm. No hungry person questions the politics of the one dispensing the soup into bowls. No suffering man or woman refuses help from a person who can relieve their pain based on their ethnicity. My point: our prejudices can be broken by the bonding that comes from pain and suffering – it doesn’t go as deep as people think. One of the gifts of pain and trouble is that it melts false walls and reminds us that we share the planet with many who may not look like us on the outside, but they are the same as us on the inside.

Let me be painfully clear: racism is ungodly. Prejudice is a devil-sponsored thought.

Jesus didn’t die less for a yellow man or black man than for a white man. If you think that, you don’t understand God’s Word and you don’t share God’s heart. God weeps for lost men around the world. His heart is to send the Gospel, to rescue the perishing. An African village is as much holy ground when surrendered to Jesus as any township in the west. Cambodia is not less important from the standpoint of the Gospel, they are simply less blessed with the exposure we have had – and that should tug our hearts.

The Pained Sick (17:12-13):

Jesus was nearing a small village, and the leprous and sick men who lived outside the village, (because they were unclean) approached the Master. They cried out and begged Him to have mercy on them. His reputation as a healer preceded Him (12-13).

The ministry of Jesus is built on His ability to heal our brokenness and our confession of need. Unbelieving people don’t receive Jesus because they don’t see Him as Who He is – the Perfect Son of God able to save. Arrogant people don’t come to Jesus – because they don’t think they need to – but have deluded themselves into thinking that they are moral enough to deserve a favorable judgment, or that no such judgment exists.

Consider for a moment the lives of these lepers. They lived apart from other in constant misery and rejection. Torah Law restricted them from daily interactions with family and friends: Leviticus 13: 46 “The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothed and let the hair of his head be disheveled.’’ They were to LOOK the part, so that no one would mistake them for NORMAL PEOPLE. Add to that, they understood their reality to be because God smote them. How painful to live a life apart from others, believing God had rejected you. The physical agony was accompanied by the mental anguish of Divine rejection.

The Provided Savior (17:14):

Jesus turned and addressed them, instructing them to get up and go to show themselves to the priests, as though they were healed (14).

In the most basic sense, these broken men were reaching out for some glimpse of mercy and compassion from the Master. They wanted Him to SEE them, and have pity on them. One who seeks pity has been broken by the load, and is searching for some small scraps of acknowledgment and affirmation from their wrecked world. From the ashes they cry and hope someone will hear. Fortunately, there is a Savior. There is a LISTENER. He has heard their cry, and He is able to save.

He could simply have waved a hand and said “Be healed!” Yet He chose to give them an opportunity to remove the mantle of victimization they had woven over their broken bodies. He told them to turn and find their priest, and show him their cleansing – even before it happened. Only in obedience as they went, did they get their healing. They were to take a step of obedience BEFORE they saw the results of obedience – that is God’s way. When we are only willing to obey when we can see the end – that is not trust or faith. God will hear you, but He expects you to walk in His Word BEFORE you see the benefit. He wants you to be faithful in your marriage when the times are tough – and later He will bless you for it. He wants you to stay in His Word when you aren’t feeling anything – and later the Word implanted will be a rescue to you.

There comes a time in most everyone’s life when they will cry out for the tender mercy of the Lord. One Pastor wrote: “A mother once approached Napoleon seeking a pardon for her son. The emperor replied that the young man had committed a certain offense twice and justice demanded death. “But I don’t ask for justice, the mother explained. “I plead for mercy.” “But your son does not deserve mercy, Napoleon replied. “Sir”, the woman cried, “it would not be mercy if he deserved it, and mercy is all I ask for”. “Well, then”, the emperor said, “I will have mercy. And he spared the woman’s son”.

Jesus doesn’t approve trials and troubles in our lives without purpose – but the troubles come like rough wrapping around a great gift. It is a gift to be brought to an end of self – for it is there one discovers the Savior. He waits to be wanted, but the satiated have no need of Him – only the hungry.

The Pleased Samaritan (17:15-18):

One man, a Samaritan in this mixed group, saw the healing happen in and upon himself, and exclaimed praise to God, returning to Jesus with a heart filled with thanksgiving and praise (15-16). As the healed man bowed before the Master, Jesus turned to the disciples and remarked: “There were ten, but only one – and that a Samaritan – came to say thanks for what God has done in them.” (17-18)

Here is the heart of the incident. A broken man was excited about being made whole, but that wasn’t the most profound part of his exclamation. He understood something new about God – and that gave rise to his praise.

In difficulty, we respond with complaint – because we see the problems, and not the shaping hand of a loving God behind the approval to allow the problems to touch our lives. We live in the delusion that life should work well – even in our fallen world. We come to the wrong belief that comfort is a right, and that our personal advancement and prosperity are major objectives of God. We don’t see the bigger plan, because we make ourselves too large a player in the plan.

Though Samaritans were considered by Jews as strangers to God and apart from the commonwealth of Israel, this man didn’t care – He still approached Jesus. The truth is that anyone can come to Jesus – but only if they will first humble themselves and recognize that God sent His Son. They must remove the stain of their old identity – like the “LEPER” and put on their new new – “PRINCE”. If our first identity will be found in Him, we will be made whole.

The man needed to LOSE something to GAIN wholeness – and so do we. We must lay aside the stains that marked our lives and not allow our sin to NAME us. It is important that our Master’s blood, our Lord’s favor, our God’s grace displace all our past. We are no longer an alien, a stranger, a lost man or woman – we are a child of the King. It is preceded by repentance and its transforming power is wrought in change within and without. No man or woman truly encounters God’s grace and salvation and is left unchanged.

The Perfect Solution (17:19):

Jesus turned and told the man to go along to the priest, his faith had made him whole again (19).

There is an old story about a devout king who was deeply disturbed at the ingratitude of his subjects eating without a word of thanks to God. He saw this particularly among the privileged in the royal court. On a certain day he asked for the kitchens to prepare a large banquet for the nobles. When he and his guests were seated, he told them to wait before they began. Quietly they all watched as a beggar was shuffled into the hall by royal guards. The man in rags sat down at the king’s table, and promptly gorged himself with food. When he finished, without saying a word to anyone, he arose and left the banquet hall. The guests were sickened by the display, and furiously requested the king to send guards to seize the beggar for his ingratitude. The king replied, “This beggar has done only once to an earthly king what each of you does three times each day to our Heavenly King. You sit at a table and eat until you are satisfied. Then you walk away without recognizing God, or expressing one word of thanks to Him. How is it that you do not deserve also to be arrested?”

The Gospel records six times Jesus said to someone “your faith has made you whole”. What does that mean? Is there some inner quality that brings about healing? If I lack this quality, would Jesus be blunted in healing me? Is it not His power that brings about healing?

All of these are valid questions. Let us first acknowledge that what the Bible means by FAITH is not what some believe. It is not blind belief in the unexplained or unknowable. That isn’t what the Bible means by faith at all. The term means simply: “Seeing things through God’s description, not through natural appearance.” Faith is seeing it the way God says it is. It is so trusting His knowledge that we allow Him to take us by the hand and lead us as though we were completely blind. In our own inability to see the whole of any situation, we follow God’s Word and His Spirit that we may see through His eyes.

Don’t forget there is a clear distinction between healing and wholeness. Healing refers to deliverance from physical ailments, and wholeness signifies a change on a deeper level – a transformation of the inner man on a spiritual level. The great benefit of the man’s leprosy was that it broke him, so that when the Savior came by – he was fully prepared to acknowledge his need and extended his hand. Jesus met him on the road, but he also met his need within. Has He done that for you as well?

Real thankfulness isn’t just about sentiment, it is about recognition of the truth.  If He has changed you, perhaps you recognize what the hymn writer expressed when thankfulness spilled out of his grace-transformed heart. He could sense Heaven and the stirring sentiments of the seasoned saints in 10,000 different tongues that cried out to thank the Lord for his salvation. Join the chorus of the Redeemer’s praise, and He will show you something new of Himself. Remember, real thankfulness is not about reveling in the things God has given, nor about celebrating the way He has fixed my problems – it is about recognizing WHO God truly is, and what He is truly like!