On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” It’s hard to imagine that the other nine lepers weren’t grateful for the healing they received. Luke 17:11-19
Gratitude is an emotion, like happiness, sadness, anger, fear, jealousy. A feeling is a feeling—it is what it is and we really can’t control it. On the other hand, we know from experience that we can often guide ourselves through our emotions, sometimes having less to do with the ones we’d like to avoid, and spending time with the ones that are helpful and enjoyable. You know what that’s like. We can nourish our negative feelings—let the anger or hurt feelings simmer, or we can decide that’s really not where we want to be, and teach ourselves ways of moving on.
Then there are positive emotions we hope to encourage. After a really bad day It’s nice to spend the evening with people who are fun to be around, or who are good listeners. Suddenly, or slowly, the bad day gets put into a larger perspective and emotions have moved to a more positive side.
Gratitude is one of those emotions that feels good, and that helps our frame of mind. I’m not just making this up. Studies have shown that a developed sense of gratitude affects our health and our general attitude toward life.
Leprosy was a great social equalizer. Those who came from wealthy landowning families were in the same group with those who were peasant farmers, Jews with Samaritans. All were reduced to begging. All were cut off from family, friends, job, worship. What tremendous isolation and desperation.
Jesus, interestingly, does not heal these ten right then and there, but sends them to the priest for examination. It was only the priest’s okay that could end their unclean status, that could usher them back into normal associations. It took a real act of faith for them to turn around and start walking. But it was in this act they were healed, while they were on the way.
All ten were healed; only one turned around. I have to believe that all of those other 9 lepers were just as happy for their healing, just as glad to imagine they might be able to go home to their towns and families—perhaps for the first time in years. They were so thrilled, they may have been thanking God the whole way, and I have to say I sympathize with them. I’m not sure I’d be the one turning back. I’d want to get to that priest before the Jesus miracle wore off so my life to get back to normal. I’d be running toward my restored life, not turning around toward Jesus.
Gratitude is unlike other emotions. You can tell when someone you love is angry, happy, afraid. You can read it in body language and facial expressions. The only way we can tell people are grateful is when they say something, or do something.
It’s interesting in the gospel story that the one who turned around was a Samaritan. It would be difficult to overstate how bad things were between Samaritans and Jews, but maybe it is this one who realized just what isolation and separation are. So he risked a difficult social encounter to show his gratitude. Whether or not he realized it, he was using the gift he had just been given, and sharing it with the others in Jesus’ crowd. His social life had just been returned to him and he entered a crowd where he might not be accepted. For this he was praised as an example of gratitude in motion.
We do the same when we return, sharing something we’re grateful for. If our family is our greatest gift, we open our home to others. If we’re thankful for enough to eat, warm clothes or a safe place to live, we share food, clothing and shelter. If someone calls on a day we are feeling lonesome, we think of a friend who needs a call or visit.
Having something for which to be grateful is a wonderful gift. When we turn back to share it with others, our gift expands to include those around us.
© Melissa Bane Sevier, 2010
 See, for example, The Psychology of Gratitude, 2004, ed. by Emmons and McCullough.