Sunday, October 10, 2010

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Genuine Gratitude and Gift-Bearing Greeks 
Picture: cc myhsu
Sisters and brothers, if one day a stranger suddenly shows up at your door and presents you with a stack of hundred dollar bills, what would you do? It’s quite likely that you won’t accept it, right? At least not right away. You’d want to find out the reason for this gift. You’d want to check to see if there are any strings attached. We’ve all probably heard the expression beware of Greeks bearing gifts. It’s a reference to the Trojan War. For years, the Greeks had been trying to capture the city of Troy, but without success. Finally, they pretended to retreat, leaving behind the gift of a large wooden horse. Seeing that their enemies had fled, the Trojans brought the horse into their city, not realizing that the Greeks had hidden soldiers in the belly of the horse. Once inside the city, these soldiers opened the city-gates for the rest of their comrades and Troy was destroyed. Beware of Greeks bearing gifts. Those so-called gifts may actually lead to your destruction.

And the expression is true not just of the ancient Greeks. The story is also told of a government official in China, who had a very curious habit. Every time one of his relatives came to visit him at his office, he would hurriedly leave the building through a back entrance. You know why? After he became an official, this man found that many of his relatives -- some of whom he didn’t even recognize -- suddenly came knocking on his door, bringing gifts. This put him in a very difficult position. To reject the gifts would make him appear proud and arrogant. But to accept the gifts would mean he was obliged to show gratitude by performing favors for the giver. And because the penalties for corruption were very severe, he knew that, if he wasn’t careful, those gifts could lead to his own destruction.

Beware of Greeks (or Chinese relatives) bearing gifts... Beware of those kinds of manipulative transactions that only look like gift-giving and gratitude on the surface but, in reality, are forms of corruption that could eventually lead to one’s destruction.

And a similar warning can be given in the spiritual life as well. Consider, for example, the curious practice of the prophet Elisha in today’s first reading. When the foreigner, Naaman, offers him a gift of gratitude in exchange for being healed of his leprosy, Elisha stubbornly refuses to take it. Why? Could it be because to accept such a gift would tend to cheapen the healing he had performed, corrupting it into a kind of manipulative transaction that leads only to destruction? Consider also the curious practice of Jesus in today’s gospel. Although he tells all ten lepers to go and show themselves to the priests, that is, to make the ritual offering of gratitude for their healing, Jesus expresses disappointment when nine of them actually follow his instructions, leaving only the foreigner, the Samaritan, to return to give thanks to God. What did the other nine do that was wrong? Could it be that in being concerned only with following the prescriptions of the Law, without being moved by genuine gratitude, they had somehow corrupted their experience of healing?

If this is true, then what does uncorrupted gift-giving, what does genuine gratitude, look like in the spiritual life? First of all, true gift-giving is not manipulative. It does not say to God, for example, I promise to quit smoking... if you will find me a wife. In contrast to this kind of giving, which tries to influence and manipulate God into giving us what we want, true gift-giving and genuine gratitude involve a change in the one who is grateful. Consider again the experience of Naaman. Before his healing, he probably believed in the existence of many gods. And, being a Syrian, he worshipped a god different from the God of Israel. But after his healing, his gratitude causes a radical change in him. He now proclaims that there is no God in all the earth, except in Israel. And not only does he declare his belief in one God, he also commits himself to the worship of this God alone. I will no longer offer holocaust or sacrifice to any other god except the Lord. We see the same thing in the actions of the Samaritan leper in the gospel. After his healing, we find him not only glorifying God but also thanking Jesus, a Jew. True gratitude leads to conversion not manipulation. It brings the grateful person into a loving intimate relationship with God.

And this conversion, this radical change in relationship, is not just something that happens inside the grateful person. Gratitude is expressed outwardly in concrete action. In contrast to the kind of giving that tries to burden the other with an obligation to make a return gift, the truly grateful person willingly takes a burden upon oneself. In the first reading, for example, before he leaves Elisha, Naaman asks to be burdened with two mule-loads of earth, which he will use to build a shrine to the Lord in his own country. In the second reading too, Paul speaks of his relationship to Jesus Christ in terms of a burden that he bears. Such is my gospel, he says, for which I am suffering, even to the point of chains, like a criminal. And Paul is willing to bear this burden of gratitude, he is willing to wear these chains of love, for the benefit of others. He declares that he suffers willingly for the sake of those who are chosen, so that they too may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus.

Which brings us to the most important characteristic of genuine gratitude. While manipulative gift-giving can often lead to destruction, genuine gratitude leads to eternal life. As Jesus tells the Samaritan leper, Stand up and go; your faith has saved you. By making him truly grateful, the Samaritan’s faith has brought him into a loving relationship with God in Christ. By being grateful, the Samaritan has come to know Christ. And by this knowledge, by this new relationship, he is saved. As we are told in John’s Gospel: this is eternal life, that they should know you the only true God, and the one whom you sent, Jesus Christ (John 17:3). In contrast, although the other nine were also healed of their leprosy, and although they made the offering prescribed by the Law, they missed their chance of getting to know the Lord. They missed their opportunity for salvation.

It becomes obvious then, sisters and brothers, what kind of gift-giving, what kind of gratitude we should all be aiming at in our own lives of faith. It is the kind that both the Syrian and Samaritan lepers experienced and expressed. And it is for this same experience that we prayed in our opening prayer just now, when we asked the Lord to make God’s love the foundation of our lives, that our love for the Lord may express itself in the eagerness to do good for others. Today the scriptures are warning us, in our lives of faith, to beware of the kind of gift-giving of the Greek soldiers and the Chinese relatives. For this leads to destruction. Instead we are to aim for the gratitude of the Syrian and Samaritan lepers. For this alone leads to life.

Sisters and brothers, when we examine our own lives of faith today, which of these do we find, the manipulative gift-giving of the Greeks or the genuine gratitude of the Samaritan?

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