By Debie Thomas

One day when I was four years old and bored, I went snooping in my father’s study. In the bottom drawer of a filing cabinet, I found a manila folder with four navy blue booklets wrapped in tissue paper. One of them (I discovered to my delight when I unwrapped it) had a baby picture of me inside, along with several pleasingly blank pages needing “art.” Grabbing a pencil, I climbed into my dad’s desk chair and began to draw.

I don’t know how many pages I defaced before my father walked into the study and caught me. “What are you doing?” he cried, snatching the booklet out of my hands and flipping through its now grubby pages. Only after he took the pencil and set to work erasing my drawings with tremendous care did I realize he wasn’t angry; he was frightened.

“What are those?” I asked, stunned that I had unnerved my father.

“Our passports,” he said, scattering eraser shavings all over the place. He sighed and kept erasing. “These books are what prove we belong here. Without them . . .” He didn’t finish the sentence. “Never play with such things again.”

I didn’t. Even now, decades later, I treat my U.S passport gingerly, like an icon or a fragile bit of lace. When I travel internationally with my kids, I hover over their passports, checking often to make sure they haven’t left the booklets in a seat back pocket or an airport Starbucks. They laugh at me, but I don’t care; something in me insists on vigilance. My father’s old, immigrant fear — the fear of not belonging, of being cast out — lives on.

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On its face, our Gospel story this week is about thankfulness. As he journeys to Jerusalem, Jesus heals ten lepers and sends them on their way. One returns to Jesus to express his gratitude, and he alone, of the ten, experiences the full joy of salvation. Clearly, there is something about the practice of thankfulness that enlarges, blesses, and restores us. The leper’s lavish display of gratitude, and the commendation he receives from Jesus in return, demonstrate that we are created to recognize life as a divine gift, and to find our salvation at the feet of the Giver.

But this Gospel story is about more than gratitude. It is about the gratitude of a foreigner who receives welcome. It is about identity — about exclusion and inclusion, exile and return. It’s a story about the kingdom of God — about who is invited, who belongs, and who thrives in the realm where God dwells. What does it mean that in Christ, we are all one? What is our ongoing responsibility to the stranger, the alien, the Other? What happens to difference at the foot of the Cross?

As a daughter of immigrants, I feel these questions in my bones. They’re not intellectual or abstract; they’re emotional and urgent. These days, as brown-skinned children languish in cages, racist politicians weaponize borders, and racial and religious minorities fear mistreatment in their own neighborhoods, schools, and worship spaces, what does the Gospel have to say about belonging? Where should the children of God find their identities, their homes, their spiritual families?

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A few years after I turned my dad’s study into an ill-fated art studio, we took a family trip to India, my parents’ homeland. One morning, as my father was standing in line to buy tickets at a village train station, my little brother pointed to two figures hunched in a corner. “What’s wrong with them?” he asked.

By then we’d been in India for several weeks, and I was accustomed to seeing the abject poor. Exhausted women with too-thin babies on their hips. Men who were blind or lame. Pot-bellied children who stared at my Western clothes. My brother and I spent a lot of our time asking my parents for spare change to share.

But these two figures at the train station were different. Their faces were distorted, their fingers were half-missing, and their feet were scary, mottled stumps. Though I had coins ready in my fists, I was too afraid to approach them.

We asked our father a second time what exactly we were looking at. “They’re sick,” my father answered after a quick, pitying glance in the direction of the two figures. “They have leprosy.”

The train station was very crowded that day. I remember it swarming with travelers, vendors, squatters, and beggars. But those two individuals huddled in the shadows were alone in a way I’d never seen before. Their aloneness was otherworldly. It was as if some invisible barrier, solid as granite, separated them from the rest of humanity, rendering them wholly untouchable. Yes, their wasted limbs and marred faces frightened me. But what frightened me much more was their isolation, their utter and complete non-belonging.

The lepers in this week’s Gospel story also live in the shadows. They subsist in a no-man’s-land, “a region between.” According to the customs of the day, they live in seclusion, keep their distance from passersby, sport torn clothes and disheveled hair, and announce their own contagion in loud, humiliating cries: “Unclean! Unclean!”

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So when Jesus heals their leprosy he doesn’t merely cure their bodies; he restores their identities. He enables their safe return to all that makes us fully human — family, community, companionship, and intimacy. In healing their withered skin and numbed limbs, he releases them to feel again — to embrace and be embraced, to worship in community, to reclaim all the social and spiritual ties their disease steals from them. In other words, Jesus enters a no-man’s-land — a land of no belonging — and hands out ten unblemished passports. He invites ten exiles home.

Seen from this angle, the tenth leper’s response to Jesus resonates differently. Yes, it’s an expression of gratitude for healing. But it’s also the expression of a deeper and truer belonging. According to Luke’s text, the tenth leper is a Samaritan, a “double other” marginalized by both illness and foreignness. By the first century, the enmity between the Jews and the Samaritans is old and entrenched. The two groups disagree about everything that matters to them: how to honor God, how to interpret the scriptures, where to worship. They avoid social contact whenever possible. Given this context, it’s quite possible that the Samaritan’s social ostracism continues even after the local priests declare him clean of leprosy.

So what does he do? What does his otherness enable him to see that his nine companions do not? He sees that his identity — his truest place of belonging — lies at Jesus’s feet. He sees that Jesus’s arms are alone wide enough to embrace all of who he is — leper, foreigner, exile, Other. Beloved child of God.

What I see in the Samaritan’s full-hearted praise and devotion is the intimate relationship between desperation and faith. Between yearning and gratitude. Between high stakes and deep love. Ten lepers are healed. But only the one who has nowhere else to go, nothing left to lose, and everything in the world to gain, returns to Jesus. Only the one who can take nothing for granted falls in love. Only the one who longs body and soul to find a home for his whole self, receives salvation.

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I’ll be honest: I often find gratitude a rote, inauthentic business. Maybe this is because I was taught at a very young age to express gratitude as a reflex, as a quick and twitchy obligation. Beautiful night sky? “Thank you, God!” An “A” on a math test? “Thank you, God!” A good hair day? “Thank you, God!” Perhaps this practice has its merits, but for the most part, it taught me to flatten wonder, flatten awe, and flatten attentive curiosity. It was a version of gratitude that closed my heart and mind to God’s presence, instead of opening them.

But this is not the kind of thankfulness the tenth leper expresses. His is the kind that wells up from the deepest caverns of his yearning and sorrow. His is the kind that takes nothing for granted. His is the kind that notices how rare, how singular, and how gorgeous grace is when it comes to the borderlands and says, “Come on in. Yes, you. YOU.” His is the kind that finds God’s inclusive welcome stunning.

Maybe, if we find gratitude difficult, we should interrogate the places in our lives where we feel most comfortable, most confident, most complacent, most bored. Maybe we should step instead into the places where we’re the outsiders, alone and afraid. Maybe we should sit honestly with our most profound hungers. Maybe we should recognize once again how desperately we need Jesus to welcome our vulnerable souls and bodies home.

Ten lepers stand at a dutiful distance and call Jesus “Mas­ter.” One draws close, dares intimacy, and finds his truest self, clinging to Jesus for a better and more permanent citizenship. The tenth leper moves past politeness and finds compassion. He discovers what happens when gratitude spills over into love.

Debie Thomas: debie.thomas1@gmail.com

Image credits: (1) God Running; (2) Jesus Unboxed; (3) Holy Dormition blog; and (4) Fine Art America.

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