“[O]ne of [the lepers], when he saw that he was healed, returned, and with a loud voice glorified God, and fell down on his face at [Jesus’] feet, giving Him thanks. And he was a Samaritan. So Jesus answered and said, ‘Were there not ten cleansed? But where are the nine? Were there not any found who returned to give glory to God except this foreigner?’ And He said to him, ‘Arise, go your way. Your faith has made you well.’” (Luke 17:15-19)
What is thanksgiving? Thanksgiving is giving glory to God for His gifts to us, particularly from Jesus Christ, God’s Son in the flesh. Therefore, thanksgiving is the supreme act of worship before Christ, abasing ourselves before Him as His name alone is exalted in faith of His goodness and mercy communicated to us.
Consider what Jesus did for the 10 lepers, especially for the Samaritan who returned to give thanks. The lepers were “cleansed” of their leprosy; they were “healed.” Thus Jesus provided both purification and physical healing from an incurable condition. Not only was leprosy a devastating illness separating a person from their own body as it wasted away, but it was often contagious necessitating the separation of one infected from the general population. Furthermore, the leper was considered religiously “unclean” and thus unable to approach and participate in the holy things of God. “He shall be unclean. All the days he has the infection he shall be unclean. He is unclean, and he shall dwell apart; his way of life shall be outside the camp (i.e., of the people of Israel/the covenant)” (Lev. 13:46). With leprosy, a person was quarantined from God and man.
And the Samaritan leper, he was even more isolated. Since the time of the Assyrian exile of the Northern Kingdom of Israel (ca. 721 B.C.), from a devout Jewish perspective, Samaria had become a place of idolatry and false religion to be avoided (see 4 Kgm. 17:24-41). This is expressed in this statement: “For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans” (Jn. 4:9). According to the standards of the day, the Samaritan leper was triply afflicted and removed from hope of common life: medically, societally, and ethno-religiously.
Yet the “foreigner” was the only one of the cleansed and healed lepers who returned to give thanks to God in Jesus Christ. Importantly, the Savior said to him, “Arise, go your way. Your faith has made you well” (Lk. 17:19). “Arise” – literally, ‘having stood up/having resurrected’ (Gk., anastas), go your way. “Has made you well” – literally, ‘has saved you’ (Gk., sesōken). The language employed by Christ indicates the leper was, in fact, dead and raised to life; the leper was not only purified and healed from a physical affliction, but he was delivered from the ultimate spiritual affliction of sinful corruption resulting in separation from a blessed life with God.
The Apostle Paul writes of this ultimate realization. “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation, having abolished in His flesh the enmity…that He might reconcile them both to God in one body through the cross, thereby putting to death the enmity…Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God…” (Eph. 2:13ff.).
The faith exhibited by the cleansed Samaritan leper knows no boundaries when it comes to one’s self, one’s society, or one’s ethno-religious environment. Faith knows only its Savior, Jesus Christ, transcending all other distinctions in the act of thanksgiving for the grace, mercy, and love given in Christ. “[In Him] there is neither Greek nor Jews, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all and in all…And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him” (Col. 3:11, 17).
Significantly in the Orthodox Church, every Divine Liturgy served at least once a week on the Day of Resurrection (i.e., Sunday) is known as the Eucharist, the Greek word ‘evcharistia,’ meaning “thanksgiving.” Every week the faithful gather at the feet of Christ to give glory to God for their purification, healing, and eternal salvation. We the faithful return to Christ in a process of repentance, acknowledging the source of our every blessing, just like the cleansed Samaritan leper. We “who were dead in trespasses and sins” have been “made alive together with Christ…and raised up together” to newness of life in the death and resurrection of Christ (see Eph. 2:1ff.).
Indeed, thanksgiving is the chief activity of the Orthodox believer. Thanksgiving is our vocation in this life, receiving everything as a gift from God and offering it back to God for the glory of His name who has called us to that same glory in Christ Jesus our Lord.