Thanksgiving or Obedience: Which one will you pick?

KC KernMormon 17 Comments

Is that a trick question?  Giving thanks and being obedient hardly seem mutually exclusive.  But as I re-examined a New Testament vignette that’s oft-cited this time of year, that message stuck out like a sore thumb—though I had never noticed it before.

The story of the ten lepers starts with:

And it came to pass, as he went to Jerusalem, that he passed through the midst of Samaria and Galilee. And as he entered into a certain village, there met him ten men that were lepers, which stood afar off: And they lifted up their voices, and said, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.”

Jesus gives them a very specific commandment:

“And when he saw them, he said unto them, Go show yourselves unto the priests.”

The cleansing miracle occurs on their way to the priests:

“And it came to pass, that, as they went, they were cleansed.”

The rest of the story is more familiar.  The one leper turns back, falls at Jesus’ feet, and gives thanks.  He is heralded as the exemplar of the story, and the remaining 9 are berated as slothful and loathsome ingrates.

But what is usually overlooked is this:  Given Jesus’ command to “Go shew yourselves unto the priests,” the unthankful nine were obedient with exactness, and the thankful one was not.  He, for better or for worse, got distracted from his goal of fulfilling the Lord’s commandments to completion.

Now, this is perhaps an unfair characterization of the lepers, but it does illustrate an interesting situation.  The answer to Jesus’ rhetorical question, “Were there not ten cleansed? but where are the nine?” is in fact “The nine are showing themselves unto the priests, as commanded.”

At the other end, when the nine arrive at the priests, couldn’t the priests rightfully say, “Were there not ten commanded to come show themselves? But where is the one?”

The implications of this paradox could provide fuel for some healthy discussions.  When we break down the story symbolically, we infer that Christ is the healer, men are the afflicted, and Christ’s healing power is inextricably connected to his role as law-giver.

From there, we could come up with a number of varied interpretations of the other elements and actions.  Is going to the priests a “work”?  Is being cleansed “salvation”?  Is gratitude “grace”?  Is obedience “faith”?

And what do gospel laws point to?  We learn elsewhere that the laws point to Christ.  And the priesthood is the means by which men represent God on earth—meaning the priests point to Christ.  Perhaps the one leper was after-all in compliance with the command to “show [him]self unto the priests” when he fell at Jesus’ feet.  And what of the obedient nine?  Were they not healed/”saved” just as much as the one? Is this a lower-law/higher-law issue? I am I looking way too deep into all of this?

What do you think?

Comments 17

  1. Good point. I’ve never thought about it that way. I think the guy who said thank you would still have to go to the priest, wouldn’t he? Aren’t the priests the ones who decided if lepers were clean? Sometimes when I feel like I get an answer to prayer, my first inclination is to say thank you, before I’ve even followed through with my answer. In the end, it’s more important to be grateful for our blessings, aka clean before God, than to be clean before the world, isn’t it?

  2. I was always under the impression that they all went to “show themselves”, as the Law would have it – just that the one came back to thank, but now that I read it, it seems that the one “turned back”, which implies he didn’t go to the priests…

    But your way of looking at it could bring up the higher/lower law thing. Interesting. I think if the one recognized Jesus as the great high priest, he did fulfill the directive, but that is speculative from my part.

    May be to deep for me, though.

  3. Excellent questions – and only answerable, I think, if we speculate a bit. With that in mind . . .

    I like Michelle’s solution – that the one still had to go show himself to the priests. He only delayed his obedience by returning to thank Jesus.

    When you juxtapose this account with the account of Lot’s wife (and substitute “returned back” for “looked back” – as most Biblical scholars do), it is clear that her mistake was returning to a place she had been commanded to flee. The cleansed leper had not been commanded not to return and give thanks prior to showing himself to the priests (and there was no stated time table, meaning he didn’t have to show himself immediately or simultaneously with the others), so there would be no disobedience in him returning first to thank Jesus.

    Finally, I think Jesus’ own question is instructive. I don’t think there is a condemnation in that question, since, as you say, they simply were obeying his directive, but it appears to be a sincere question – that they should have stopped, thanked him then continued on to the priests.

    Perhaps a reason is that the nine were healed physically, but verse 19 says that the one was “made whole”. I take that to mean the same as “thy sins are forgiven thee” – which the other nine were not told. They were blessed for their request to the physical healer, but only the one was blessed for his expression of thanks by the spiritual healer.

    I wonder sometimes if we are thankful for the chance to be obedient, or if we think unthoughtful, unfeeling, rote obedience will suffice.

    I really liked this post, KC. It made me stop and think about something I’d never considered previously. Thank you.

  4. Perhaps a reason is that the nine were healed physically, but verse 19 says that the one was “made whole”. I take that to mean the same as “thy sins are forgiven thee” – which the other nine were not told.

    Keeping in mind that the word translated “perfect” means “whole” or “complete,” perhaps the statement merely means that the one leper was more “perfect” than the others, in that he additionally offered gratitude.

  5. It is intriguing that after Jesus points out the gratitude of the one, he tells him, “Arise, go thy way: thy faith hath made thee whole.” Does that mean the one did not go to the priests in the end; i.e., Jesus didn’t say, “Now go to the priest like the others.” Maybe a bit of a message about being freed from the law? (Cf. Gal 2)

  6. Ray
    I always thought Lots wife looking back was a similitude for looking back at past sins and causing yourself to be dragged back into sin to your destruction. Well that and God said do something and you had better do it.

  7. This is a new approach for me and I am grateful for the insight. It makes me think that obedience is the lesser law, when in fact the gratitude is the full law: obedience isn’t about the triumph of formulaic requirement to attend before the priests, but rather that the gratitude would fulfill the requirements. “Once through a glass darkly and then face to face,” meaning that going through the motions is all well and fine, but that it is only the vague outline of what is really expected. Much like learning to tango using those floor mats with footprints on it – the performance is only good to the point that it makes one realize that there is some inner value that can be learned and embraced.

    In a sense, this makes being ‘freed from the law’ distinct from ‘fulfilling the law’ – one may not be burdened with the specific requirements of the law but still not ‘get’ it.

    Thanks for the insight!

  8. This is silly, and the sort of looking beyond the mark that we should avoid.

    First of all, I do not think it is clear from the text (Luke 17: 12-19) that the one leper “turned back” before visiting the priest- and even if he did there is no evidence that the leper didn’t go to them after thanking Jesus. (In fact he probably did as the priests would need to certify him cleansed for him to resume his normal life).

    Additionally as you point out, Christ himself was a high priest after the higher priesthood.

    Trying to go from this example to suggesting that we have to choose between being obedient and being thankful, (or that one is more important than the other) is foolish.

    We should be both obedient and grateful to God, we don’t have to choose between these two virtues.

    This is what happens when we become unsatisfied with the simple and straight forward interpretations and start looking for nonexistent hidden knowledge instead of accepting the knowledge that God gives us. We have plenty of sources for legitimate hidden knowledge in the temple ceremonies, we don’t need to try and create something out of nothing.

  9. Cicero, you called this post silly, then you echoed some of the points KC brought out in that post. Maybe the post isn’t quite as silly as you assumed by the title – understanding that titles are often little more than teasers to get people to read/view posts (or newspaper and magazine articles – or upcoming TV news stories – or educational seminars – or anything else that is being publicized).

  10. Post

    Ray, thanks for helping Cicero out.

    Cicero, speaking of looking beyond the mark, I think you missed the point of my post. First, the title is just a teaser, and do believe you can be both thankful and obedient.

    In all likelihood, all ten lepers were probably both obedient AND grateful—they just had different ways and sequences of going about it. Who’s to say the nine didn’t go thank Jesus after visiting the priests?

    I point out this seeming contradiction because I’ve found that the gospel is full of paradoxes: He that loses his life shall find it, the first shall be last, the humble shall be exalted, the poor in spirit receive the riches of eternity. These juxtaposed opposites are not presented in the scriptures to confuse us or invalidate the prophets, but rather they cause us to shift our point of view and gain a true gospel perspective, where these paradoxes find elegant resolutions. It is from this transcendent vantage point that we can understand the gospel’s “treasures of knowledge” (or “nonexistent hidden knowledge” if that’s how you wish see it)

    I didn’t come to any conclusions about the paradox presented in the story of the ten lepers. Again, it could be that they ultimately were ALL thankful and ALL went to the priests, and that the only difference was their timing. But the clear message is that going to the priests was NOT was cleansed them—that was done by Christ. All ten lepers showed their willingness to obey by setting out to see the priests, and that was they key that gave them access to Christ. Christ in turn bestowed the gift of cleanliness, which was accepted by “grace” (same root as the word “gratitude”…and “gracias”) The gospel connection between obedience and gratitude is keenly analogous to the relationship between faith and works.

    The gratitude of the one illustrates the emphasis that the higher law places on one’s heart, rather then one’s works. In any case, the one leper was both made clean, and also was made whole. His willingness to obey the law led him back to Christ, who then, by grace, became the author and finisher of his salvation. And if THAT is looking beyond the mark, then I am guilty as charged.

  11. Paradoxes, schmeradoxes…boy you got lots to learn. How are a bunch of lepers gonna know if they have God’s good grace when them damn apostles in Mark didn’t know their buttholes from their elbows? Those untouchable body part missin untouchables didn’t care who Jesus was. Just like those bums holdin signs on every intersection they just wanted somethin and Jesus was willin to give them what they wanted. And all this talk about how one lepers cleaned up like a car at a Bubble’s car wash and the other was made whole had nothin to do with obedience. How do you know whether or not they were hustlin Jesus? Yeah, it is nice and all, but God don’t want know lepers. How can they be resurrected? Who’s gonna find their missin body parts?

    All your smart talk don’t draw pretty enough pictures for me. Heres a paradox for you–you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. All this church is about is gettin on your knees and askin Heavenly Father if the church is true. That’s it! All this pretty boy talk is a waste of time for you, boy. You’d be better served find a nice young lady to take to an ice cream social than to waste time talkin about lepers and changin one’s heart. You work for Hallmark, boy?

    You can talk about all the Markan sandwiches you want–one story explains another and yada yada yada. When you standin at the gates and good ole Saint Pete is standin there, what’s he gonna ask you? Did you write pretty, boy? Nope, no sir. He’s gonna see what kind of man you were and either let you in or kick your butt down the telestial escalator.

  12. I really enjoy posts such as this. Thank you very much. Cicero’s response is classic. When there may be some train of thought that trumps the current mantra of obedience, obedience and when in doubt more obedience, we are told to stop thinking for ourselves. There is no danger in seeing the paradoxes of the gospel as you pointed out KC. Are we not told in scripture to search, ponder and pray? We are to take the Holy Spirit as our guide to gain truth for ourselves. I would not suggest that obedience and gratitude are mutually exclusive only agree that gratitude is the higher law.

    When the Jews were accused of looking beyond the mark they were looking for things that ultimately lead them away from the Messiah. When the leaper was made whole he turned to look at the Messiah. The grace of God himself made him whole. The law is a schoolmaster that leads us to Christ. After we have Christ, through being born again, what need have we of the law? Are we not new creatures in him? Do not we become joint heirs of salvation through the merits of the Holy one of Israel?

  13. The Spirit whispered to me that without no letters there can be no law. And without them letters, the Spirit couldn’t tell me what he told me. The law’s schoolmaster has to break out the paddle and paddle some behinds when we get outta line. We need to follow them letters and read Bible and the triple-dipple combo and follow them letters right into the Celestial Kingdom.

  14. Excellent insight, and a wonderful bit of food for thought about a story that’s usually just taken at face value, whatever one might conclude in the end. Thanks for sharing these interesting thoughts.

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