Nehemiah 7. 73-8.12 & Luke 17. 11-17
Blessings and Privileges and Fleas, Oh My!

I’m not sure if you noticed that the first scripture reading for today was not one of the usual ones we hear for our Thanksgiving Services.  In my morning prayer time this week I came across this scripture from Nehemiah, and what jumped out at me initially was the date in the scripture, today’s date—October 8th.  So about four and half centuries before Christ’s birth, the people gathered together in thanksgiving, to hear God’s word and learn and understand God’s words and laws. And here we are some two and half centuries later, still gathered to give thanks, hear and learn about God’s word. 

We don’t read much from Nehemiah in church, so maybe some information is in order!  So, who was Nehemiah and why were the people gathered together on that particular October 8th?

Nehemiah (was a Jew) and he was the cupbearer to the King ... (of Persia) at a time when Judah in Palestine had been partly repopulated by Jews released from their exile in Babylonia. The Temple at Jerusalem had been rebuilt, but the Jewish community there was dispirited and defenseless against its non-Jewish neighbours.        Distressed at news of the desolate condition of Jerusalem, Nehemiah obtained permission from (the Persian          King) to journey to Palestine to help rebuild its ruined structures. He was provided with an escort and with documents that guaranteed the assistance of Judah’s Persian officials. So about 444 BCE Nehemiah journeyed to Jerusalem and aroused the people there to the necessity of repopulating the city and rebuilding its walls. Nehemiah encountered hostility from the (non-Jewish) local officials in neighbouring districts, but in the space of 52 days the Jews under his direction succeeded in rebuilding Jerusalem’s walls.

                Nehemiah then apparently served as governor of the small district of Judea for 12 years, during which he undertook various religious and economic reforms before returning to Persia. ... Nehemiah’s reconstructive work in Palestine was subsequently continued by the religious leader Ezra.[1]

So that October the 8th was considered a sacred day, a festival day, a day of thanksgiving to God for the restoration of their city and the completion of the walls that protected the city, giving thanks for the goodness after years of desolation.   Festivals to celebrate and give thanks to God have been going on for millennia.  Thanksgiving is the day when we gather with others to gives thanks for God’s many blessings.

It’s a phrase that gives me pause when I hear it “giving thanks for our blessings”.  If we consider ourselves blessed because of all the things we have and we are able to do, what about those who don’t have these same advantages?  What about those who barely scrape by or live in poverty, or whose state of health—physical or mental is a huge barrier to being able to work, or who live in places full of corruption and scarcity, war and famine; does that mean then that they are less blessed?  And if so, does that mean God blesses some people more than others?   No, that can’t be, because that goes completely against our Christian belief that God loves all of us unconditionally! So, I’d like to propose an alternative way of thinking about those so-called ‘blessings’ and instead look upon them as privileges or advantages.

God’s blessings come to everyone regardless of the financial situation people find themselves in.  The beatitudes tell us that indeed God blesses those who are in want and need as they live out their lives of faith.  This brought to mind an anecdote from  Corrie ten Boom’s book “The Hiding Place”, it’s never left me!  The ten Boom family were a very religious family, and Corrie’s sister Betsie especially so.  They lived in Holland during the Second World War and they were sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp after they were caught hiding Jews in their house. Betsie had managed to smuggle a bible into the camp with them and they would hold prayer services when they were out of earshot of the guards, strengthening themselves and other prisoners with scripture, songs and words of faith.  We’ve all heard of the atrocious conditions in these places.  The barracks in Ravensbruck where Corrie and Betsie were assigned to was absolutely infested with fleas.  Corrie wrote that Betsie said even in the conditions that they were living in, God was with them, and they should give thanks to God, even for the fleas.  Corrie had a real problem with that; she especially couldn’t possibly give thanks for fleas and why should they anyway?  Betsie replied because of the fleas, the guards avoided their area in the jail which allowed them more freedom to share Christ’s word with the others, and avoid the other atrocities that guards were known to inflict on female inmates.  Corrie did relent, and grudgingly gave thanks for the fleas.  “Betsie died in Ravensbrück on 16th December 1944, aged 59. The last words she had spoken to Corrie before she died, were, “You must tell people what we have learned here. We must tell them that there is no pit so deep that God is not deeper still.”[2] 

God never leaves us, even if we’re not aware of God’s presence with us, we are not alone.  Christ walks alongside us, especially in the worst of circumstances, and God’s blessings come in ways that we can’t always immediately understand or imagine or even appreciate at the time.   

And yes, for reasons that are beyond our understanding, there have always been those who have many more privileges and advantages than others, even in this wealthy country.  So for those who really have the advantage of a comfortable lifestyle and disposable income, and all the privileges that go with that, yes we are of course most thankful for our advantages.  I guess the real question is, as people of faith, as Christians, what do we do with all that those advantages bring us?  How do we use the power of our advantages for those less privileged?  How do we show that we really are thankful?  We look to Jesus teachings for answers to those kinds of faith questions. 

Here’s a wee bit of biblical trivia for you: except for teachings about the Kingdom of God, Jesus spoke more about how we are to handle our wealth than anything else.  And since before the time of Nehemiah, the faithful have been taught to share of their wealth.  Why?  Because what we have not really ours.  All things are of God including us and the abilities or talents we have been given. Remember singing back in the day:  “All things come of thee O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.”[3]  We show our thanks to God by giving back, by sharing from what God so graciously has given us. 

Now, our gospel reading for today is an interesting story of thanksgiving.  Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem, and just outside a village, he comes upon a group of ten men with leprosy.  Leprosy at this time was a dreaded disease; incurable and considered very contagious.  Fear of the disease spreading from person to person resulted in people with leprosy being exiled, expelled from their home communities.   That’s why they called out to Jesus from a distance.  I suspect that it was the disease and having to leave their homes that brought these ten men together as a small community of their own, and the fact that one was a Samaritan wasn’t really important anymore, they were bound together by their illness.  They called out:  “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” Jesus’ response is immediate:  “Go show yourselves to the priests.”  It was the priests who would inspect them to ensure the spots on their skin were gone, only the priests could pronounce them healed, allowing them to return to their homes and families.  It didn’t matter to Jesus who was of what ethnic origin.  He sees ten men needing to be ‘made clean’ of this disease, and full of compassion, knew he could heal them, and so he did.  But only the Samaritan man; the rival to the Jews, only he returned to thank Jesus.  Is it possible that it was the very acceptance this Jewish healer offered that made the healing even more meaningful for him?

 Did the other nine maybe take their healing for granted?  After all Jesus was known as a healer; that was his job.  Or maybe in the excitement of being healed, of being able to go back to a normal life, maybe they just forgot to say thank you.  Although they believed in Jesus’ ability to heal them, they didn’t seem to appreciate the full extent of who Jesus was and what he could truly give them, what true faith in Jesus could bring them.  The Samaritan who returned to Jesus came “praising God with a loud voice” (vs15) and “He prostrated himself at Jesus feet and thanked him.”   The original Greek words that are used are very interesting.   The word used for giving thanks is “eucharistō”[4]; which is of course, the origin of the word Eucharist.   That’s what we do when we participate in Holy Eucharist, partake of Holy Communion, we are giving thanks to God for the gift of Jesus.  Every Eucharistic prayer has words of thanksgiving in it!

The Samaritan man turned back to “eucharisto”, to give thanks to Jesus for his healing.  “In Luke, as in the New Testament in general, ‘turning around’ (or in this case ‘turning back’ as it is translated) is a description for the believer’s reaction to Jesus’ work. …  It describes a movement of the whole person, initiated by God’s graceful work, a redirection of orientation toward God.  Jesus’ words, ‘your faith has made you well’ (v.19) refer therefore, not just to the medical healing the Samaritan has experienced, but to the holistic healing of the (whole) being.” [5] The phrase “made you well” literally translated from the Greek, means “saved you”.   Within his healing, the Samaritan man recognized the power of God, come to him through Jesus’ healing of him.  Not just his body, but his soul was saved, he was made completely whole.  He knew then who Jesus really was, one through whom the full grace of God flowed.  And he fell at Jesus’ feet in “eucharisto”, in thanksgiving.  It was a true “attitude of gratitude”.[6]  So not just thankfulness, but an awareness, a full, deep and soulful appreciation that what he had received was a gift from God.  He fell at Jesus’ feet praising God, overwhelmed with the power of God within Jesus, and flowing within him,  feeling a profound sense of the magnitude of God’s grace and love—even though he was an outcast leper and a Samaritan.  It was for him a conversion experience.

My wish for you as you celebrate this Thanksgiving weekend with ‘rich foods and sweet drinks’ (from Nehemiah 8.10) that you also take some time for prayer and reflection.  And I hope that you will experience a sense of real ‘eucharisto’ for all God’s many gifts, and an awareness of Christ’s healing presence in our lives.  And may our faith grow to the point where we, too, during those times in our lives when we’re truly challenged, or overwhelmed, can with true gratefulness say:  ‘Thanks to God, even for the fleas’.   Amen



[1] accessed October 3.23


[2],God%20is%20not%20deeper%20still. Accessed October 3.23

[3] from I Chronicles 19.13 

[4] Margrit Ernst-Habib in Theological Perspective for Luke 17. 11 -19 in Feasting on the Word, Year C Vol 4 p. 168

[5] ibid

[6] Karoline Lewis in Dear Working Preacher commentary. accessed Oct. 9, 19