Gratitude in the Work of Mission


Luke 17:11-19:

11 On the way to Jerusalem Jesus[a] was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he entered a village, ten lepers[b] approached him. Keeping their distance, 13 they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” 14 When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. 15 Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16 He prostrated himself at Jesus’[c] feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17 Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18 Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19 Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

This text on Jesus’ healing of the ten lepers can lead a pastor, a preacher, a church board–and a mission committee—in several different directions.  Sermons often focus on the “one who returned and said thanks” with an implicit judgment on the other nine.  Of course, the other nine did exactly what Jesus instructed them: they went and showed themselves to the priest and were healed. Perhaps the meaning of this story lies deeper than in a moral about good manners. Perhaps it calls us to a more careful exploration of the presence of gratitude in our personal lives and in our church work.

Gratitude is important to life, to faith, and to mission.  But too often, gratitude in mission work means the “thank you” we expect to receive from those to whom we have given money or support.  What about the gratitude that mission committees can nurture within their time together, gratitude that the work itself helps them understand scripture, prayer and God’s work in the world?  We are created to look up and out—not to passively wait for thanks to come our way.  Each of us needs the work of mission to understand God better, to read the scriptures in a more lively way, to pray more deeply.  Our work should give birth to our gratitude whether any of our recipients “returns and says thanks” or not.

Looking back on his childhood, Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (1904 – 1973) recalls a “mysterious” exchange of gifts that gave light to his poetry:

 One time, investigating in the backyard of our house in Temuco the tiny objects and minuscule beings of my world, I came upon a hole in one of the boards of the fence. I looked through the hole and saw a landscape like that behind our house, uncared for and wild. I moved back a few steps, because I sensed vaguely that something was about to happen. All of a sudden a hand appeared—a tiny hand of a boy about my own age. By the time I came close again, the hand was gone, and in its place there was a marvelous white sheep.

 The sheep’s wool was faded. Its wheels had escaped. All of this only made it more authentic. I had never seen such a wonderful sheep. I looked back through the hole but the boy had disappeared. I went into the house and brought out a treasure of my own: a pinecone, opened, full of odor and resin, which I adored. I set it down in the same spot and went off with the sheep.

 I never saw either the hand or the boy again. And I have never again seen a sheep like that either. The toy I lost finally in a fire. But even now, in 1954, almost fifty years old, whenever I pass a toy shop, I look furtively into the window, but it’s no use. They don’t make sheep like that any more.

 I have been a lucky man. To feel the intimacy of brothers is a marvelous thing in life. To feel the love of people whom we love is a fire that feeds our life. But to feel the affection that comes from those whom we do not know, from those unknown to us, who are watching over our sleep and solitude, over our dangers and our weaknesses—that is something still greater and more beautiful because it widens out the boundaries of our being and unites all living things.

 That exchange brought home to me for the first time a precious idea: that all of humanity is somehow together. That experience came to me again much later; this time it stood out strikingly against a background of trouble and persecution.

 It won’t surprise you then that I attempted to give something resiny, earthlike, and fragrant in exchange for human brotherhood. Just as I once left the pinecone by the fence, I have since left my words on the door of so many people who were unknown to me, people in prison, or hunted, or alone.

 That is the great lesson I learned in my childhood, in the backyard of a lonely house. Maybe it was nothing but a game two boys played who didn’t know each other and wanted to pass to the other some good things of life. Yet maybe this small and mysterious exchange of gifts remained inside me also, deep and indestructible, giving my poetry light.*


    • What leads Neruda to leave his pinecone for the boy?
    • What makes this exchange “mysterious”?
    • Why does this exchange remain with Neruda and give his poetry “light”?
    • What leads you to give of your own time, talents, and treasures?
    • How is the work of your mission committee an exchange of gifts and not just a one-way street?

*The Lamb and the Pinecone, by Pablo Neruda, from NERUDA AND VALLEJO: SELECTED POEMS, edited and translated by Robert Bly.  Copyright © 1976 by Robert Bly.

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