Why do you offer help to another person? How important is their response to you? Do you expect gratitude when you go the “second mile” for someone else? What do you feel when they are not grateful? Do you feel used, angry or frustrated? If so, then this parable about the ten lepers is crucial to avoiding ministry burnout or compassion fatigue.
I will start with a confession. When others show ingratitude, I feel a burning heat that radiates from the top of my head, like a hot coal has been placed there. Ingratitude burns me up. I don’t know why I feel it there at the top of my skull. Others tell me ingratitude feels like a kick in the stomach, while some just feel a deeper weight on their shoulders. Where do you feel it? When I feel someone else’s ingratitude, and my head starts going hot, I feel anger. My addled brain starts to act like a overheated engine and shuts down my movement as I think, “Why am doing this anyway? What’s the point if people aren’t even grateful? That is it, I quit!” I don’t expect big rewards for the good that I attempt to do, I just want people to show a little gratitude.
Early in my ministry, one couple became such a force of negativity that I was ready to leave the church. They were not the only negative people, in fact a small faction of parishioners agreed with their stands against changes I was proposing. But their resistance burned me up because I had done so much for them. I had offered counsel and support when their college age children went through hard times. I had buried both of the wife’s parents. When her father was dying, I rushed to the hospital and prayed with them. I remember this holy moment where I held her father’s hand with my right and her hand with my left. We recited the Lord’s Prayer and when we said “Amen” he breathed his last breath, as if his soul was waiting for that moment to peacefully go to God. At that moment, I felt more like a minister than any other, shepherding a family through the great mystery of life and death. It was mind boggling to me that the same family could so vigorously oppose everything else I was trying to do in the church. Hadn’t I proven myself over the early years? After all the ministry I had done, where was the gratitude?
Over time I learned that this couple was also being eaten up by their own ingratitude. They were demanding and judgmental with their children, with each and with their church family. They worked very hard, had a nice home as well as a vacation home, and a pile of money in the bank. But they were nearly always unhappy. They not only found everyone else’s efforts unsatisfactory, they were deeply unhappy with their own efforts. Nothing was ever enough. While it was helpful to understand them, I learned to keep my distance from this toxic level of ingratitude towards life.
The couple represents an extreme version of something very common in life. Gratitude is not always an outcome when we give our best. We get taken for granted-whether it is at work, in our families or even at church-our gifts and labors are often unnoticed. They are quickly eaten up like the brownies at coffee hour and no one says thank you even as we are wiping up the crumbs. Like me, you probably feel like not doing any more when that happens.
Jesus is warning us that loving our neighbor will not always be rewarding or fulfilling. I see this parable as a follow up from last week’s Gospel reading in Luke 17:5-10. Jesus says that we should take the attitude of a servant, where we do our work and not expect great rewards just because we did our duty. Now he gives a living example of why this is important. Ten lepers are healed and only one comes back to give thanks. If anyone should be grateful for healing, it would be a leper. Leprosy is a horrible disease, not only because it creates terrible, oozing sores on the skin and numbness in the nerve endings, but it is also a very isolating disease. People fear it, and lepers were sent out to live beyond the city limits. People were judged as being sinful for having this disease, as if they had done something terrible and this was God’s punishment. You were guilty of something just because you had it. To be released of such as disease is a gift beyond measure. It is not only a restoration of health, it is a restoration to community, to relationship, to the possibilities of life and love that a barred to a leper. Isn’t it astounding that only one came back to say “thank you?” And to make it just a little more astounding, the one who did offer gratitude was another of the despised Samaritans. Why do they keep showing up making everyone else look bad?
Jesus is making a clear point that hits home to me. Don’t love your neighbor with the expectation that you will be flooded with gratitude and go home every day with a warm, fuzzy feeling. It is a hard lesson for me to accept, because feeling taken for granted is a prominent issue for me to overcome. I am learning to turn the tables on ingratitude. Instead of focusing on those whom nothing seems to be enough, no matter what you do, I am working at shifting my focus to gratitude. I can’t control other people or how they will respond to my efforts. I can only control my own mindset. I try to take this attitude. I do what I do because it is the right thing. I do my work because I love it, not because people will love me for doing it. People can be grateful or not. The important thing is that I am grateful and joyful.
Gratitude is the heart of loving our neighbor and doing ministry. Why do we love? Because God first loved us. When I felt like a leper, God loved and sustained me. So why should I be upset if someone else isn’t grateful for my work? I have so much for which to be grateful. That is where my best energy comes from – not someone else’s gratitude, but my own.