Thank God for the Fleas
(Kgs.5:14-17; 2Tim.2:8-13; Lk.17:11-19)
How important is gratitude? Do we really need to say thank you?
Most of us probably know someone who rarely or never says thank you. Perhaps they’re angry or resentful about something, or they simply take things for granted, but being ungrateful tends to have consequences.
For example, ungrateful people often make poor life decisions. Why? It’s because negative thinking tends to cloud our judgement.[i] And have you noticed that ungrateful people are never happy? That’s because gratitude is the key to happiness. You cannot be happy if you’re never grateful.
So, what is gratitude? It’s appreciating what we have. It’s saying thanks for the good things that happen to us. Gratitude helps us feel connected with the world and with each other. It helps us see the world in fresh ways. It makes it easier for us to feel good, to overcome stress and adversity, and to be healthy. [ii]
In today’s Gospel, ten lepers approach Jesus. They’ve heard all about him and they’re hoping for a cure. In Greek, they cry ‘Eleison!’ (This is our cry, too, when we say ‘Lord have mercy’ at the start of every Mass.)
‘Go, show yourselves to the priests,’ Jesus says, and on the way all ten of them are healed; such is the strength of their faith. But only one, a Samaritan, returns to say thank you. Only he is humble enough to appreciate the gift he’s received. He throws himself thankfully at Jesus’ feet, and as he does so, he receives an even greater gift: his heart and soul are filled with divine grace.
He is both physically healed and spiritually transformed.
In this Gospel, Jesus is saying that we should all be grateful for our blessings. So, we ask ourselves: are we truly grateful, like the Samaritan? Or do we choose to be like the other nine, taking but giving nothing in return?
Through his letters, St Paul often talks about being thankful. In fact, he does so 46 times (e.g., Col.1:3-8,15; 1Tim.2:1). ‘Give thanks in all circumstances’ (1Thess.5:18), he says. Give thanks to God and to each other, always and everywhere. Give thanks for our existence, for the world we live in, for the food we eat and the air we breathe. Give thanks for our family and friends, and for our peace and prosperity.
Life might not be perfect, but we’re all blessed in so many ways.
In her book, The Hiding Place, Corrie Ten Boom explains how she learnt to be grateful, even in the most awful of places.
In 1944, in the Netherlands, she and her family were arrested by the Nazis for secretly sheltering Jews in their home. They were sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp, a truly cruel and miserable place.
Arriving at Barracks 28, they were horrified to find the straw mattresses soaked with urine, the sewers backed up and their beds swarming with biting fleas. How could they live in such a place?
Corrie’s sister Betsie had a Bible, and in it she came across St Paul’s instruction: ‘Give thanks in all circumstances.’ They talked and wondered about this, and decided to make a list of all their blessings.
They were thankful they were together. They thanked God they had a Bible. They even thanked God for the crowds of prisoners, that more people could hear God’s word through them. And then, Betsie thanked God for the fleas.
‘The fleas!’ Corrie said. This was too much. ‘There’s no way even God can make me grateful for a flea,’ she thought.
But it turned out that Betsie was right. The fleas were a nuisance, but they were also a blessing. The women were able to have Bible studies in the barracks with a great deal of freedom, never bothered by supervisors coming in and harassing them. The fleas actually kept the guards away.
God used those fleas to protect dozens of women from harassment and abuse. They were left free to support each other and to hear the comforting and life-giving word of God. [iii]
We all have things that irritate us, things that at first appear to be annoying, painful or even unnecessary. But as Corrie Ten Boom found, God often uses such things for our protection and blessing.
St Therese of Lisieux learnt the same lesson: ‘Everything is a blessing’, she said. Everything.
So, we must always be thankful, even when times are tough and unpleasant. We might not be aware of it, but God is always looking after us.
Very often, it’s only when we look back that we realise what God has done for us.
[iii] Corrie ten Boom, The Hiding Place, Hodder and Stoughton, London, 2015:184-192.