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Last week, as Rosh Hashanah was beginning, the Jewish writer Ruth Wisse wrote a beautiful essay in the Wall Street Journal, calling attention to five words that are familiar to many of our Jewish neighbors:
“Know Before Whom You Stand.”
“These words, inscribed above the ark holding the Torah scrolls in many synagogues, assume added significance between Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. During these Days of Awe,” she wrote “Jews of faith take the measure of themselves before the Almighty.”
In other words, they are reminded, in a powerful and personal way, to remember God’s presence.
To be humbled by it.
To be moved by it.
To experience, somehow, a sense of awe and, even, unworthiness.
Know before whom you stand.
Recalling that, knowing that, is a mark of our humanity and humility—and a sign of faith.
In the Gospel we just heard, only one of the 10 lepers lived out those words. He returned to Jesus, fell to his knees, and thanked him.
Because of that, he was saved.
This passage has much to teach us about a subject that was touched on in last week’s Gospel: faith. In the reading from Luke last week, you’ll recall, Jesus told his followers they needed only faith the size of a mustard seed. This week, the subject of faith comes up again, and the conclusions we discover may be even more surprising. Let me suggest three points worth remembering.
First, faith is active. The grateful leper, after he was cured, took the initiative to seek out Christ, to return to him, and to give him his due. As Luke puts it: “He fell at his feet and thanked him.” Or, to put it in those words inscribed over the Torah, “Faith knows before whom you stand.” It compels us to fall to our knees in gratitude. It takes nothing for granted.
Secondly, faith transcends labels or limitations—and so does God. You’ll remember a few weeks ago, we heard the parable of The Good Samaritan. You might consider this the sequel, The Grateful Samaritan. Both stories appear in the Gospel of St. Luke—the only evangelist whom scholars believe was not Jewish. He was also from Syria, not Israel. Luke wrote his Gospel, in part, to reach people like himself, and so he makes special mention of those who are foreigners, like Samaritans, and those on the peripheries, like lepers. Luke reminds us that God’s mercy reaches for everyone and that his saving love is for all. It does not discriminate.
Finally, one of the most powerful testaments of faith is gratitude. It’s no accident that this particular reading is the one we hear every year on Thanksgiving Day. But thanksgiving doesn’t need to wait until a Thursday in November. We need to make an “attitude of gratitude” a way of life, a way of living. You might consider this an early reminder to us all to live out the words of Psalm 107: “Give thanks to the Lord for he is good…his mercy endures forever.”
And mercy, too, is part of this Gospel’s message.
As we draw closer to the end of the Year of Mercy, this episode in the Gospel shows us all, once again, the beauty and depth and power of God’s mercy—and it speaks to each of us.
Each of us is, in some way, a leper.
Each of us has been marked by sin.
But some of us may feel like lepers in other ways, as well.
Some may feel unlovable.
Some of us may feel we aren’t smart enough. Rich enough. Popular enough. Pretty enough. Thin enough. Young enough. We live in a culture that judges harshly and excludes mercilessly.
But Christ stands in contradiction to that way of thinking. He accepts us, whoever we are, however we are. He reaches out to us in all our brokeness, with all our scars, all our sins. God’s mercy is everlasting.
And to that, all we can say is, quite simply, “Thank God.”
In expressing that thanks, we express our faith in the one who loves us in all our beautiful imperfection—the one who can truly heal what is wounded, whether the wounds are caused by pain or by shame or by circumstances or by sin.
As we prepare to receive the Eucharist this morning, we cannot help but be called to a deeper sense of wonder and, yes, gratitude. The word “eucharist,” after all, means “thanksgiving.” As we approach the altar of the Lord, we give thanks for this miracle, the gift of Christ himself, realizing that as we come forward and extend our hands, we are being given something incomparable, something beyond measure.
The words above the Torah speak to us here and now:
“Know before whom you stand.”
It comes down to what I mentioned at the beginning: faith.
Let us pray for the faith to embrace that astonishing reality, with all that it implies.
If we truly appreciate that—in all its richness and beauty and mercy and love—how could we not want to fall to our knees in gratitude?