[Scripture Readings: Sir 50:22-24; Col 3:12-17; Lk 17:11-19]
On this Thanksgiving Day I think it is appropriate to reflect on our American identity. What makes an American? I can think of three things: First of all religion. Given, our founders were mostly Protestant but the Bible was very important to them and so biblical history or the history of salvation is part of our inheritance. Then I would say the history of our country; the founding fathers; the revolution and war of Independence. We are not an old country. Roughly 225 years young—just new kids on the international block, so to speak. Finally our own personal history as we have been formed by modern American culture. I think it can be argued that these three things give us our national identity.
On this Thanksgiving Day we began our liturgy with a reading from the book of Sirach. It is meant to apply to our country. The few verses we heard come at the end of several chapters extolling the founding fathers and heroes of Israel. We call this sacred history. It is sacred indeed but it is also history. It could be called revisionist history. The story is embellished to emphasize the faith of the heroes, their achievements and courage. You might say only the good parts are told. For instance in the twelve verses dedicated to King David his sin of adultery is glossed over. If he were alive today his affair with Bathsheba would be headline news all over the world! Future generations would forget all the good he did and remember this one bad thing.
Living in America today we hear only the bad things our leaders are doing. This goes for the past also. Every time we look to our heroes or the good things our country has done or is doing there is another book coming out debunking them and exposing theirs and our failings as a country. Revisionist history today goes in the opposite direction of Sirach. Possibly this negative bias is a back lash from the days when we looked on our forefathers with simplistic and idealistic eyes; for instance, the famous painting of the Pilgrims sitting down with the Native Americans for that first Thanksgiving meal; the Norman Rockwell approach. There is a dark side to all most everything that has to be acknowledged but we don’t have to focus on it all the time. All good or all bad, both are distortions.
Ben Sirach became much more real to me when I read the two verses that follow our reading this morning. Of course they could not be included but listen to this. Just after extolling God’s goodness to Israel he could not retrain himself, in the next breath he says, “My whole being loathes two nations, the third is not even a people. Those who dwell in Edom and Philistia and the degenerate folk who dwell in Shechem”! This is pretty vicious stuff, but to me it rings true of human nature. We can love ardently and hate passionately. I wonder if there was not a passionate hatred of the English by the founding fathers for being taxed almost out of existence? They were so angry they took up arms to set things right and thus our country was born.
So on this Thanksgiving Day how do we find our way through this maze of realism and idealism, of love and hate? Today’s Gospel story is a way out. It can keep us grounded in the real and help us keep alive our ideal of justice. Gratitude can keep us grounded in the real. This is one of the first things we learn as children. Even today you can see a young mother teaching her toddler this lesson. When her child is given some gift she says, “and what do you say” and the child says “thank you.” Saying thank you means you are not the center of the universe; there are others around whom you owe some part of your existence. Not to say thank you puts you in the category of the selfish, self-centered individual who thinks he is owed everything as an entitlement not as a gift. Today is a day we reflect on how much we have received as a country and as individuals and learn once again how to say thank you.
The other lesson from today’s Gospel is this. Only one person returned to thank Jesus for his healing and he was a Samaritan. Remember what Ben Sirach said about the Samaritans? They are a degenerate people, not even worth being called a people, they are no people. This attitude prevailed even up to Jesus’ time. So holding up a Samaritan as an example was a tough pill to swallow for the Jews. Many, many times Jesus holds up the outcast, the despised one, the nobodies of society as examples of those who got the real message of life. They might not have had the status, the wealth, the power of the insider but because of this they were hungry for the truth, they were searching for something better than what society gave them; they were alert and ready to receive the message Jesus had to give.
Being good Americans does not mean accepting everything in our society. We are the wealthiest country in the world but we cannot let this wealth coarsen our hearts and make us dull of mind. We have to become like the lepers, the blind, the lame—people Jesus welcomed and healed. We have to become Samaritans in our thinking—always on the look out for the one who can heal us and make us real.