Many regular churchgoers are familiar with the story of how Naaman, a foreign army general, was healed of his leprosy by the great Israelite prophet Elisha. However, I’d bet that relatively few of you know what happened next. The story, which is told in chapter 5 of the 2nd Book of Kings, continues with Elisha’s servant Gehazi, an unreliable and self-serving man who thought to himself, “My master was too easy with Naaman, not accepting any of his gifts—but I’ll get something out of him for myself.” It wasn’t enough for Gehazi that he had the privilege to observe and learn from the greatest prophet in Israel; he wanted more. So, without the prophet’s permission, Gehazi ran after Naaman and made up a story about how his master had changed his mind. Naaman generously gave him valuable gifts, but when Gehazi returned home, Elisha confronted him; Gehazi tried to lie his way out of the situation, but the prophet had spiritually observed everything. Elisha had earlier said to Naaman, “Go in peace,” but in sending away his ungrateful, dishonest servant, he announced a severe punishment: “The leprosy of Naaman shall cling to you and your descendants forever” (2 Kings 5:27).
Ingratitude can turn us into spiritual lepers, poisoning our relationships, warping our personalities, and hardening our souls. Just over a week ago this short letter appeared in the newspaper advice column: “Dear Abby, our son and daughter-in-law live out of state. We sent them a gift certificate saying we would pay for a night out on the town, including a hotel of their choice in the city where they live. We offered to watch our 1-year-old granddaughter while they are out. Their response was a resounding NO! They said it was the most selfish gift we had ever given them because it wasn’t for them; it was so we could baby-sit.” (Signed) Grandma Gayle. Dear Abby responded, “I think their manners are atrocious,” and then, quoting Shakespeare, she added, “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!” (Dear Abby column, October 4, 2013). Well-meaning persons trying to do good deserve to be thanked, not criticized; many times they don’t seek recognition or reward, but would appreciate an expression of gratitude. Almost a century ago a ship was sinking on Lake Michigan near Evanston, Illinois. Students from Northwestern University formed rescue teams, and one of them personally saved seventeen people from drowning. Many years later someone asked him what memory stood out from that event, and he said, “Of the seventeen people I saved, not one of them [afterwards] thanked me” (Michael P. Green, 1500 Illustrations for Biblical Preaching, p. 203). Jesus has saved us—not from drowning, but from eternal damnation; He offers us, not a night out on the town, but an eternity of everlasting joy. We will seriously fail Him, and ourselves, unless we live in an ongoing spirit of gratitude.
All the lepers mentioned in the Gospel of Luke (17:11-19) had faith in Jesus; we know this, because Jesus Himself stated that all ten had been cleansed, and then told the Samaritan, “Your faith has saved you.” The other nine believed enough in Jesus to be cured, but their faith stopped short of returning to thank Him for their healing. We don’t know if they later repented. We hope they did, so as to avoid a severe judgment. As St. Paul says, if we deny Christ, He will deny us—and ingratitude is, at root, a denial of our need for God and a refusal to acknowledge His blessings.
The question all of us should ask ourselves from time to time is, “Am I like Naaman, who returned to thank the prophet Elisha for his healing from leprosy, or am I more like Gehazi, who acted out of greed, dishonesty, and ingratitude?” On Good Friday Jesus spent three agonizing hours on the Cross before dying for our salvation. What of Christians who are too busy or tired or lazy to spend one hour in church each Sunday in worship and thanksgiving—are they more like Naaman, or Gehazi? God has given us many spiritual gifts and life opportunities and material blessings. What of Christians who in return give little or nothing to the Church and to various charities, or only grudgingly donate a token amount to their parish—are they more like Naaman, or Gehazi? The Lord sends people into our lives to guide us, help us, and—when they’re irritating or annoying—challenge us to grow in patience and compassion. What of Christians who judge or consider themselves superior to others, gossip about or speak unkindly toward them, or ignore them or take them for granted—are they more like Naaman, or Gehazi?
Every day, by our words, our attitudes, and our treatment of the people around us, we are either expressing a spirit or thankfulness, or of ingratitude; we are either imitating Naaman in his spiritual dignity and nobility, or Gehazi in his disastrously short-sighted cravenness and greed; we are either rejoicing in the cleansing we’ve received through God’s grace, or clinging to our spiritual leprosy. There are surely many other stories of ungrateful people in history and in today’s news, but the story which matters most is the personal one playing out in our own lives, namely: What sort of response are we making to our Heavenly Father’s innumerable blessings? Are we acknowledging or denying Jesus by the choices we make each day? Do we accept and use the guidance and gifts of the Holy Spirit, or ignore or even reject them?
Each day we are shaping our eternal destiny, and in doing so, we must remember that there is no room in Heaven for ungrateful people. Rather, one of the surest paths to holiness and everlasting happiness is a spirit of genuine thankfulness for all the Lord has done for us; the more we try to cultivate this attitude, the closer we’ll come to God, the more successful we’ll be at fulfilling our mission in life, and the more we’ll become the persons the Lord created us to be.