At the time this homily was written, the Division playoffs for Major League Baseball had just started. My favorite team won its Conference title this year, and was scheduled to play a five-game series against its bracket competitor. By the time this homily appears online, the Division Series will be decided and, hopefully, my team will be on its way toward winning the Championship Series. I hope that, at that time, my favorite team and I will have a great deal for which to be grateful.
Regardless of the outcome of the Postseason, there will be many instances of baseball players making public demonstrations of their gratitude to God for a good play, a lucky bounce, or solid contact with the ball. To some, baseball might seem insignificant in the grand scheme of the universe. I understand fully how someone could think it trivial or contrived for an over-paid athlete to pay homage to the Deity for a fortunate turn of events in a child’s game. There remains, however, something worthy of attention, regardless of any misgivings one might have about such public displays.
Today’s Gospel relates a familiar story. Jesus’ culture demanded strict conformity to social standards and ostracized anyone who failed to comply with those standards. Individuals were routinely marginalized, even when they were not personally at fault for their non-conformity to conventional standards of behavior. The ten men whom Jesus healed in today’s Gospel reading had been forced to the margins of society, probably through no fault of their own.
The physical condition called “leprosy” in the Scriptures was not actually the bacterial infection known as leprosy today. In the Scriptures, “leprosy” referred to any abnormality of the skin or scalp. The marginalization of these ten men in the Gospel reading had nothing to do with a medical condition; it was solely a matter of non-conformity. Any physical blemish could cause a person to be ostracized from social interaction; the judgment was entirely capricious. A condition as benign as baldness, or as serious as scleroderma, could lead to one’s being prevented from having any interaction with family and friends.
The ten men who were healed had a great deal for which to be grateful. In Jesus’ clan-oriented society, loss of contact with family meant loss of personal identity. Jesus did more than restore these men to a normal, conventional life; truly, he restored them to life. When one of the men returned to Jesus to thank him for the miraculous healing, Jesus said, “Your faith has saved you.” (Lk. 17:19)
It might be an over-simplification to say that Jesus equated gratitude with faith, but he certainly came close to doing so. It is fully possible for someone to be grateful and, at the same time, faithless. I am in full agreement with Augustine’s judgment that the virtuous actions of non-believers are deficient in virtue because those actions are not directed to God’s glory. Nonetheless, Jesus came near to equating gratitude with faith. He said that gratitude is a necessary consequence of faith. While anyone can be grateful for good fortune, the faithful are grateful to God habitually because of God’s goodness.
We live at a time when it is necessary to be greedy, jealous, and intolerant. Individuals, governments, corporations, citizens and leaders readily conform to, and promote, crassly anti-social values; then, they complain about the societal consequences of their own choices and actions. In the absence of faith, even feigned gratitude to God might appear to be an improvement of our present situation; for the faithful, however, gratitude to God is a necessity.
I’ve never been completely comfortable with public displays of gratitude to God by professional athletes. On the other hand, those public displays might be worthy of our attention. St. Augustine said that a habit unchecked becomes a necessity; this is true of both good habits and bad. Greed, jealousy, and intolerance seem necessary until one reforms one’s behavior in response to God’s goodness. In a like manner, gratitude can become necessary in one’s life, if one practices the habit sufficiently and for the right reason. There is every reason to be grateful to God on a habitual basis. To be grateful habitually to God for God’s goodness is as close as we come in this life to having assurance that our faith has saved us.