Spinalonga, a tiny island in Crete, featured in Victoria Hislop’s novel The Island, was a leper colony until 1957. People diagnosed with leprosy were banished to this former fortress, separated from the mainland by a narrow stretch of water which cut them off completely from their families and communities, forcing them to form their own enclosed community which no-one ever left, until the cure for leprosy was discovered. They were regarded with fear and suspicion as it was assumed that this fatal disease was highly contagious.
At the time of Jesus, the word leprosy covered all skin diseases, including those which could be temporary. There weren’t convenient islands everywhere, but the same principle of quarantine was observed. The appearance of telltale marks on the skin brought immediate exclusion from the community to places where no-one else lived, and the only way back, for the lucky few, was to prove to the priests that the marks had disappeared and the skin was clean. Jesus himself was the cure for the ten lepers who met him in the borderland outside the village. He had entered their place of exile and exclusion and, by healing them, gave them back not only their health but their whole life, their place in the community and their relationships with their families.
The only one who came back to praise God and to thank Jesus was a Samaritan, a foreigner, just like Naaman, in the first reading, also healed, also praising God. In both these stories, the one who showed faith and gratitude was the one who was not a follower of Israel’s God but an outsider.
The point of these stories is not that we should be polite and say ‘thank you’. The point is that, because God is not prejudiced, we should not be prejudiced against those with disabilities, against foreigners or against anyone who is different from ourselves, and that our life should be shaped by gratitude for God’s goodness, especially where it is least obvious.