Do you remember a popular 1983 film titled “Trading Places”? The film stars Dan Aykroyd as Louis Winthrop III, a young snobbish, financial wizard on Wall Street, and Eddie Murphy playing Billy Rae Valentine, a wily, Black, street con-artist. These two become the pawns of two billionaire commodity brokers: two idle fellows - brothers actually - who enjoy a fun wager now and then to break up their boredom. The plot centers around their latest bet. One of them believes that they can take a common criminal and make him a successful businessman, while taking a man of wealth and privilege and putting him on the streets, where he will resort to becoming a common criminal. So Billy Rae is given the job and home of Louis, who himself is turned out into the street, and is set up for crimes he didn’t commit. Ergo the title, “Trading Places.” It’s a very funny film with some interesting insights on human behavior.
The scripture passages this morning from the Book of II Kings and the Gospel of Mark, are both stories about people trading places. While neither involves a wager of money, they both involve high risks.
In the second book of Kings we hear the story of the healing of Namaan, the Syrian general, of his leprosy. He is described as a great man and a mighty warrior. Think of him as a composite of Generals Patton, Schwarzkopf and Powell. Namaan has it all: power, authority, wealth, prestige - well, everything except one - his health. He has a skin disorder that is described as leprosy. By the diagnostic standards of the 9th century B.C.E., this illness could have been any one of a number of ailments, ranging from the dreaded Hansen’s disease, to excema or acne. Whatever Namaan had it would at the very least have caused him emotional and social pain, and possibly physical discomfort and disfigurement as well. Regardless, one thing is for sure: Namaan wanted the leprosy gone!
Namaan hears about Elisha, a prophet and healer in Israel, who had great healing powers. So Namaan gets permission to go to Israel from his king. He sets off with a full entourage and a slew of elaborate gifts. The scripture tells us he had, “ ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold and ten festal garments.” In other words he brought along a veritable small Fort Knox , as well as a branch of Brooks Brothers, to offer Elisha in return for healing his leprosy. Evidently prophets were very well compensated for successful work in those days!
Namaan does get healed, although not quite the way he expected - or wanted - but after following Elisha’s prescription of bathing in the Jordan River, we are told that Namaan’s skin was, “ restored like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.” Namaan is so happy that he converts from pagan worship to worshiping the God of Israel, and he is ready to offer his gifts to Elisha. But we need to read further than today’s lesson to get the trading places context. In the verses following Namaan says to Elisha, “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel; please accept a present from your servant.” We can envission his servants placing the gifts of gold, silver and clothing at Elisha’s feet. But Elisha refuses the gifts. Namaan offers again, and Elisha again declines. God’s healing requires no remuneration - only our faithfulness. So Namaan thanks him, and returns home to Syria.
Watching all this unfold in the wings is Elisha’s servant, Gehazi, who evidently has his greed demon whispering in his ear. Gehazi thinks to himself , “My master has let that Syrian Namaan off too lightly by not accepting from him what he offered. . . I will run after him and get something out of him.” All that gold and silver does have a way of corrupting a persons heart. So Gehazi pursues Namaan. And when he reaches him, he makes up some story about needing money and cloths for some unexpected prophets who have dropped in unexpectedly. Namaan gives him double the money requested, and the clothing. His hands full of stuff, Gehazi gets back home and he hides the loot in his room.
Of course, Gehazi somehow forgets that his master is a prophet. Prophets are seers and know exactly what is going on. Maybe Gehazi has a senior moment. But Elisha knows precisely the ruse that Gehazi has pulled. “Where have you been?” Elisha asks Gehazi. Lying through his teeth , he tells the prophet he has been nowhere. Which really steams Elisha. “Is this a time to accept money and to accept clothing?” he asks Gehazi. And what do you think happens to the deceitful servant? That’s right. Leprosy. Elsiha says to Gehazi, “Therefore [because you have been disloyal and deceitful] the leprosy of Namaan shall cling to you . . . so [Gehazi] left his presence leprous, as white as snow.”
Namaam has become clean and restored to the fullness of life, because he heeded the prophet of God, and even became a follower of God. Gehazi looses favor with God because he violates God’s call to honesty and integrity. The risks were high for both men. Namaan had to risk his self-esteem, his pride, his place in the social and religious order of his people to be healed. His wager was the right one and it paid off. Gehazi risked his integrity and his standing in the religious and social order of his people as well. But his was the wrong bet. And because of that Gehazi and Namaan traded places.
In the Gospel, another leper approaches Jesus. He is one of the multitude of ill people who have heard of Jesus’ miraculous healing power. Kneeling before Jesus, the leper begs him to make him clean. Unlike Namaan, this man is a Jew, and was subject to the stringent Levitical laws on leprosy, which dictated that he was impure. His illness rendered him totally outside of all society. He would have been compelled to wear small bells on his clothing. Sort of like belling the cat to forewarn the birds to fly away when it approached. People would flee when they heard a leper coming. No one would dare approach him for fear of contagion and being made impure themselves. Imagine compounding the physical affects of leprosy, with the psychological, emotional and spiritual pain inflicted by such ostracizing! Brutal. This is a desperate man.
Jesus is moved with pity for him. He stretches out his hand and he touches him and makes him clean. This simple act does not begin to convey the monumental significance of what has just happened. In this touch, Jesus has voluntarily rendered himself impure. Imagine that? Jesus becomes unclean, willing to risk contagion and all the social ramifications associated with leprosy and the Levitical prohibitions, so that one man could be restored to his community, enjoying the fullness of life. Being whole.
This story begins with Jesus on the inside and the leper on the outside. At the end of the story, Jesus is "outside in lonely places." Jesus and the leper have traded places. Jesus risks his social standing and his very life: in effect experiences a death, so that the man might live. It is a crucifixion: a foretaste of the cross where Jesus traded places with you and I to redeem us from our sins.
“Trading Places”: it’s a funny spoof of a film, that has some serious insights about our prejudices surrounding the issues of class and race.
But it is in the act of trading places that we find profound theological truths: truths conveyed by God to us in these two stories. One is a warning, the other a calling.
The warning is that like for Gehazi, the stakes for us are high when we sacrifice our morality and integrity, in order to make deceitful gains in our life.
Where in your life have you traded away your own integrity, heeding the voice of the demons whispering in your ear? Where have you traded away your health and wholeness for lucre or self-gain, and found yourself outside of the community - outside of communion with God?
Whenever you fall into this behavior know this: God is waiting to restore you to wholeness - to trade places with you and your sin.
Conversely ask yourself where are you called to trade your place - your standing and acceptance and status in a particular community, in a particular life-style - so that those who are sick, in need and ostracized might live? Where are you called to be like Jesus, sacrificing some of yourself, so that another can live?
Jesus traded places with us in the greatest act of love the world has ever known. It was an incredible wager and the payoff was our redemption.
This sacrificial form of trading places is the way of God. It is also the way to which we are called. In every act of our sacrificial trading places, we are made whole by God’s grace. And it is only through God’s grace that we can have authentic life. That’s not a frivolous wager. That’s something you can bet the bank on.