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February 12, 2006 (Sunday 6 · Time after Epiphany)—“Trading Places”

Pastor David Barber

II Kings 5:1-14; Mark 1:40-45

Sisters and brothers, grace be unto you and peace from God our loving Creator and from our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Over 20 years ago a humorous and funny movie tickled its way into the hearts of many of us. Trading Places began with two commodity brokers, who were also brothers. Theses two competitive brothers enjoyed making bets with each other from time to time.

This time the bet involved two other characters—namely Louis Winthorpe III, played by Dan Aykroyd, and Billy Ray Valentine, played by Eddie Murphy.

Louis Winthorpe III was a successful Philadelphia commodities broker with a mansion, a manservant, and a girlfriend to match. Billy Ray Valentine, on the other hand, was a hustling beggar.

The two elderly brothers make a bet that by switching the lifestyle of Louis Winthorpe and Billy Ray Valentine, Billy Ray, the beggar, would become a successful businessman in their company. Meanwhile, Louis Winthorpe, who is set up for crimes he didn’t commit, would resort to wrongdoing once he’d lost his rich environment and friends.

By circumstances beyond their control, these two people trade places. Suddenly Louis finds himself with no job, no home, and only a new acquaintance—a glamorous hooker by the name of Ophelia—who is prepared to help him. And Billy Ray becomes a commodities broker in the company of theses two brothers.

There have been other movies and other real life situations where this theme has been played out and where folks either willingly or unwillingly have traded places. The rich have become poor, and the poor have suddenly become wealthy.

Such is the case in our reading from Mark for today—the clean and the unclean switch places. After being healed, a man afflicted with leprosy is able to go freely into towns and villages, proclaiming what Jesus did for him. But Jesus, the healer, could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country.

There are some interesting features in our story for today. Contrary to the Law of Moses, the leper seeks out Jesus and comes to him when the law strictly forbids him to do so.

Leviticus tells us—and we all like Leviticus, don’t we?—“The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be disheveled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, 'Unclean, unclean.’ He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease...He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.”

This leper doesn’t cry out, “Unclean, unclean!” which is a cry to have people stay away. Instead, he calls Jesus to his side and asks for help. He’s the first to cross the ritual boundaries. He approaches Jesus and not the other way around.

He says to Jesus, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Clean? Why not well? One commentator has said that he uses the word 'clean’ because the primary concern is with being clean so that he can reenter Jewish society as a whole person.

This is a very Jewish way of looking at disease, by looking at its ritual effects, whereas a Gentile like Namaan in our Old Testament reading for today might have said, “If you will, you can make me well”—which Jesus does to the leper.

Moved by pity, Jesus stretches out his hand and touches him and makes him clean. What is interesting, however, is that some ancient manuscripts tell us that Jesus was moved by anger rather than moved by pity.

Perhaps pity was at play in the heart and the mind of Jesus, but given the context, Jesus could very well have been angry—angry for two reasons.

First, he could have been angry at the presence of such an evil in the world. He could have been angry at the suffering caused by the disease both physically and socially.

Don’t we often get angry when a dreadful or deadly disease afflicts the life of a loved one? We are filled with pity or compassion, but at the same time, there may be anger at the cancer, or the infection, or the addiction that’s taking its toll and sucking the life out of our loved one.

There’s anger when a brain tumor takes the life of a vibrant young mother with small children who need her. There’s anger when suicide seems to be the only option for a talented and promising teenager just beginning their life.

There’s anger when crystal meth and other drugs are destroying our homes and marriages and schools. Anger is a common response to the afflictions we see all around us especially when we’re helpless and afraid.

But secondly, Jesus may also be angry at a system that has taken advantage of this man by refusing to help him. For instance, after Jesus made this man clean, we’re told that “Jesus, 'snorting with indignation’ dispatches the man back to the priests.”

Why would Jesus do this and why did he tell him not to say anything to anyone? Why? Because the leper’s task is not to publicize this miracle but to help confront a system—a purity system that is controlled by the priests. Perhaps this man had already been to the priests, and they rejected his request. Perhaps Jesus then is angry at this injustice!

Don’t we as well often find ourselves filled with anger not only because disease has invaded someone’s body, but then we also learn that red-tape or some injustice prevents then from getting the help that could save them?

Don’t we get angry when we see children denied healthcare or some other life-saving treatment because they’re poor and don’t have insurance? Wasn’t there anger in New Orleans last fall because officials failed to respond expediently or because adequate resources would have prevented the levees from failing? I find myself angry when I read that the President proposes a 5% increase in military spending while those on the margins have to live with the crumbs that fall from our tables. Where’s the justice in that?

In spite of his anger, Jesus stretches out his hand with compassion and heals him. He touches him, which would render Jesus unclean according to Jewish law.

Our story for today began with Jesus on the inside and the leper on the outside. It took less than one chapter in the Gospel of Mark for Jesus to become an outsider.

But now, Jesus and the leper have traded places. Jesus is a servant of the Lord who bears the burdens of the oppressed, and in so doing, he becomes numbered as one of them.

At this time I’m reading a provocative book entitled Doing Christian Ethics from the Margins. It argues that ethics that usually come from the dominant culture often end up protecting the self-interest of the privileged.

This book, however, argues for ethics rooted in the experiences of the marginalized. These experiences also continue to be shared by God through the life and death of Jesus Christ.

We’re told: “Not only do we learn from the gospel how to be Christ-like, but God through the Christ event ‘learns’ how to be human-like... Jesus’ death on the cross should never be reduced to a sacrifice called for to pacify a God offended by human sin.

“The importance of the cross for the marginalized is that they have a God who understands their trials and tribulations because God in the flesh also suffered trials and tribulations...

“The good news is not so much that Jesus was crucified, but that Jesus rose from the dead, not to demonstrate God’s power, but to provide hope to today’s crucified that they too will be ultimately victorious over the oppression they face.”

This is the Jesus we see in our Gospel for today as he touches and heals and stands with all those who are considered unclean and becomes unclean in the process.

How and where do we do this as well? Out of God’s great mercy and grace for our lives through Jesus Christ, where do we respond with compassion and even anger to stand with and trade places with the unclean, the poor, the leprous, and all those who stand on the margins?

For myself this is a difficult question and one that causes me a great deal of consternation. I’m very much a part of the privileged class, and I struggle with the call and the challenge of Jesus in this particular area. I suspect that you do as well.

A couple of weeks ago Lliam Willams, who is a resident at the Institute for Human Services, stood up at our annual meeting and thanked us for our outreach and for including him in our church family. In reality we need to thank him because our fellowship is not whole or complete without him.

Perhaps there are others from IHS who also want to be here. Perhaps this presents us with an opportunity for a ministry of transportation for any from IHS who would like to worship with us on a Sunday morning.

We do this—not so they can become like us, but that we might realize our own poverty, our own homelessness and alienation, as well as our shared humanity.

Bishop Hanson when he was here talked about the early Christian community and how this community was transformed as new converts began to share their life with them. They were changed as more and more folks were welcomed and received into their community.

Isn’t this one way of trading places—the willingness to be changed by those who are different than we are and the willingness to enter into and learn from them—especially those on the margins of existence?

In so many ways, we move through our lives like lepers, the untouchable ones, and the unclean ones. We’re afraid to touch other people’s lives and let our lives be touched by other people. We’re ashamed of our own uncleanness and suspicious of other people.

But Jesus touches us with healing grace and mercy this morning, and we’re made clean. Like lepers, we’re cleansed by the love of God working among us and within us.

And in a very real way we lay the hands of healing—the hands of Jesus upon others—so that they, too, will be whole and clean in the name of Jesus our Savior.


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