In the post-Christmas period, I was reflecting on the fact that so many of the movies that were on television leading up to Christmas and over the Christmas period were ones that had been played again and again over many years. There were a few new ones, but I didn’t see many of them because they seemed to be drowned out by the classics like Miracle on 34th Street, A Christmas Story, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (really insightful and deep in its thoughts), Home Alone, 1, 2, 3, 4, Bad Santa (still my favourite of all the Christmas movies), Trading Places. All of these were reprised over and over again. But Trading Places somehow caught my imagination this year.
The story, as many of you know and will have seen it numerous times, is about the very wealthy Randolph brothers, who were involved in trading commodities and owned a company called Duke and Duke. The two of them, because they had nothing better to do with their time and their money, decided to bet on which is the greater influence on human life: Nature or nurture? Is it a person’s environment or heredity that determines how well they do in life? Louis Winthorpe, a businessman working for their firm bumps into Billy Ray Valentine, a street hustler. Upon seeing how different the two men are, the brothers make a wager as to what would happen if Winthorpe loses his job, his home and is shunned by everyone he knows and if Valentine was given Winthorpe’s job. They proceed to bring Winthorpe down and build Valentine up to such a point that he takes over the house of the trader they ruined. It seemed like they had achieved what they set out to do. The only problem being that Valentine and Winthrop discover that they had been manipulated, bring the Randolph brothers to their knees, and took over Duke and Duke. It is a wonderful story in many ways, and one couldn’t conclude at the end whether it was nature or nurture, probably both.
The story this morning from the Gospel of Mark is about trading places. Two individuals, protagonists, one a leper who is down and out begging by the Synagogue, and the other one Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God, whose ministry had just begun. These two individuals and their lives come together in such a way that they changed each other and the impact of that change has lasted for two thousand years. First let’s explore why a story like this is right at the very beginning of a Gospel. In the Gospel of Mark, there is no narrative of Christmas, no story of the Wise Men and the manger or the shepherds and the angels; we move right into the life and ministry of Jesus. Right here, at the beginning of this Gospel, we have the story of Jesus and the leper. In many ways, the story reflects an Old Testament story that you might want to go and look up later, from 2 Kings, Chapter 5, the story of Naaman, the leper and his encounter with the prophet Elisha. There are great similarities. Mark saw the power of that at the very beginning of his own Gospel. It is also a sign that this in a frontispiece, that the encounter between Jesus and the leper was so important, it was sort of the inauguration of the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. He had been around Galilee and now he was doing remarkable things. Because it is at the beginning, it is a sign that both word and deed, both the message of Jesus and the actions of Jesus coincide. It is a template for everything that is to follow in the rest of the Gospel.
How does this story unfold? The first move in this encounter is by the leper. Leprosy, as we know, is a deadly, nasty disease. Right now, today, medically we call it Hansen’s disease. We know that it is bacteria that can incubate in a human for as long as twenty years and that it destroys nerve endings and causes disfiguring, often rendering the hands useless. Why? Because the nerve ending in the hands are destroyed, leaving them numbed to sensation, so they are damaged on simple things, burning, cutting or breaking the hands and the fingers. Meanwhile, the skin is often eaten away, and victims are disfigured in the face and in the extremities. It is a horrible disease! In biblical times it wasn’t known to be caused by bacteria, and it carried with it the stigma of someone who was outside of God’s love and God’s care. All of this arises from the Book of Leviticus, particularly Chapter 13, verses 45 and 46. This is what the law from The Old Testament said: “The person who has the leprosy disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be dishevelled. He shall cover his upper lip and cry ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease. He shall live alone. His dwelling shall be outside the camp.”
There it is! “Unclean! Unclean!” They went even further. The tradition suggested that because they were ritually unclean, lepers were not allowed into the House of God and since they were banned from the Synagogue, they would sit outside and beg. The pathos of all of this is overwhelming!
Even today the stigma of leprosy still exists. It might not have been as powerful as it was in biblical times, but it still exists. A friend and former classmate of mine, at university in South Africa, went to be a missionary in Maputo in Mozambique many years ago, and he observed something very interesting. Mozambique is one of the countries in the world with leprosy. He noticed that beggars would sit outside all the major centres, whether it was schools or churches or institutions like libraries, and they would often have a ball cap that they use to beg. They would put it down on the ground and invite people to put their money in. Many of these leprous beggars would actually leave their hat and their money on the ground, and when they returned the money would still be there. He couldn’t figure out why. People were so terrified of touching anything to do with a leper that they avoided it – to use the phrase – “like the plague”.
It still seems a vile thing. When this leper makes the first move and comes to Jesus of Nazareth, who has entered the scene, speaking around Galilee and in synagogues, and says to him these powerful words: “If you are willing, make me clean”. The leper was a brave soul because he could have been laughed at and rejected, and Jesus himself might have been ineffectual, making him look like a fool for following this Jesus of Nazareth. But he did it anyway. And he did it on his knees. The wonderful Christian writer, the Venerable Bede from Whitby in England, wrote this about this leper:
He falls on his face, which at once is a gesture of lowliness and of shame, to show that every man should blush for the stains of his life, but his shame did not stifle confession. He showed his wound, he begged for medicine, and the confession is full of devotion and of faith, for he refers the power to the will of the Lord: ‘If you will, you can make me clean’.
A powerful moment!
What did Jesus do? He touched him. If I were advising Jesus about a political campaign, I would probably recommend that he not do this early on in his ministry. Most political commentators suggest that early on in your campaign, a candidate should think very carefully because things can haunt them down the road. I have to refer to the Hippocratic Oath: primum non nocere – first, do no harm. If I was advising Jesus at this moment, I would say, “Don’t touch the leper! This is the beginning of your ministry. If you want to end your ministry prematurely, touch the leper! But if you want a ministry in the synagogues and around the community, don’t touch the leper!” What does Jesus do? He says, “I am willing. Be healed!” He didn’t rely on his word to do it; he touched him physically. He reached out to him, knowing that by touching him he was going to change his whole ministry. He did this, we are told, out of compassion. The word that is used for compassion here in Greek is splagchnizomai – isn’t that a lovely word?! Jesus did this out of compassion. He didn’t weigh the pros and the cons. He didn’t consider what political changes might occur. He didn’t look at his own reputation at all. He acted out of compassion for this leper on the side of the road.
At that moment when he touched him there was one relationship and one relationship only. And, now we come to the heart of this, that in doing that they traded places. Ofelia Ortega Suárez, a South American feminist theologian, says that the moment Jesus touched the leper, the leper became clean and Jesus became unclean. The leper, having been cleanses of illness, was now able to go into the Synagogue, present himself to the priests, and declare he is healed. Jesus, on the other hand, was deemed unclean, because according to the law, if you touch either a dead person or a leper, you cannot go into the Synagogue. The place where Jesus did all his teaching and administered to the people, the Synagogue, was now off limits to him.
The leper is clean and Jesus is the unclean! In one touch, they traded places. Why? I love the way that a good friend of mine, Hugh Humphries from Newfoundland describes it. He says, “Between where we are and where God wants us to be stands Jesus Christ, who calls us by name and invites us to follow him.” For this leper, between where he is and where God wanted him to be was the touching hand of Jesus. Jesus becomes the intercessor, the interlocutor, the intermediary between the leper and God, and in so doing, liberated the leper, but he paid the cost himself. It was a cost that followed him throughout the whole of his ministry. As the great scholar N. T. Wright says, “Jesus was at odds with leaders of the synagogues and the temples from that moment on. He had set the tone of his ministry, and he had done it with the touch of a leper.”
He also said something profound about the nature of his kingdom. This wasn’t just a singular moment in time at the beginning of the Gospel of Mark; this was a sign of everything yet to come. Jesus was opening his ministry with a statement. This past Friday, I watched with great interest the inaugural speech and presentation of the 45th President of the United States of America. While I was doing that, I was also in the throes of putting together my final points for this sermon. I am watching television, listening to the inauguration, and I have open on my lap, Mark One, and the beginning of the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. It was one of those Lutheran Church/ State moments! As I and watched the pomp and the ceremony, the ebb and the flow of an outgoing President and an in-coming one, I got a sense of what kind of kingdom the person being inaugurated wants.
As I am reading Mark and watching the inauguration, I am overwhelmed by the fact that this was, in a sense, Jesus’ inauguration in Mark’s Gospel. This is what his kingdom would look like: not the kingdom of this world with fortune and fame, pomp and ceremony, but the Kingdom of God, the kingdom of Jesus of Nazareth.
I was thinking as I was listening to the President give his speech of the passage from 1 Peter, Chapter 2, where Peter described Christ’s kingdom. “He himself bore our sins in his body on the Cross so that free from sins we might live for righteousness. By his wounds, you have been healed.”
When Jesus met that leper, he said to him (paraphrase), “Don’t go and count the number of people in the crowds that are praising me. I want you to go and tell no one about this. I want you to be silent about this.” Why? Because Jesus did not want the notoriety. He did not want to be known for spectacular acts, like a healing. But, the leper had to go and tell everyone. He was so overwhelmed by his new-found freedom he had to tell people what Jesus had done. Now, do you get the point? This is the Kingdom of God. This is God’s way of acting. This is the Son, and his healing power, and it is that kingdom that is our kingdom. It is that kingdom to which we pay homage. It is in that kingdom that we place our trust. In God, we trust!
There is a wonderful story of Norwegian violinist, Ole Bull. He was a famous violinist of the nineteenth century, and was so good that he was compared to the great Paganini. He played in Rome and Vienna, Paris and London. He was a brilliant! One day, Bull went for a walk in the woods in Norway. When he tired, he came upon an opening where he saw a shack. Thinking he might get some water and maybe a bite to eat, he goes to the shack and knocks on the door and is greeted by a hermit. The hermit hasn’t seen anyone for ages, and was so pleased to see Bull that he invited him in, having no idea who he was. They sat down, he gave him some food, and they laughed and told stories and enjoyed one another’s company. Then, the hermit said, “There is one thing I would like to do for you. I would like to entertain you.” He got out his old, dusty violin and with his fingers and hands scarred from frostbite from working in the cold of Norway for years, he played his old violin. It wasn’t very good, but Bull didn’t say that.
He just said, “Would you mind if I played it for a moment?”
The hermit said, “By all means! Sure! It is a difficult instrument to learn though, but go ahead, give it a try.”
Bull fiddled with one of the strings and the bow and he tightened a few things, tuned it, and started to play. In the biography of Bull it said this hermit was rendered speechless. He had never heard anything like it in his life!
Finally, he said, “How do you do this?”
Bull simply said, “It is all in the touch!”
When Jesus visited the leper, it was all in the touch. He could have stood at a distance and said to the leper, “You are healed” but he didn’t. He compassionately touched him and traded places. Wherever there is brokenness and sin, people poor and in need, uncertain, sick, grieving, lost, or frightened and insecure, Jesus’ kingdom touches them, and he changes places with us. His kingdom is the one that lasts! Amen.