In the 1983 film Trading Places, two rich old brothers get into an argument about heredity versus environment. Eager to resolve their disagreement, they decide to use their vast resources to take two human lives and switch them outright. The brothers intend to see whether the two will stay where they’ve been put (demonstrating the power of environment) or whether their genetic heritage will permit them to overcome their circumstances.
One of these people is their office manager: successful, civilized Louis Winthorpe (played by Dan Aykroyd). The other is the most scurrilous criminal they can find, Billy Ray Valentine (played by Eddie Murphy).
The brothers frame Winthorpe for theft and distribution of drugs, divesting him of his lucrative job and disgracing him publicly. His socialite fiancée abandons him, and he is left homeless and destitute.
Meanwhile, the brothers bail Valentine out of jail, lure him into their limousine with whiskey and cigars and proceed to tell him that they run a program to help culturally disadvantaged people.
“We’d like to provide you with a home of your own, a generous bank account and employment with our firm. We’d like to start you at $80,000 per year.” (In today’s dollars, that amounts to about $185,000.) So Valentine exchanges his ghetto garb for a $1000 Armani suit and is taken on a tour of his lavish Manhattan townhouse. But he isn’t convinced. He assumes that these wealthy strangers must have something up their sleeve. “This kind of thing happens to me every day,” he jokes.
Which of us would react any differently? Well-to-do, law-abiding citizens keep on their side of the street as a rule. If only to stay whole, they usually have nothing to do with criminals, who are not only dangerous but who, through their misdeeds, have forfeited their place among gentle people. The justice of this eventuality is known by lawbreakers, who understand the simple juxtaposition of crime and punishment. Forgiveness, mercy and altruism are, by nature, aberrations.
Against this backdrop of eye-for-eye and tooth-for-tooth reality, the Gospel is often marginalized as some kind of fairy tale. In natural terms, unbelief is a valid response to the soaring promises of Scripture. God’s generous offer flies in the face of the real world that has been knocking us around all our lives. When many of us first hear the story of what God has done for humanity, our first reaction is to count it as one of the ancient myths, ideal for putting a sparkle in the eyes of our children but completely outmoded by modern empirical standards.
The Gospel is Trading Places writ large. Jesus is innocence betrayed, privilege and position lost. We are Billy Ray Valentine, lawbreakers and traitors, given a seat at the table to enjoy the best of heaven and earth without any merit of our own. This is the divine exchange: Jesus is punished for our crimes and stripped of titles, wealth and standing, all of which gets transferred over to us. It’s too good to be true. But there’s the catch. We can participate in this divine exchange only if we take God at His Word and accept Christ. If we really believe in Him and what He has done for us, we will be so filled with joy and gratitude that we will scarcely resemble the people we were before.
Although Valentine receives only material benefits, those who hear the Gospel are promised redemption (Col. 1:14), adoption into God’s family (Eph. 1:5), forgiveness of sins past, present and future (Rom. 8:1), righteous standing before God (Rom. 3:21), the right to become sons and daughters of God (John 1:12), abundant life (John 10:10), direct access to the throne of the Almighty (Eph. 2:18) and oneness with God in spirit (1 Cor. 6:17). In addition to all this, we are told that God will give us material blessings as well (Matt. 6:33). He offers His hand in friendship (John 15:15) and tells us that we are “holy and dearly loved” (Col. 3:12).
What an outpouring! How could a mere problem with perception cheat God’s children out of their Christmas presents? Surely our reluctance to believe in Jesus has much to do with our will. As difficult as our lives without Christ can be, we become attached to them and to our own ways and devices. Embracing Christ involves a change of posture and, ultimately, location. Shall I abandon the only home I know for one I have never seen, or one I have only seen photographs of? Exactly which of my favorite toys will I have to leave behind when I move there? How long will I have to suffer in the wilderness on the way?
Lord help us to drop whatever it is, throw caution to the wind, and let the miracles begin.