Jesus Trades Places with Us

Jeff Garrison
Mayberry and Bluemont Presbyterian Churches
February 11, 2024
Mark 1:40-45 (Leviticus 13:45-46)

Sermon recorded at Bluemont on Friday, February 9, 2024

At the beginning of worship: 

Some of you may have read Charles Dicken’s classic novel, A Tale of Two Cities. It’s been decades since I read it, and I don’t remember much of the book. Of course, I remember that memorable opening line, but even people who haven’t read it knows “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” I’m pretty sure that’s been a Jeopardy question. 

The only other part I remember is the ending. Charles Darnay has been condemned to death on the guillotine during the “Reign of Terror” in the French Revolution. While waiting for the day, Sidney Carton, a man who both looked like Darnay and who loved the same woman, visits. He comes with another friend and a plan. They drug Darnay and in his stupor, Carton exchanges clothes with him. Carton assumes the identity of the condemned, as the other man leads the condemned to freedom. Waiting for his turn at the knife, Carton comforts a young seamstress who faces the same fate, while contemplating the life he loved and would lose with the drop of the blade. 


What a sacrifice, to give your life for the life of your rival. As the scriptures say, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”[1] But what about when it’s not your friend? Carton gives his life for his rival with a woman he loved. And would you give your life for someone you don’t know?

Today, we’re looking at the closing story in the first chapter of Mark’s gospel. Jesus trades places with a leper. In a way, with the placement of this story early in the book, Mark foreshadows Jesus’ goal. As Jesus says in the tenth chapter: “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many.”[2] This is what atonement is all about. Jesus takes our place. He pays the price for our ransom. 

Before reading the Scripture: 

It’s taken us five Sundays to work through the first chapter of Mark’s gospel… From the prologue which announced Jesus’ purpose of proclaiming the kingdom of God coming near, Mark stacks on top of each other stories of Jesus’ power. He is no ordinary human. His power extends over evil and over illness. 

Last week, we heard about Jesus leaving Capernaum,. So far, he focused his ministry there. Now he heads out to preach in the synagogues of the surrounding towns. We’re given one example of this ministry as he encounters a man with leprosy or some kind of skin disease. This was a feared illness. The Old Testament prescribed strict guidelines for how to handle the illness. For the sake of the community’s health, the one with leprosy must live outside the city and keep away from people. 

In the middle of the book of Leviticus, there’s a long section dealing with leprosy. I’ll spare you all the details, but let me read these two verses which provides an idea of what those living with the disease endured:

The person who has the defiling 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 is unclean. He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.[3]

It’s often pointed out that the leprosy of scripture is different from the horrible diseases we know today by that name. It included a host of skin diseases which create open sores on the body of the victim.[4]  

Because Greek had another name for the disease we know as leprosy, the updated edition of the New Revised Standard Version identifies the illness only as a skin disease.[5] Such people were seen as contagious, and therefore for the good of the community, they were kept away from people. As one commentator noted, it wasn’t just bad enough to suffer with the disease, the person also received a sentence, a banishment from society.[6]

Now let’s look at this encounter between Jesus and a man with leprosy or a skin disease.

Read Mark 1:40-45

This passage marks a turning point in Jesus’ ministry. He has headed into the other town of Galilee to preach in the synagogues, but after encountering and healing this man with a skin disease, his popularity soars so high he can no longer go into the towns. His ministry is now limited to the countryside. Still, the crowds flock to see Jesus. 

In a way, if you were a strict Old Testament law constitutionalist, our passage shows two violations. The first comes from the man who approaches Jesus. He was to stay isolated. With unkempt hair and ratty clothes, he was forced to announce his presence as “unclean,” to anyone who may approach him. But the man has faith and feels this is his one chance to be clean. So, he ignores the law and finds deliverance from his sentence which forced him to live as the walking dead. 

The other violator to this strict law was Jesus. If you were without the disease, you were to stay away from those infected. For most people, this was a no-brainer. Who would want the disease. But Jesus reaches out his hand to the man. The illness doesn’t scare Jesus away. 

It’s more important for us to care for others than to be a strict legalist. I’ve been studying to take the test to renew my Amateur Radio license, which expired around the time I started college. One of the FCC rules that surprised me has to do with times of emergency. If life is threatened, you can break rules. If you hear a ships distress call, you can go to a frequency you are not licensed to use, to attempt to respond and get them help. 

There are also good Samaritan laws in many states. We can’t practice as a physician if we don’t have a degree or license. However, if there is no physician on the scene, we can attempt to provide aid when its either that or letting the person die. The law’s purpose is to protect the community and life. Jesus, knowing his powers, willingly intervenes even if it means going against the law. We’ll see more examples of this in Mark’s gospel.[7] Grace and love always triumphs the law. 

I recall the first person I knew with AIDS, back in the 1980s. If you remember, when the disease first appeared, people were scared to be around those diagnosed with it. This woman’s husband, a hemophilic, had contracted the disease through a blood transfusion. He died and she came down with AIDS. Her sister took her into her home so she would have a place to live out her remaining months. But there were people afraid of being around her. Thankfully, those in her sister’s church, which I was pastoring at the time, stepped in and made her feel welcomed.

I recall stories of those suffering from the illness who found hope and solace in those willing to give them a hug or to hold their hand as they were dying. As followers of Jesus, we are to show compassion and grace, even when it requires us to take risks. 

The man in our story today approaches Jesus reverently, kneeling before him. He has the beginning of faith. “If you are willing,” he says, “you can make me clean.” He knows of Jesus’ power. Think of how he felt when Jesus, without saying a word, reaches out his hand to touch the man. Jesus touched the untouchable. For Jesus, the law of love reign supreme, topping even the law of Moses. It’s only after Jesus touches the man, does he speak. Jesus’ word has power. The man experiences healing. 

Only then does Jesus follow protocol. He sends the man to the priests to be examined and proclaimed clean. Such requirements were laid out in chapters 13 and 14 of Leviticus. And he tells the man to keep it a secret about his healing. We’re not told whether the man makes it to a priest, but we learn that he could not keep quiet about his healing. I

It was as if the man received a pardon when facing a death sentence. He can’t help but to brag on Jesus, on what he had done for him. He becomes an evangelist, sharing the good news that he experienced. 

Our passage ends with a statement that Jesus can no longer go into towns because his fame has grown so much that he’s overwhelmed by people. So instead of going to the people, now the people come to Jesus. 

And while the man who had the skin disease is free to go into town, Jesus is stuck on the outskirts. As I mentioned earlier, this is an example of atonement, of Jesus trading places with us. The leper is freed, Jesus is restrained. Mark foreshadows what happens on the cross. Jesus willingly takes our place, accepts our punishment, so that we, like the man in today’s story, experience freedom. 

While I don’t suggest we ignore Jesus’ commands, I understand the man’s inability to keep quiet after his healing. After all, he’s now freed to live and has much for which to be thankful. And, for his blessings, he gives the credit to where it’s due. He doesn’t claim the grace he experienced to his own abilities or hard work. He gives credit to Jesus. May we be as thankful. Amen. 


[1] John 15:13. 

[2] Mark 10:45. 

[3] Leviticus 13:45-46.

[4] See William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974), 84-85; Morna D. Hooker, The Gospel According to Saint Mark (1991, Hendrickson Publishers, 1997), 78-79; Douglas R. A. Hare, Westminster Bible Companion: Mark, (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1996), 33-34. 

[5] The original NRSV, which I will be reading, uses “ a leper.” The updated edition of the NRSV says, “A man with a skin disease.” 

[6] James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 68.

[7] In the 2nd chapter, Mark writes about Jesus breaking the Sabbath laws. See Mark 2:23-28. 

8 Replies to “Jesus Trades Places with Us”

  1. The only thing that stuck with me was the symbolic meaning of ‘tale of two cities’. If someone says, “That’s a tale of two cities”, I think we all know what they mean.

    1. When I asked my congregation’s how many read it (I don’t exactly stick to the script), only about 1/4 of the folks indicated they had–most were in school. But there are different ways of interpreting the book, whether the two cities were London and Paris or metaphorical.

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