The 1983 Christmas comedy Trading Places plays like a modern-day retelling of both Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper and The Million Pound Banknote. While it’s not a perfect analogy, it can offer us an insight into the Christmas message and how God sent Jesus to trade places with us.
The film stars Dan Aykroyd as Louis Winthorpe III, a rich and stuck-up commodities broker who looks down on the poor. Also starring is Eddie Murphy as Billy Ray Valentine, a poverty-stricken homeless conman who is frequently in trouble with the police.
The plot concerns two brothers, Mortimer and Randolph Duke, who own the commodities brokerage firm where Winthorpe works. They make a wager to see whether Winthorpe will turn to a life of crime if he is homeless and impoverished like Valentine. On the other hand, if Valentine enjoys the same riches as Winthorpe, would he eventually start to act exactly like other members of the elite social class?
There are a number of ways in which Jesus has traded places with us. One of them being of course, His life for ours. However, I wanted to highlight 3 in particular that tied into the theme of the film.
Trading Places: 3 ways God sent Jesus to trade places with us
Our poverty for His riches
In the film, Valentine assumes Winthorpe’s life that he previously enjoyed. He lives in Winthorpe’s house, enjoys the services of his butler, and works in his job at the commodities brokerage firm. On the other hand, Winthorpe is out on the streets with no job, and cut off from any funds. He is an outcast from all of his friends.
When God came down to earth as a baby, he gave up all the riches of heaven. He was born into a poor family from a humble background. As there was no room in the inn, Jesus’ mother had to place him in a manger after she had given birth. He was visited by shepherds, who would’ve been considered almost on the bottom rung of the social ladder, only slightly above lepers.
God became poor so that we might become rich. Both the birth of Christ in impoverished surroundings and His subsequent death on the cross are glimpses of God’s grace towards us. Some Christians make the word “grace” into the backcronym: God’s riches at Christ’s expense.
When we realise that we are spiritually poor and unable to save ourselves from our own sinful condition, that is when we can receive God’s grace in our lives. As we choose to follow Jesus, we know we have a treasure in heaven that neither thieves can steal nor moths destroy.
On the other hand, as Mary sang in her praise to God, Jesus’ birth would ensure that there would be a moral, social and spiritual reversal. Those who were poor would be blessed, while those who were rich would be scattered, humbled and left empty-handed.
Our rags for His righteousness
In Trading Places, Valentine begins wearing Winthorpe’s expensive clothes. Meanwhile, Winthorpe, having been stripped of all his possession, is forced to dress in shabby clothing. Winthorpe, who is previously self-righteous and looks down on the poor, is humbled. Eventually he proves that he is no better than the common criminals he despised.
Sometimes, we might be inclined to think that our own righteousness is good enough to come to God. We think we can earn our own salvation. However, Isaiah 64:6 says
All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away.
This tells us that even our best efforts are like the dirty and dishevelled clothing one might find on a homeless person. Our own righteousness can never measure up to God’s perfect standard the He requires, as we always fall short.
Romans 3:21-24 says
21 But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22 This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.
Jesus clothed himself with our weakness as He was born as a baby into this world. He also wore our sinful rags on the cross. As He exchanged our weakness for his strength, He also exchanged our filthy rags for His righteousness. That means that when God looks upon us, it is Jesus’ righteousness that God sees, not our own. It is because of that that we are able to come to God in confidence.
As we receive Jesus into our lives, we need to leave behind our filthy rags and accept the new clothes He gives us.
Our nature for His nature
In Trading Places, the Duke brothers’ social experiment is to see if it is nature or nurture that determines how a person will behave.
As Christmas approaches in the movie, it seems that Winthorpe’s difficult situation does affect him. He turns into a degenerate and desperate homeless man who tries to frame Valentine for drug possession and then threatens him at gunpoint.
In Romans 7:14-25, the apostle Paul tells us how we are sinful by nature. Often, we know something is wrong, and we desire to do good. However, our natural predisposition is towards doing what is wrong. We are sinners not because we sin. We sin because we are sinners. I’ve written about this in more detail here.
However, Philippians 2:6-8 tells us that Jesus is the very nature of God. Yet, when He was born into this world, He took on the very nature of a servant and human likeness. As the incarnate Son of God, Jesus had both the nature of God and nature of man, yet He remained sinless.
When we receive God’s forgiveness through Jesus, we receive a new nature that desires God. 2 Corinthians 5:17-18 tells us that in Christ, we are a new creation. Once we only had a nature that had a desire and tendency towards doing the wrong thing regardless of the situation or circumstances. Now, we have Christ’s nature within us that seeks the good.
There are a number of other parallels we can draw from the film, but I’ll leave it at 3 as I don’t want it to get too long.
I should warn you, if you haven’t seen the film, although it’s a Christmas movie, it’s not family friendly. Don’t sit around watching this with your children as there are some scenes that would not be appropriate. However, if you have seen it already, it is useful to reflect upon as we think about the Christmas message.
What other things can you think of that Jesus has exchanged with each of us through his birth, death and resurrection?
Leave me a comment below.
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Robert is the founder of Drawing on the Word. He has a Bachelor’s degree in Theology and a Master’s degree in Systematic Theology. He also has a degree in Law and was called to the Bar. Robert previously taught religious studies and was a theology lecturer. He is an artist, musician and writer, and has created a graphic novel version of Luke’s gospel. You can follow him below.