[If you've not seen the movie Gran Torino, beware: SPOILER ALERT.]
I recently started an adult education class on the parable of the Prodigal Son at a local ELCA congregation, using Tim Keller's "The Prodigal God." In it, Keller insists, as do many, that the problem with both the elder son and the younger son is this: they want their father's things, but not a relationship with their father. I wasn't particularly convinced by Keller's argument until Beloved and I watched the movie Gran Torino this weekend.
There is really only one surprise in Gran Torino, and since it doesn't have to do with the point I'm making here, I won't ruin it for you. Clint Eastwood is a gruff, reclusive retired auto plant worker in Detroit, angry about all the "gooks" (his word, not mine - the movie makes it clear they are Hmong) taking over his neighborhood. One of his neighbors tries to steal his car as a gang initiation act, but when the gang members threaten the boy's family with violence on his own property, Clint chases them all away: "Get off my lawn!" His neighbors honor his courage by inviting him into their family, more or less, and Clint begins to see that these people aren't so different than himself once you get past the cultural distinctions. Meanwhile, his relationship with his own children suffers as they focus on "dealing" with him and his cantankerous nature. Two scenes in particular stand out: in the first, his granddaughter bluntly asks Clint if she can have his beautiful 1972 Ford Gran Torino when he dies; in the second, Clint's son and daughter-in-law use his birthday as a chance to try to wheedle him into a retirement home, only to be rudely thrown out of the house and told to mind their own damn business.
All of this is as obvious as the nose on your face - you can see things coming a mile away, mostly, I think, because the people who put this movie together know what it's like to be real, flawed, broken people. There's nothing particularly noble about what gets Clint involved, but once he knows his neighbors as actual people, he begins to care for them. Likewise, the wall between Clint and his kids is obviously the product of years of missed opportunities and disappointments, built one painful brick at a time, and it doesn't come down easily (or completely, even in the end). Clint Eastwood's character is a man who's done everything right for his family: earned a living, fought in Korea, provided for his children so they can have more than he had. In thanks he has two sons who drive Asian import vehicles on their rare visits to his house (paid for by wages earned at the Ford factory), grandkids who refuse to even come at all, and neighbors who bear a suspicious resemblance to the soldiers he killed in Korea. Life is most definitely not perfect, even for the virtuous.
Our virtues can be every last bit as sinful as our vices, and they are infinitely more dangerous because of their moral excellence. In the Wheel of Time series, author Robert Jordan wrote a character named Galad, who does what is right "no matter who he hurts." It would be so much easier if life were as neatly wrapped up as a fable from Aesop, but often there is no "moral of the story." We live one hour, one day, one week at a time, and the little chinks in the armor that lead to genuine love can just as easily be chinks that lead to a lot of pain and sorrow.
Jesus calls us to love, not to being morally excellent. It's an easy thing to forget, because the two quite often resemble each other. I know I've forgotten it in my own life: in the pursuit of being right, I've injured people I love, sometimes deeply. I know you have, too. We cannot go back and undo our past mistakes, but we can seek forgiveness and, more importantly, love our families and neighbors for who they are, right now.
Rich Mullins wrote a song called "Brother's Keeper." It might have done the two brothers of the parable some good to listen to it, especially the chorus:
I will be my brother's keeper, not the one who judges him -I won't despise him for his weakness, I won't regard him for his strength -I won't take away his freedom - I will help him learn to stand,and I will be my brother's keeper.
May we be keepers of each other, now and forever. Amen.