Doing versus Being

One of my very favorite stories from the four Gospels is the one recounted in the 10th Chapter of Luke where Jesus – during his public ministry when passing through town of Bethany – stops in to visit his good friends Lazarus, Mary and Martha. A familiar story to most Christians, Luke records in the Gospel not only Jesus’ visit to his friend’s home, but more particularly the activities that the two women of the household engaged in while Jesus is there to visit. Martha – whose last name was not “Stewart” but may as well have been – was busy rushing about the house preparing to entertain the Lord and his disciples, while her sister Mary sat quietly at Jesus’ feet listening to what the Lord had to say…that is of course until Martha – doubtlessly exasperated by what she I’m sure thought was her sister’s lack of consideration if not downright laziness – approached the Lord asking him to admonish her sister and encourage her to help in the preparations. In response, Jesus – whom never ceased or for that matter ceases to surprise us with his answers – instead flips the situation around and points out to Martha how her preoccupations had blinded her to that which was really important, chiding her by saying: “Martha…Martha…you are worried and upset about many thing ….Mary has chosen what is better…”

I love the humanity that Jesus shows to Martha in his gentle chastisement regarding her complaints about her sister – even Luke’s sequential usage of Martha’s name twice in a row by Jesus demonstrates – I think – how very fond Jesus was of Martha and her whole family (remember that it was upon the death of Mary and Martha’s brother Lazarus that John in his Gospel records that Jesus himself wept so that the people witnessing it responded by saying: “See how he loved him”). In his gentle chastisement of his friend Martha, Jesus is reminding her that as we live our lives our responsibilities are numerous, but that when evaluated in the light of comparison to eternal thing, those things that once seemed so important begin to pale.

To be honest, another reason that I am fond of the story of Martha and Mary – and the gentleness of Jesus’ admonishment of his friend – is that I can absolutely see myself in both characters: sometimes I am Mary – choosing the “better way”, but I am as often as not Martha – keeping busy “about many things” but totally missing the boat!

Now I’m just about certain that neither Martha nor Mary were bloggers back in early 1st Century Palestine (although what they are up to in Heaven right now I cannot say!)…I am , however, a blogger… and sadly over the past few months I have been “busy about many things” and have not kept up with my postings on here the way I should, and for this I apologize. Like Martha, some of those things that I have been busy with were pretty important, and some, not so much…although in retrospect, the stuff we think is important going forward often turns out to not be so essential, while some of what we thought was not so important turns out – in that light of comparison to eternal things – to be pretty darn essential. Such as it was, some of what I spent my time on these past few months – at least on the weekends – was going to the movies: a  pretty frivolous pastime if you could ever think of one.. but a pastime that in retrospect is not engaged in without gaining some insights. So it was with several of the movies that I had the pleasure of seeing these past few months, and most particularly one I’d like to share some insights gained with you today, that being the live-action Disney re-boot of their animated classic Sleeping Beauty as told from the perspective of that stories villainess: Maleficent.

Spoiler Alert Ahead: I’m going to be discussing some details of the film Maleficent, so if you have not seen it yet but are intending too, please stop here – go see the film – and finish reading after…

Wonderfully acted by the beautiful and talented Angelina Jolie, the film is a re-casting of the cinematic life of a character that had previously been seen as the most-wicked of the plethora of villains in all the Disney cannon. In this re-cast, Maleficent is portrayed not as being wicked through and through, but instead as a person shaped by the circumstance of her own life and history: beginning as an innocent and orphaned child, she is betrayed and physically violated by one whom she trusts and loves, and in response becomes embittered and vengeful, seeking to overpower and vanquish her victimizer by any means necessary – even if those means entail the suffering of the innocent. It is only later in the story – when she is touched by true love and responds in kind – that Maleficent is restored to the person she was at the beginning of her journey: one who loves and, in turn, is loved back.

The film came out to great fan-fare; it was seen by some as a feminist retelling of the classic Disney fairy tale: portraying a powerful woman, strong in her own right, who fights back against the men that have violated her and those whom she cares for, and wins. Still others lamented this retelling as an “un-doing” of the classic villain of yesteryear – vicious, sadistic, elemental, unrelenting and irredeemably wicked.

There is perhaps something to be said for both these perspectives I suppose… I myself must confess that as a younger person I too liked that “good guy / bad guy” dichotomy:  a big fan of the original Star Wars trilogy, I liked knowing “who was who” – good guys wore white, and the bad guys wore black.. you knew who to root for, and at the end of the day you knew intuitively that the good guys would prevail. It was all very clear, very satisfying, very simple.

Today my view of things is a bit more nuanced…I don’t like the good guys versus bad guys dichotomy so much anymore…and that’s not because I don’t think that there is real evil in the world. As even a cursory examination of the day’s news will demonstrate, evil lies all around us: on the borders between the Ukraine and Russia, Israel and Gaza, our own southwest and Mexico, and we are no more immune from evil’s effects within our borders as evidenced by the tragedy of hatred between religions, ethnicities social classes, and neighbors, believers and unbelievers, and even within our own families  …sadly, evil is very real.

But as I have grown older and – hopefully – wiser, I have come to see evil less as something that people ARE, and more as something that people DO. Jesus of course knew this: with His vision for the eternal He saw beyond people’s immediate acts into their souls; He was able to offer forgiveness to others – even to His persecutors and crucifiers – recognizing their dignity as children of God despite their terrible acts. I think that Pope Francis recognizes this to, with his beautiful metaphor for the Church as a “field hospital”, dispensing those powerful antidotes for hate:  mercy towards all, and forgiveness for all those who seek it.

Perhaps this is why Maleficent resonated so strongly with me, telling a fairy tale where victory consists not so much in lopping off the monster’s head as much as “getting into it” with the curative power of love  – opening up the monster’s heart, rather than cutting it out.

 

Pollyannaish? …maybe….naive?…perhaps… But in an ever diversifying world where our differences from one another become more pronounced by the day we need to learn new ways of communicating across our varieties, a new way of seeing one another not as enemies or opponents, but as brothers and sisters and all children of God. This does not mean that some of us will not “Do” evil – we know that this side of the Second Coming we are all capable of evil acts, but we must try to remember that no one of us is beyond the redeeming power of forgiveness, or the converting power of mercy.

I’d like to close as I began, with reflection on a movie: a powerful one – one of my all-time favorites – Sir Richard Attenborough’s 1982 classic “Gandhi about the life of the father of modern India,   Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Near the films ending, Gandhi – great practitioner of non-violence that he was and no stranger to violence and confrontation himself – cautions those to whom he is speaking that the only place in the world where “evil” was running about was “is in our own hearts”, concluding that it was there – in our own hearts – where all our battles against evil ought to be fought. This might have been an apocryphal statement on the film-maker’s part attributed to the Mahatma… I am not sure. But to me – even if it was – it provides sage advice still.

 

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