There was a movie a few years back starring Clint Eastwood and some Hmong immigrants that has parallels with our readings from Scripture this week. In the movie Gran Torino, Clint is a retired autoworker featuring all the standard stereotypes: he’s surly and disgusted with the kids of today, he is resentful of the decline of his neighborhood and the wave of Asian immigrants who have moved in, and he’s sicker than he wants to be but unwilling to accept the help offered by his family.
The world seems to be going to Hell in a handbasket, and there is not much that the Clint Eastwood character can do about it. That was pretty much the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the Lord God said “I must go down and see whether or not their actions fully correspond to the cry against them that comes to me. I mean to find out.” (Gen 18:21) It is stories like this that sometimes lead us to think of “the God of the Old Testament” as a grouchy old man, much like the Clint Eastwood character in the movie.
As the Scriptures reveal, this is an inaccurate understanding of God. Clint Eastwood’s character in the movie reveals himself to be open to new relationships built on presence, integrity, and fidelity. He can see beneath the surface to the heart. On the one hand, he sees that his family is only interested in what he can do for them materially. On the other hand, he sees that among the Hmong immigrants there are some whose hearts are true and some who are rightly condemned for their actions. God, in the Old Testament as well as in the New Testament, wants to be with those who want a faithful friendship with him. Abraham asks God why He would “sweep away the innocent with the guilty?” He argues that even a few good people in a bad place is justification for mercy, and God agrees with him. The story from Genesis presents us with a familiar scene of one person wheedling and cajoling another to do what he thinks is right. Here we see that any sense we might have of Yahweh as remote is simply wrong. He is approachable, and he invites us to relationship without insisting on particular forms of speech or communication. We can wheedle with God, but only if we will stay with him and be his friend.
In the movie, Clint Eastwood’s character takes one young Hmong man under his wing and teaches him how to live rightly in the face of persecution, for the young man is under constant pressure from a local Hmong gang to abandon the path of right and join them on the path of wickedness. He does not want to follow that path, and Clint helps him find his own way. Like God active in our own lives, and like Jesus teaching his disciples during his earthly ministry, the moments of clear instruction in the movie are few but the stretches of apprenticeship are long. Just as Yahweh will spare the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah for the sake of a few good men and be open to a change of heart by the rest of the city, Jesus gives himself for the sake of the few and offers to all a chance to turn around and follow Him. As St. Paul tells the Colossians, Jesus in his sacrifice on the Cross “brought you to life along with him … obliterating the bond against us.”
When the disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray, he gives them the short prayer we all learned as kids. This is as clear-cut as the Ten Commandments; there is no indication we should customize this prayer or adopt it for the current age. Around this rare point of straightfoward teaching, Jesus wraps many stories and examples so that his teachings can seep into our hearts. He tells the disciples one story of a persistent visitor who will get the good thing he wants because of his persistence. From that, Jesus lets us know that if we ask, we will receive. If we knock on his door, he will open it to us. If we seek him, we will find him. In this story, we see parallels with the story from Genesis. God asks us to talk and share with him like a friend, and we will discover we have the best friend possible. Indeed, we will have a friend better than we can comprehend.
Jesus offers himself on the Cross to repair the breach in our relationship with God and to offer new life to anyone who will take it. After his death, we began to grow in our understanding of who he is. Only after the Romans executed Jesus in the manner of a criminal did Roman centurion at Golgatha say, “truly this was the son of God.” It was in that sacrifice on Calvary that God’s love was fully revealed.
The Clint Eastwood character in the movie made a similar sacrifice of himself to bring justice to his part of the world. He arranged a situation in which the gang members could choose to kill him in such a public and furious way as to convict themselves, and they did make that choice. The character allowed himself to be killed as an innocent victim so that his friends might have a new life of safety and security.
The grouchy old man at the start of the story was the sacrificial victim at the climax. He was not two different people but always the same person. God is one. The “grouchy old man” of the Old Testament is Jesus who sacrificed himself on the Cross in the New Testament. And he wants to be our friend.
For the readings, please see this link: 17th Sunday Ordinary Time Year C Readings PDF