Sunday, March 18, 2012

Frodo's Epiphany

I have been enjoying the extended version of the film adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Ring trilogy. It’s been a little over thirty years since I read the books, so I don’t know how true the movies are to the originals. Friends tell me there are differences—a few especially irritating to the Lord of the Ring connoisseur. Regardless, I’m enthralled with each viewing, and find my eyes tearing up frequently at the rich Christian allegory prevalent in these tales.

At one point early on in the story, Frodo expressed his distain at the tragic character, Gollum, who was following Frodo and his company in the shadows. Frodo told Gandalf that he wished he could kill Gollum and finish the job Bilbo should had done years earlier. Gandalf admonished Frodo to not be so quick to pass judgment, and to realize that Gollum would yet play a significant role in the ultimate destruction of the evil in Middle earth; Gandalf told Frodo that Bilbo had been right to extend mercy to Gollum. The implication was Gollum might have appeared to be a hopeless case, but it wasn’t for Frodo or any of them to make such a judgment.

Why is it so easy for us to pass judgment on others? There are several reasons. For one, in can be a way of dealing with our own guilt. A friend once suggested—accurately, I think—that we often despise traits in others that we ourselves practice. The evil of the ring oppressed Frodo more and more as he bore it. Frodo didn’t like seeing what the same ring had done to Gollum; consequently, Frodo wanted to destroy Gollum because in so doing he thought it might save himself of the same end. The logic is certainly false and twisted, but guilt often works that way: we think by stamping out the guilt in others our own guilt will disappear. However, Jesus teaches us otherwise.

Jesus tells us that before dealing with the speck in the other person’s eye, we need to take out the plank from our own eye. When we see how faulty we are and struggle against these imperfections, suddenly we have a great deal more compassion with the other person and his faults. We first have to be made right before we can even know what that means and then dare attempt to lead others right.

This happened to Frodo later in the story. The ring’s effects became unbearable to Frodo. And in this state of suffering, Frodo changed his attitude toward Gollum and began extending grace to Gollum. Why? Frodo explained that if Gollum could be redeemed in the end, maybe he could, too. Frodo saw his own salvation in the salvation of Gollum.

Notice in this how Frodo’s reaction to the speck in Gollum’s eye moved from one of total selfish-ambition on Frodo’s part to one seeking Gollum’s good. Frodo certainly hadn’t become totally altruistic, but as he started to truly understand his own weakness, Frodo became less selfish and more compassionate toward the tormented Gollum.

The point Jesus makes is when we remove the plank from our own eye—and we can only do this through grace that God provides—we no longer seek to extract the speck from the other person’s eye for our own benefit—whether it be for reasons of guilt, or domination, or prejudice, or revenge, or whatever—rather out of a genuine love for that person and therefore the person’s ultimate good.

Jesus actually begins this discussion on judgment by warning us not to judge others: “Do not judge so that you will not be judged. For by the standard you judge you will be judged, and the measure you use will be the measure you receive.” [NET] The judgment He means is that which proceeds from selfish-ambition—the kind easily generated by a self-righteous conceit.

What Jesus doesn’t mean is turning a blind eye to the sins of others so that we place ourselves or others at risk of falling into the same sin or its consequences; by not judging, Jesus doesn’t mean we are not to discern the disposition and situation of others. He also doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t at any time point out to the other person his/her faults.

For example, the best parent instructs his/her child in the way that is right, and this necessarily involves pointing out the child’s faults. Yet the best parent does this by first considering when he/she was a child, and then attempts to correct his/her child through that lens of understanding. The best parent first remembers his/her own old plank and responds by instructing his/her child by extending mercy; the best parent is fully concerned with the child’s present and future well being, not the parent’s exercise of power and control or need to look good to his/her peers.

Jesus’ concern is, of course, the same as the Father’s: to bring justice to a fallen world. We have discussed this in earlier blogs. Justice is a course adjustment from the wrong order of things to the right order of things. And justice is accomplished by mercy not judgment; we won’t justify (i.e., move them to a just state) people by condemning them, rather by extending them mercy.

Jesus finished His lesson on judging with the following: “Do not give what is holy to dogs or throw your pearls before pigs; otherwise they will trample them under their feet and turn around and tear you to pieces.” To be honest, this has always baffled me; what does this have to do with judging others?

The answer is bad judging—the kind that Jesus tells is to avoid—is bad because it seeks the judge’s benefit and not the benefit of the defendant, and so seeks to condemn. But good judgment seeks to restore, so it necessarily first considers the disposition of the defendant. Here the evangelical has been wrong for years because he has attempted to bring unbelievers into belief by telling them they are sinners burning in hell instead of leading them to Jesus. And what happens nine-point-nine times out of ten? The sinners turn on the evangelical—sometimes violently. And of course they would because they don’t know what justice looks like any more than the evangelical in question did before he entered the kingdom of God because such understanding comes from God; all the sinner sees in such a confrontation is someone attempting to demean or subjugate him.

When we approach others by extending to them the hand of mercy instead of judging them, the light of that love will instruct the recipient of the recipient’s lack of love and consequently, his sin; he will turn to God for forgiveness, and God will begin to restore him—justice will be worked out. For a time, Frodo’s mercy--exemplified by Frodo calling Gollum by his original name, Smeagol--succeeded in restoring Gollum back to his former self—that is, who he had been prior to seeking the evil of the ring. This is powerfully portrayed by Smeagol confronting his evil self and demanding he leave and never return.

The character, Gollum, represents all of us. We are all in the torment brought on by our own selfish-ambition and conceit. If we are being restored out of this condition, it is only because God, in His great love, extended the hand of mercy to us through His son Jesus the Christ. We must be like minded as we reach out to the other Gollums in the world. We need to learn from Frodo who saw himself in Gollum and therefore had compassion for him.


Jeff said...

Bruce - as you so often point out we should all be kingdom dwellers, and we each have a special place in that kingdom. Each fallen person has a unique role and there is a loss in the kingdom whenever one of us is lost.

I think near the end of the trilogy Frodo tells Sam "Bilbo once told me, his part in this tale would end. That each of must come and go in the telling."

And then later Frodo says "My dear Sam, you cannot always be torn in two. You will have to be one and whole for many years. You have so much to enjoy and to be, and to do. Your part in this story will go on."

We're all part of the story - and we all have a unique part to play!