Last Friday, my wife and I visited a “church” of sorts, a place where Americans spend more than $10.4 billion a year. We were greeted at the front door, ushered towards the room on our ticket and invited to purchase food and beverages. When we walked into the main room we saw a sea of strange faces, but we did encounter a couple of friends. We exchanged pleasantries as we walked down the aisle, then we took our seats. A type of liturgy flashed across the screen reminding us to turn off our cell phones, to limit our talking, and to be sure we knew the location of the exits in case of an emergency. Before the main event, we sat through another welcome followed by several announcements of upcoming films. And there we were, sitting in the cold, dimly lit sanctuary of the movie theater.
I love movies. Anyone who’s heard me preach in a worship service expects me to reference a movie at some point in the sermon, whether it is planned or sporadic. Since Americans see so many movies a year, and since critically-acclaimed movies along with huge blockbusters have been seen by the majority of the people sitting in the pews of a congregation, it makes sense to me to draw examples out of the most popular movies of the day or classics from cinema’s past when I get up to preach. What really gets me excited about movies is when I see religious references or undertones in the storytelling. There are Hindu references in The Legend of Bagger Vance, Buddhist and Taoist influences in the Star Wars films, and Jewish and Christian archetypes permeating Superman.
So you can imagine my excitement when I found a connection between Ridley Scott’s latest sci-fi thriller, The Martian, and three parables (simple stories that teach spiritual lessons) from the Gospel of Luke. Be warned that the following discusses plot points from The Martian and contains minor spoilers.
If you have simply seen the trailer for The Martian, you know that Matt Damon’s character, Mark Watney, gets left behind on the red planet following an accident during an emergency evacuation. His crew believed he died on Mars, so Watney is left all alone on the desolate planet with only his ingenuity, creativity, potatoes, and disco music. He also has a home base from which to work, a rover with which to explore, and several other items from past missions, rovers, and satellites that he must seek out in order to survive.
Meanwhile, on earth, satellite imagery picks up movement on the red planet which can mean only one thing: Mark Watney is still alive. The folks from NASA start discussing what to do to ensure he stays alive, what the press will do with the news, and whether or not to tell the crew who are ignorant of his survival. But in an unscripted moment during a press conference, Vincent Kapoor (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) boldly states, “We will do everything within our power to bring him home.” This one sentence became a bridge from the movie to the Gospel of Luke.
Luke groups three of Jesus’s stories together in chapter 15 of his Gospel. We commonly refer to these stories as The Parable of the Lost Sheep, The Parable of the Lost Coin, and The Parable of the Lost (or Prodigal) Son. At some point in the movie, Mark Watney assumes the roles of all three lost items: sheep, coin, and son.
Jesus asks a mixed crowd of supporters and haters what they would do in a certain situation: You have 100 sheep and one goes missing. Which of you wouldn’t abandon the 99 sheep to go out and find the one lost sheep? When you come home with that sheep, you’d throw a party, right? Now, there are several practical questions that must be asked, but hold onto those for the moment. Right now, I would like you to simply consider why astronauts would travel to Mars. Perhaps it is because we all have an innate animal instinct to explore the unknown, to travel out into the wilderness, and discover the undiscovered. In a way, the crew of the Ares III were like sheep who decided to leave the relative safety of their flock in order to venture out into unknown territory. Thus, Mark Watney becomes the Lost Sheep.
Jesus doesn’t stop at sheep; he goes on to tell a story about a woman who has lost a silver coin which is part of a collection of 10 coins she wears in a special headpiece. The woman sweeps the room and searches diligently until she finds the coin. After recovering it, she throws a party for the neighborhood to celebrate. But here’s the kicker: the party probably cost more than the value of the coin she found! Again, there are questions regarding the practicality of such party, but for now consider this: the coin had no control in whether to be lost or found. It was an item that fell to the will of gravity, physics, space & time. The woman had to make the effort to search and retrieve the Lost Coin. Such was the fate of Mark Watney. He could not control the antenna apparatus that knocked him to the surface of Mars hundreds of feet away from his crewmates. He became the Lost Coin, an object that had no control of its surroundings, at the mercy of the elements, and subject to physics, space & time.
Let’s pause for a moment and talk about the practical issues raised by these parables and by The Martian. Why would a shepherd leave 99 sheep defenseless in search of one lost sheep? Isn’t it better to cut your losses, protect the 99 you’re sure you have right now, and make sure you don’t lose another one? And the woman who found the lost coin: why throw a party valued greater than the coin which was found? It makes no economical sense to do such a thing! And as my wife pointed out in the car ride home from the movie theater: “Imagine all the good that could have been done for the hungry and the homeless, the refugee and the uneducated with all the money that was spent on trying to save one person who was lost on Mars.”
I agreed from a utilitarian perspective that more good could be done with the money, brain power, energy, and time spent on a rescue mission to bring Watney home from Mars if instead those monies and resources were spent on all the people who suffer here on earth. As we drove down Poplar Ave, she continued, “Was it selfish of Mark Watney to allow all those resources and all that money to be spent on him? Is his life more important than anyone else’s life?” Jeff Daniels’s character states, “It’s bigger than one person,” to which Sean Bean’s character replies, “No, it’s not.” Is it possible to justify the use of these resources for one person?
At this point in the conversation, it suddenly hit me: The Martian is a parable! It's almost as if Jesus began telling a story that started out, "How many of you after losing an astronaut wouldn't do everything within your power to bring him home?" Now, before my fellow nerds get in an uproar, yes, I know that there are many applicable skills for space travelers found in this movie, and I know that the science is pretty rock solid. But when asking the theological and philosophical question, “How big is God’s Love?” the answer will always be, “God’s Love is bigger than the universe! God will stop at nothing to bring you home!” When a non-believer says, “Explain God’s character to me,” the response of Christian believers should be, “God will use up all of God’s resources to find you, rescue you, and offer you a life that is greater than the life you are living right now.” This may not make any sense to us practically, and it may not fit our systems of logic. But it doesn’t have to. This is God we’re talking about, and our minds cannot comprehend the mind of God. God’s actions exist outside of our logic, and God’s plans are greater than our own plans.
You may be asking, “So, how is Mark Watney like the Lost Son?” I’m glad you asked! The son sets out on his own, does some things he probably shouldn’t do (Luke doesn’t go into great detail, but let’s just say the words ‘squandered’ and ‘dissolute living’ show up), but at some point he comes to his senses. He realizes that life is better with his father; life is truly a life worth living when he’s back home with his family. He has to eat some nasty food and work some shady jobs before he sets off for home, but he did it all to survive. He makes the conscious decision not to die.
Watney decided he wasn’t going to die on that planet. He used science to create water in a controlled environment, used human feces to act as fertilizer for his potatoes, and put his life on the line numerous times to simply survive as a castaway millions of miles from home until help arrived. But just like the Lost Son, Watney had to make the decision to survive, had to wake up to his reality, and had to put all his efforts into finding a way home.
All of us get lost at some point in life whether we’re like the coin that doesn’t even realize it’s lost, or the sheep that follows its animal instinct to wander and explore, or the son who makes questionable choices before waking up to turn his life around. Or maybe you’re like the Lost Astronaut who feels abandoned and alone and thinks maybe your life isn’t worth saving. Dear reader, listen to me when I say that God’s Love for you is bigger than the universe! God will stop at nothing to rescue you and bring you home!
God’s grace covers us all, but grace requires sacrifice. God’s own Son died on cross for the world to know how great God’s love is. There was no greater sacrifice than that! When we accept that love, we start making the conscious choice to change, to sacrifice, and to allow parts of our old self to die so that we may become more like Jesus. When this transformation occurs and our lives as New Creation begins, we start to see others the way God sees them, to love others the way Christ loves them, and we encounter the Holy Spirit living through our neighbors.
The story of God’s rescue mission is about one person: You! God loves you so much, that God made the greatest sacrifice imaginable in order to bring you home. You may say that this makes no sense, but it doesn't need to make sense for it to be true. God loves you and there's nothing you can do to stop it.
If you’re like me and you’re looking for a great movie to see this weekend, I highly recommend The Martian (a.k.a. The Parable of the Lost Astronaut). It currently has a 93% approval rating on rottentomatoes.com and it’s Certified Fresh. The Martian is rated PG-13 for some strong language, injury images, and brief nudity (i.e. Matt Damon’s buttocks). If you see any other spiritual undertones or metaphors in Ridley Scott’s The Martian, please share them in the comments section.
+Peace and Love from Pastor Kris
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