The Bible and Kubrick: The Unfairness of Grace

For the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which went out early in the morning to hire labourers into his vineyard. And when he had agreed with the labourers for a penny a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And he went out about the third hour, and saw others standing idle in the marketplace, And said unto them; Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right I will give you. And they went their way. Again he went out about the sixth and ninth hour, and did likewise. And about the eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing idle, and saith unto them, Why stand ye here all the day idle? They say unto him, Because no man hath hired us. He saith unto them, Go ye also into the vineyard; and whatsoever is right, that shall ye receive. So when even was come, the lord of the vineyard saith unto his steward, Call the labourers, and give them their hire, beginning from the last unto the first. And when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every man a penny. But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a penny. And when they had received it, they murmured against the goodman of the house, Saying, These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day. But he answered one of them, and said, Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny? Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee. Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good? So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen.

Matthew 20:1-16 (KJV)

Father Dupree: Do you want me to hear your confession?

Cpl. Paris: Well, Father, to tell you the truth, I’m not very religious. I know you’re trying to help, and I appreciate it… but if I started praying now I’d feel like a hypocrite.

Father Dupree: Oh, that’s an error, my son. God is always ready to listen to your prayers.

Paths of GloryIt’s actually a very brief exchange, but as I watched Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957) in its entirety for the second time on Monday night, it struck me as significant. The next day, I read the passage in Matthew quoted above. The connection was quite easy to make. In my experience of watching movies, it’s been pretty rare to see the Christian faith presented both respectfully and accurately. I don’t subscribe to the fallacy that a movie is good because it presents people like me in a good light, but it’s still nice to have that happen every once in awhile. Paths of Glory is good for other reasons, and Kubrick is more concerned in the film with human depravity (albeit mostly of the craven and venal variety, and certainly nothing compared to what he explored in Lolita, A Clockwork Orange, and Eyes Wide Shut) and the lack of grace among us. Still, I think it’s right to call attention to this scene with the priest, since it presents a nice contrast with the rest of the film.

The message is simple, and also a little bit shocking. Jesus’ parable in Matthew 20 presented an ethical test for his listeners. How did they feel about the landowner’s generosity? Well, that would depend on how they saw themselves. And that’s the point. Jesus wanted to deflate his listeners’ self-satisfaction in order to emphasize the grace of salvation. It wasn’t something that they could earn through hard work, nor was it something they could lose by failing to begin work until late in life. Eternal life is the Lord’s to give, and he gives above and beyond what would be fair. That’s what often gets ignored when something is accused of being “unfair.” There is a level below “fair,” but there is also a level above it.

SPOILER AHEAD: Ironically, after the dialogue from the film quoted above, as Corporal Paris begins his confession, he gets interrupted and never finishes it. So, while it may appear that I’m using that scene as an illustration of a deathbed conversion, such a conversion probably never happens. Kubrick needs the execution to take place in order to say what needs to be said about people. The film is about World War I, which was not a redemptive moment in human history. I felt free to take out a piece of dialogue to complement a theological point, to promote the film (which, discouraging as it may be, is well-made and says something important about the wars we wage), and to encourage fellow believers with further evidence of common grace. God allows His light to shine, to varying degrees, on everyone. His truth can be found everywhere.

One response to “The Bible and Kubrick: The Unfairness of Grace

  1. Pingback: What Does the Bible Say About Human Rights? « infinitecrescendo·

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