One of my favorite films is the 1994 drama, The Shawshank Redemption. It is a movie I never tire of watching. One of the central characters in the movie is Ellis “Red” Redding, portrayed by Morgan Freeman. As a young man Red was rightly convicted of murder and has spent 40 plus years of his adult life in Shawshank Prison. There he knows the routine, has a certain status among the inmates, and has settled in. As he remarks about himself – he is an institutionalized man. Part of that life is that he lives in a state of managed fear from the guards, prison gangs, and the long silence in the night when he is alone with his thoughts. Part of that life is the operation of a contraband business acquiring and selling goods and hard-to-get items to other prisoners. In his own way, he is comfortable… safe. He risks little, he gains nothing.
There are two events that shatter his world. One is when a friend Brooks, the prisoner librarian, is given parole after almost 60 years in prison. Too quickly they receive word that Brooks has taken his own life, unable to live his redemption and live as a free man in the world – unable to escape the fear which has gripped his life for too long. All of the wonderful gifts that made Brooks beloved among the other prisoners now lays buried along with him.
The other event which shakes Red’s world to the core is when his friend Andy escapes. The day before, Andy had cryptically made Red promise that when Red was paroled, to go to an obscure field outside Buxton Maine and dig up a box. And then Andy’s last words to Red are You get busy living or you get busy dying.
When Red is paroled he discovers how deep are his fears that he is an “institutionalized man” and will all too soon follow Brooks path to suicide in order to bury himself in life or turn to crime to bury himself in prison. Either way to bury himself and all that he has become – afraid to Hope, afraid to explore, to risk the offer of freedom that his friend Andy has waiting for him outside Buxton Maine.
After work one day Red finds himself starring in the window of a pawn shop. On display are hand guns, a symbol of death and fear, and the means for Red to bury himself. Right next to them are compasses, the means to find true north, a guide to hope and freedom.
Our gospel has many layers, but the one that I would offer to you is the same challenge Andy offered to Red: are you busy living? Engaged in using the gifts you were freely given by God – because if you are not, you are busy burying yourself – and you may not even know it.
I think this gospel, like the movie, has a pivotal moment. It is when the Master says to the third servant, “So you knew that I harvest where I did not plant and gather where I did not scatter?” The focus of the question is the third servant’s understanding of the master: “so you knew, did you? Really, did you know anything at all? Look at the other two servants, they knew me. They were not bound up in fear. They knew what they had received was gift. They knew that I had no desire other than to see them live in the fullness of life. Why did you not realize what they did? Why did you spend your life in fear? Why did you bury what I gave you? Your fear held you prisoner and now cast you deeper in the darkness. Hope set them free.”
The third servant is imprisoned in his mis-understanding of the Master. So many of us are imprisoned because we simply have not taken the time to know God. We have relied on the fears that others have implanted within us. For too many of us God is a grumpy old man, keeping a close ledger of our misdeeds, awaiting repayment and retribution. Waiting to smite us in a fit of righteous divine anger.
I suspect that John the Apostle faced the same mis-understandings in his time. You see an almost pleading tone in his gospel and his letters: No, no – you’ve got it wrong. God held back nothing from us. He have us his only Son that we might be saved. God counts us as beloved, as his children. God has many rooms prepared for us. God has showered us with gifts. God is love. Place you hope in that, live in the freedom of that true understanding of God. Choose the image of God by which you will live – and then have life to the fullest.
Choose. Red chose the compass. He chose life over death. He chose freedom over burial. All because he had come to truly know his friend Andy, who risked everything for freedom.
What will you choose? If you truly know the Master, truly know Jesus, truly know the Father’s love – you will not bury yourself or your talents, but will love, love and risk to live in Hope
Hold back nothing of yourself for yourself, that He who gave himself completely to you, may receive you completely.