Monday, March 23, 2015

Sermon: The Lion King/The Prodigal Son, Luke 15 (June 29, 2014)


Disney movies have been central to most American childhoods ever since the debut of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937. And as any parent whose child has recently seen Frozen can attest, they often infiltrate adult lives, as well. The characters are as familiar as members of our own families: Winnie the Pooh, The Little Mermaid, Buzz Lightyear and Woody, not to mention Mickey, Minnie, and the rest of the gang. Each one has a special place in our hearts. Even the most fantastical of them speak truths that resonate in our lives. And so, when Disney speaks, we listen.

Today, we begin our sermon series, “The Gospel in Disney,” with The Lion King in the hopes that perhaps we can dig even deeper into these beloved classics to find a reflection of the greatest Truth: the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Now, obviously, these movies weren’t created with the intention of spreading a Christian message, but since we know that there is no aspect of our lives in which God is not, we can trust that God’s Word will be able to make itself known even though the magical world of Disney.

When we consider how often Jesus spoke in parables, it makes sense for us to try and examine Disney movies allegorically. It won’t always work, and as with any metaphor, the parallels will likely be far from perfect, but it’s certainly a good place to start.

For those of you who might still be unfamiliar with the story, The Lion King is the tale of young lion cub, Simba, who is next in line to succeed his father, Mufasa, as king of his pride. A mischievous youngster, Simba dreams of the day that he will be free to do whatever he wants as king. However, his uncle Scar, coveting the throne himself, murders Mufasa and convinces Simba that it was his fault. Guilt-ridden and grieving, Simba wanders into the desert. Many years later, a childhood friend finds Simba. She tells him that Scar has claimed the throne for himself and turned their home, Pride Rock, into a wasteland. She begs him to return and set things right. Still believing his guilt, Simba resists her pleas until an encounter with his father’s spirit reminds him of his destiny. He returns home, defeats Scar, and brings harmony back to Pride Rock.

If any of this sounds familiar, it’s probably because the plot was based on both Shakespeare’s Hamlet and the biblical stories of Joseph and Moses. But during my preparation for this sermon, a different story kept running through my mind: the parable of the Prodigal Son. With little effort, the parallels between the two stories and their characters added up in my mind.

Simba is, of course, fairly easy to identify in the parable: childhood arrogance, his mistakes, his transition (both physically and emotionally) from child to adult—he is the Prodigal son who, of course, represents us. But this is only a partial picture of what this character stands for. Through Simba (and the Prodigal Son), we see not only our personal experience, but also that of all of God’s people throughout history. Remember that God did not choose Abraham, but his descendants—not Moses, but all of Israel—to be “a light unto the nations.” We, as Christians, have been grafted into God’s family through Christ, and so this is the story of our community, too. If we stop at the individualistic interpretation of these stories, we aren’t seeing the whole picture.

Mufasa reminds us of the father in the parable, who most of us were not surprised to find represents God. Most of us were also probably not surprised to find that God sounded an awful lot like James Earl Jones. The character of Mufasa provides a rare opportunity to combine two metaphors for God into one figure. While both the father in the parable and Mufasa, as Simba’s father, represent God’s compassion, patience, and love, Mufasa is also the King of Pride Rock: a fitting reminder of God’s complete sovereignty and power. Furthermore, when we consider the relationship between Mufasa and Simba, our place in the world becomes clear. Our inheritance from God is remarkably similar to Simba’s: a vast and beautiful kingdom over which we have both power and responsibility.

And then there’s the baboon Rafiki. Rafiki is a fascinating character. His actions define him far more than his words. He is present from the very beginning, performing a ritual on the infant Simba that is strongly reminiscent of baptism. Years later, when he realizes that Simba is still alive, he joyfully adds a mane to a drawing of the rightful king, anointing him, in a sense. Rafiki knows who Simba is meant to be, but realizes that Simba needs to discover and choose it for himself. Seeped in priestly symbolism, Rafiki represents our call from God.

Finally, Scar serves as a stand-in for something that is pervasive both in the parable and in our own lives—sin. Sin is that which separates us from God. When Scar tells Simba, “Run. Run away, and never return,” he is separating Simba from all of the good and right things in his life: his family, his home, and most of all, the truth. In that scene, Scar convinces Simba that he is unworthy of being forgiven. It is this same idea that almost keeps the Prodigal Son from returning home and that all too often keeps us from fulfilling God’s purposes for us. And if that doesn’t convince you that Scar represents sin, the number of times that Scar is depicted surrounded by flames is pretty evocative of the theological concept of Hell—the ultimate separation from God.

On the surface, these animated characters come together to tell an entertaining story, but now that they are imbued with allegorical meaning, perhaps we can view the movie with a fresh perspective to deepen our understanding of God’s Word.

Like the Prodigal Son, Simba was not satisfied being born into privilege. He was impatient to receive his “due”—in the minds of both Simba and the Prodigal Son, the anticipated gift of an inheritance was distorted into something that they were owed. Already, I think, we can begin to see ourselves reflected in each of these characters. In a commentary on the parable of the Prodigal Son, 17th century theologian Matthew Henry notes, “It is bad, and the beginning of worse, when people look on God’s gifts as debts.”[1] We may not be demanding and squandering a monetary inheritance, but we have certainly misused the authority and talents that God has bestowed upon us without our deserving them.

These characters’ arrogance turns into something much darker when we realize that both monetary inheritance and inherited kingship are dependent upon the death of one’s parent. While I’m willing to give both Simba and the Prodigal Son the benefit of the doubt that neither of them realized exactly what they were wishing for, they were essentially expressing an impatience for their fathers’ demise through their demands. In their own estimation, they didn’t need anyone else. They were tired of being controlled (Simba sings an entire musical number about it) and they wanted an escape. They wanted freedom.

Let’s just admit now that we are not, nor have God’s people ever been, free from guilt in this respect. We are always thinking that we know best and clamoring for something that we think is better. Just as Simba ran off to the Elephant Graveyard in direct defiance of his father, just as the Israelites were worshiping a golden calf at the very moment that Moses was receiving God’s Law, just as Adam and Eve consumed the fruit from the tree that God had forbade, so too do we continually and deliberately act contrary to the will of our heavenly parent, all in the name of “freedom.” But true freedom in Christ doesn’t translate into uninhibited autonomy. As both the Prodigal Son and Simba eventually learn, true freedom is inextricably bound to humility, responsibility, and repentance.

When these things finally occur to them, each character experiences a profound period of discernment. They wrestle with their identity in the face of their sin. Disney kind of hits us over the head with this when Mufasa’s spirit speaks to Simba from the sky: “You have forgotten who you are and so have forgotten me. Look inside yourself, Simba. You are more than what you have become. You must take your place in the Circle of Life.” God refuses to let us forget who we are. God insists on reminding us again and again and drawing us back into God’s community.

Of course, the story didn’t end as soon as Simba and the Prodigal Son recognized their sin. They still needed to take ownership of it, make reparations, and reclaim their rightful place. After all, Henry continues his commentary saying, “Good purposes are good things, but good actions are everything.”[2] We may be called as God’s children, but that means nothing unless we choose to respond to that call. We have been responding to that call throughout history, from Israel’s hope in the Covenant to our hope in Christ, and thank goodness, God is always ready to welcome us back home.

In our comparison, we shouldn’t overlook the places where the parable of the Prodigal Son differs from The Lion King, or we might miss the places where their differences further illuminate the Gospel message. For one, the allegorical emphasis in each story is slightly different. In the parable, the focus is on the unbounded compassion and forgiveness of God. While this theme is present during Simba’s journey back home, The Lion King teaches an additional truth that is much less obvious in the Prodigal Son. Unlike the parable, the movie emphasizes the responsibility that comes with being a part of—or returning to—the family of God. Too often we overlook our own responsibility—both individual and corporate—in favor of focusing on the warm fuzzies that we get when we are personally forgiven. We can trace this duty all the way back through our history to Israel’s election in Exodus: not only to be God’s beloved, but to be a blessing to all the nations.

Furthermore, as a movie, The Lion King has an advantage that the parable of the Prodigal Son does not: the stunning visuals of the African wildlands. The scenery itself serves as yet another metaphor. Pride Rock represents the way our world ought to be—an African Eden, if you will. In its natural state, with all of God’s children fulfilling their roles, it is beautiful and harmonious. However, when sin, as represented by Scar, is set loose and allowed to ravage it, it becomes a dark and hopeless place. It is only when the children of God seek reconciliation and confront the sin that the real and the ideal can become one in the same: a heavenly kingdom on earth; the new Israel.

As we approach the credits in our allegory, let’s make sure we don’t stop listening for the Gospel. It’s easy to watch a Disney movie and think that the formulaic endings are too perfect and predictable and that “happily ever afters” don’t happen in real life. We, sitting in the theater seats, know from the beginning that of course Simba will return, Scar will be defeated, and that the Circle of Life will carry on. It’s all far too simple, we say. Real life isn’t like that. It’s messy. It’s painful. It’s uncertain.

But here’s the thing. If we take our identity as Christians seriously, then we believe that life really is like that. Not every single moment, of course. But ultimately, we believe that good will triumph and evil will be defeated, because God is in charge. The promise of Christianity is that sin does not have the last word, and that our pain and hurt in this life is not the end of the story. You might say that Christ is the ultimate Disney hero. When he is a part of our story, our happy ending is assured. We, too, know the ending before we even start, and that, friends, is a gift from God. “Hakuna Matata,” indeed.

So, let us now go out into the world both comforted by our God’s willingness to always welcome us home and reenergized to pick up our own crosses and be a blessing to the nations. For when we repent of our sin and joyfully live into our call, only then can we enjoy true freedom in Christ. Amen.

[1] p. 1683 of Commentary
[2] p. 1684 of Commentary

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