One of the great blessings of Grace is that it is often unexpected and always undeserved. Sadly, the same can be said of betrayal, as if the two are somehow inextricably linked as mirror images and opposites. This idea of betrayal and Grace runs like a double helix through the story of our lives, through history itself. The accompanying idea is the question of what our responses are to these two forces on our lives. How do we react to undeserving Grace? How do we deal with unexpected Betrayal? And can the power of Grace defeat betrayal and its consequences. I would certainly live my life in the assumption that not only does Grace have the power to overcome betrayal at the eternal end, but that it does so here and now, today.
The man Gabriel certainly lived and died this belief. Gabriel is the Christlike figure who leads us through the story of Roland Joffe’s Masterpiece “The Mission”. Like Jesus, he too crosses a great divide (the falls) and uses an artform (in Jesus’ case storytelling, in Gabriel’s it’s Music) to connect with a people’s culture to bring them the news of the Kingdom of God – and Grace. He is abundantly aware that death may await him above the falls with the Guarani – the story opens with the death of the first priest Gabriel sent there – and he still goes. This is the length that we are called to go to to share the story of Grace. If the story were not so life-changing, would men run such risks? Perhaps this is why some of us are happy to remain comfortable – because we have not allowed Grace to revolutionise our lives, to change our lives in the most radical of ways. I don’t know, only you can know this. And so, he risks his life in order to bring life – and instead of death he is greeted at first with curiosity combined with opposition and then with a welcome and an offer of restoration (after one tribal leader breaks his instrument, the others mend it to allow the music to continue).
And then the beauty is interrupted with violence. Having made themselves vulnerable by welcoming Gabriel and his Jesuit brothers, the European world comes crashing in upon them in the form of mercenary Rodrigo Mendoza. “Blessed” with the skills to capture the Guarani to sell to slave traders, he is a man of both competence and violence. A man of passion and of honour. A man who is twice betrayed, by fiance and brother. Pain and suffering are always the consequences of betrayal, but it is our subsequent attitudes and behaviours that then dictate whether that betrayal defines us, or whether we instead choose Grace. Mendoza’s reaction is violence (he kills his brother) followed by guilt and withdrawal from the world.
Gabriel comes and offers a way out of the prison of guilt and remorse that Mendoza has locked himself in. And isn’t this always the way? Some of our worst sufferings come from self imposed punishments, from our own guilt, from our own wallowing. The Betrayal by brother and lover were ‘unforgiveable’, and yet they could have been forgiven. Instead of offering forgiveness and Grace, Mendoza offered rage, violence and stony indifference and from that caused his own greatest suffering.
That even a man of violence such as Mendoza understands to an extent the ideas of Penance and Redemption is testament to their power over our lives. But he still doesn’t really understand true redemption. Because he still thinks that he can “buy back” what he lost through his own efforts, via his own penance. And what a penance! A perfect picture of our own lives of anger, hatred, violence, mistakes and selfishness. A man dragging everything that once made him what he was up a cliff. All the tools of his mercenary trade, the armour and swords, wrapped up in a net and dragged behind him on his journey beyond the falls, through water, mud and jungle and up the sheer cliff by the falls themselves. It’s painful to watch. I’m with father John (an early appearance by a youthful Liam Neeson) when he repeatedly begs Gabriel to end the penance. I’m with him when he attempts to end it himself by cutting the rope. And here is Rodrigo’s answer, because he is not yet ready to accept the Grace John is offering – he once more ties the load and starts to carry it again.
When Grace comes, we are rarely ready for it. And sometimes we stare at its face angrily and pick up our old life and burdens where we left off. It’s easier for us that way, because at least we are doing something about our past; we are the ones doing the penance; we are the ones in control; we are buying ourselves back. But of course there is our error, because even with such a terrible penance, even with every ounce of our strength and resources, nothing can meet the price required, nothing except true Grace. Undeserved, un-called for, sometimes unwanted, often rejected, always present and waiting. And when Mendoza meets true Grace from the men of the Guarani – who cut the burden from him and throw it down into the water
Rodrigo’s life is changed by the love, acceptance and Grace of the Guarani – who seem to understand God’s Kingdom more than I ever will. And here’s where once more the short lived mercy of man steps in – Greed drives the western powers to betray both the tribesmen and the Jesuits and armed forces are sent to clear the missions of opposition. The reaction to this betrayal of our two protagonists, Gabriel and Rodrigo, is one that reflects a grand conflict in the disciples of Jesus to this day. Rodrigo it seems still reacts to betrayal with violence, although it is on behalf of the people who have shown him love and Grace. His violent response, in defence of the weak from the strong, in prevention of injustice, in defence of his very ideals is one that is still attractive and defended by many Christians today. And looking at Gabriel’s response in contrast – a response to pray, worship and celebrate the sacraments seems to our eyes to be weakness, seems to be doing nothing. When comparing the two men, I’m simply reminded of Paul’s words to the Corinthians in his letter to them.
“The Message that points to Christ on the Cross seems like sheer silliness to those hellbent on destruction, but for those on the way of salvation it makes perfect sense. This is the way God works, and most powerfully as it turns out. It’s written,
I’ll turn conventional wisdom on its head,
I’ll expose so-called experts as crackpots.” 1 Corinthians 1:18 & 19 – The Message
So yes, Gabriel’s response feels counter-intuitive. It looks like a failure. It seems like cowardice. But it’s the only response that someone whose soul is filled with Grace can give. It’s the unexpected response. It’s the undeserving response. It’s the only truly loving response. It’s the response of a follower of the Prince of Peace.