A Living Parable
A Sermon by Revd Dr Sam Wells
Readings for this Service: Galatians 5: 1, 13-25
The world is captivated by freedom; and never more so than when that freedom seems in jeopardy. Three years ago Donald Trump claimed the American presidency by telling a story that American ‘greatness’ had been stolen by politically correct élites and racial, ethnic and religious others. The same year the Brexit campaign won the day by lamenting that British sovereignty had been stolen by European bureaucrats and manipulated by profiteering citizens of nowhere. We were made for freedom, so the story goes, but are constantly in danger of being enslaved.
At Christmas 1989, as Eastern Europe began to unravel, and just after the death of President Ceaușescu, a BBC journalist toured Romania searching for someone who spoke English well enough to be interviewed. Finally he found a woman who, in twelve words, expressed not just the mood of the time but the whole human condition: ‘We have freedom, but we don’t know what to do with it.’
When Paul is writing to the church in Galatia, in the centre of modern Turkey, 15 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, he’s dealing with the same question. How are we to keep our freedom and not simply lapse into another kind of slavery? He gives examples of the kinds of obsessions people commonly fall into: alcohol, sexual desire, envy, personal enmity, indulgent escapism, rivalry and ambition. What these all have in common is that they begin, seem and even feel like good and free things but end up consuming us. Paul wants us to be truly free.
The 2009 film My Sister’s Keeper, also a 2004 book by Jodi Picoult, is a modern parable. It tells how easy it is to fall into slavery and where freedom can be found. Sara and Brian have two children, Kate and Jesse. Their daughter Kate develops leukaemia aged 4. Her parents are told the only hope is for them to conceive by in vitro fertilization a sister for Kate who can donate organs, blood, and tissue to keep her alive. When Kate is 15 her kidneys fail and the time has come for eleven-year-old Anna to donate one of her vital organs. But to her parents’ horror, Anna refuses. When her parents express dismay, and she realises her mother will go ahead and force her to have her kidney removed against her will, Anna hires a lawyer and asserts her rights to her own body on the grounds of ‘medical emancipation.’ Her mother Sara, who is herself a lawyer, is dismayed by Anna’s selfishness and bewildered that her fanatical efforts over the previous eleven years to keep Kate alive are set to be thwarted. But her husband Brian can see that they’ve spent the last eleven years using Anna like a garage mechanic uses an old car, for body parts and fuel to help her sister, to the point that Anna’s future life will be curtailed. Sooner or later there has to be a limit. Anna is not just a means toward her sister’s survival. She has to be allowed to live her own life.
As story reaches an impasse one wonders how a family where mother and daughter are taking each other to court can possibly function in a caring way, and how young Anna can maintain a loving relationship with her dying sister when she’s made clear she’s not prepared to do the one thing that can keep her sister alive. All the tensions in the family boil over when the dying Kate asks to clear out of the hospital and go to the beach one last time. It’s a statement that she knows her life is over and she wants to be with her family to create one last memory. But her mother Sara is having none of it. Still determined to work for recovery, Sara loses all control and rails against the idea, to the point where Brian threatens her with divorce if she won’t be part of this last family outing. Later that day Sara sees sense and comes to join in the expedition. The family have the kind of slow-motion perfect day at the beach that only Californian nuclear families have in the movies.
But the momentous day in court nonetheless comes, and Sara gets to cross-examine her own daughter Anna at the witness stand about why Anna won’t give up a kidney to save her sister’s life. Anna’s answers ring increasingly hollow; there’s no question her mother is turning into a harridan, but she has a point – why wouldn’t you constrict your own life to save your beloved sister? Anna’s refusal does seem to be uncharacteristically and inexplicably selfish. Finally Jesse, the silent, suffering presence in the story, stands up in the courtroom and demands that his young sister finally tell the truth. And the transformative truth that no one, not campaigning mother or sympathetic father or gripped audience is ready to hear, but that all three children already know, is this: refusing the operation was not Anna’s wish; it was Kate’s. Kate has been trying to tell her mother that she’d realised it was time to die, but her mother couldn’t hear it. So the only way was to persuade Anna to refuse to give up her kidney on contrived grounds and so bring about a crisis in which her mother would finally get the message. At last seeing reason Sara, finally at peace with both her daughters, leaves the courtroom and lies down in the hospital bed beside Kate, who dies later the same day.
The story is a study in the contrast between being with and working for. Sara’s passionate commitment to the necessity of working for Kate obliterates any understanding of her dying child’s best interests. She’s unable to be with Kate except at the beach, when she’s faced the experience of losing her whole family, and in Kate’s dying moments, when Sara has finally realised that she doesn’t even have Kate’s support in her passionate campaign. Sara meanwhile loses all ability to be with her family, as she becomes enslaved to the cause of saving Kate. Eleven-year-old Anna does work for her sister Kate, by lying and saying she has no desire to donate her kidney and even suing her parents. But Anna’s working for is fundamentally grounded in her deep and lifelong being with Kate, and is only entered into reluctantly and as a last resort. You can even see Anna’s working for Kate as a drastic way of enabling the whole family to be with each other, because the only way for the family to be with one another is for Sara to cease her obsessive pursuit of Kate’s recovery and simply enjoy the time they have left together. Brian spends the whole story trying to be with both his wife Sara and with his daughter Anna. The attempt tears him apart. Jesse feels powerless to work for either of them and ends up being able to be with no one, until finally in desperation he makes the crucial intervention that tells the truth about Anna and forces Sara to face the truth about Kate and so enables the family to be with one another for just those last few hours – but crucially, enables the surviving members of the family to be with one another into the future without bitterness or resentment.
The paradox at the heart of the story is that the lawyer’s passionate pursuit of freedom ironically imprisons herself and her family, instrumentalises and thus enslaves her younger daughter, and deprives her elder daughter of the one thing that by the end of the story she really wants, making her a slave to now-pointless medical treatment. The way the story works as a parable is that it shows how easy it is in particular to subject relationships to the tyranny of causes, and more generally to make the passionate pursuit of freedom itself a form of slavery. What makes the story particularly satisfying is that a daughter suing her mother seems like the most ghastly abandonment of family relationships and surrendering of love to law, but it turns out that only in the law court does the loving truth emerge: it’s not that selfish Anna is making Kate suffer and die out of a narcissistic desire to live a materially free and acquisitive life of her own; it’s that loving Anna is laying down her life and jeopardising all her most precious relationships so that Kate can exercise her choice to end pointless treatment. The story begins with Sara and Brian instrumentalising Anna to seek body parts for Kate; but the story ends with Kate instrumentalising Anna to make Sara see sense. Everyone uses Anna.
And that brings us back to Galatians. Sara is the embodiment of what Paul is warning the Galatians about. She becomes consumed by envy, rivalry, competitiveness, anger, strife, jealousy, quarrels, dissensions, factions. What she’s doing she’s doing for apparently the noblest of reasons – she’s giving up her job, imperilling her relationships and devoting her whole life to the cause of saving her daughter. But it imprisons her, enslaves her elder daughter, instrumentalises her younger daughter and alienates her whole family.
Meanwhile Anna is the embodiment of everything Paul is commending. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. And she’s only eleven years old. The point Paul is making is this. Forget for a moment the analysis of the complexity of My Sister’s Keeper, and the way it’s a parable for our times: just ask yourself, which character in the story represents anger, strife, quarrels, factions, and which represents patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness. To use a term not found in the original Greek, Paul says it’s a no-brainer.
And now take that contrast and apply it to tensions and confrontations in your own close relationships, in politics today, in the Church of England right now, in social activism, in public debate, in all the issues that matter in our lives. Who’s being Sara, totally sure they’re right, and in the end fostering division and strife and factions that quickly imprison others and enslave themselves? And who’s being Anna, embodying peace, patience, faithfulness and gentleness, and taking the consequences of others’ petulance with generosity, kindness and self-control? And which one are you?
And this is where we realise Galatians isn’t about a tiny church in the middle of Asia Minor 2000 years ago. And My Sister’s Keeper isn’t simply about the pathologies of middle-class America. They’re both about Jesus. The forces that put Jesus to death were envy, strife, faction, anger; the perpetrators were not bad people, they were like Sara – consumed by passions and convictions that enslaved them and those around them. In the face of those enslaving forces, Jesus responded, like Anna, with love, joy, peace, kindness. And like Anna he paid the price of the one who showed and lived the truth.
Freedom isn’t a perfect, unassailable state we attain after passionate campaigning and wilful struggle. It’s an experience we can attain right now by living, like Jesus, in the face of enslaving temptations, with patience, gentleness and generosity. Then we may call our lives, and the life of this church, a parable for our times.