Win with the Hand You’re Dealt

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This Sunday’s readings made me think of the Paul Newman movie, “Cool Hand Luke.” It’s the story of an anti-establishment hero sentenced to two years in a hard-labor camp for chopping the heads off parking meters. Throughout the film, the director seems to equate this symbol of heroic stances with Jesus as he fights against “The Man’s” laws.

Egghead academics have been turning this movie into a parable for our times since it came out in 1966. I remember being introduced to it in a high school religion class in 1973. It was taught by an equally anti-establishment type, trying to make a connection between the film’s seemingly Christian symbolism and apparently gospel truths. Such scholars note how this anti-establishment loner even recruited followers like Jesus did. One “scholarly” paper on this film states:

[Luke] was trying to lead these men away from sin. Jesus often tells his disciples that they no longer have to follow the Mosaic Law.  In the film, when the rules are being laid down for the inmates, “The Man” accuses Luke of not listening (“What we have here is failure to communicate.”) 

But if this egghead thesis writer had sourced the book of Matthew (Chapter 5), he would have discovered what Jesus was really telling us:

“I have come not to abolish but to fulfill [the law of the prophets]. Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law, until all things have taken place.

Where Jesus IS like Cool Hand Luke is his Poker-like strategy to keep raising the stakes of this game of life. Jesus continues through Matthew:

You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say, offer no resistance to one who is evil.  You have heard it said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you. … So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Cool Hand Luke’s anti-hero was hardly perfect, but toward the movie’s end he attempts a confession—more for self-justification than redemption.

“I know I’m a pretty evil fella, but even so, you gotta admit, you ain’t dealt me no cards in a long time. It’s beginning to look like you got things fixed so I can’t never win out. Inside, outside, all those rules and regulations of those bosses. You made me like I am. … What do you got in mind for me? I’m on my knees asking.

Hearing nothing, he says,

“Yeah, that’s what I thought.”

Like us, this character was spending so much time talking about himself he wasn’t listening for God’s answer. In this Sunday’s first reading (1 Kgs 19:9a, 11-13a) the prophet Elijah teaches us how to listen while praying amidst our world’s mightiest distractions (winds, earthquakes and fires included):

After the fire there was a tiny whispering sound. When he heard this, Elijah hid his face in his cloak and went and stood at the entrance of the cave [on Mount Horeb].

Paul hears what God tells him in his prayers, too, and the answer (as Sunday’s second reading indicates, Rom 9:1-5) is self-sacrifice so that others can hear the voice of God through him.

Amazing. And like Jesus in Sunday’s gospel reading (Mt 14:22-33), Cool Hand Luke did amazing things in front of witnesses too—making him seem capable of walking on water. But those miracles died with this Luke. Sunday’s gospel extends Christ’s showiest miracle to us through Peter, who prays,

“Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”

Moments of doubt can make us feel like sinking as we imitate Peter in voicing this prayer, but the courage to listen for God while praying can result in the extension of a pretty cool hand.

–Tom Andel

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