The Beautiful Truth of Collateral Beauty

In the Gospel reading appointed for Good Friday, Pilate asks Jesus, “What is truth?” He […]

Jeff Hual / 4.17.17

In the Gospel reading appointed for Good Friday, Pilate asks Jesus, “What is truth?” He seems to really want to know. He seems to be searching for an answer to explain this bruised and beaten Jew standing before him and the chaotic scene outside in his courtyard. And the truth is what we come to church seeking each Good Friday. With Pilate we ask, “What is truth?” We show up before God on the day commemorating Christ’s death for us, asking such questions as, Why was this necessary? Why did God have to die for us? Why would God die for us? Perhaps, even, why does it matter that God would die for us?

We walk into our respective churches each year seeking the truth, and we need to know that the answer is available and that the answer is true. And that’s kind of funny given the overall climate today, in which people are arguing over fake news and the relativity of truth. Is truth really something relative? Can there be alternate truths? Can God’s truth be relative?

Jesus said that we will know the truth, and that the truth will set us free (Jn 8:32). Any truth that has the power to set us free is not the kind of truth in which the world deals. It’s a deeper truth, because this truth is God’s truth. The difference is that the world tends to deal in what are called propositional truths. But God in Christ is not dealing in propositional truths. Through Christ, God is dealing with humanity in relational truths. For God so loved the world…and to love is to be in relationship. To love the world is to seek loving relationship with the world, and Pilate doesn’t get it, Pilate can’t, because he is not in this relationship.

The truth of the matter, the relational truth of it, is all tied up in one seminal, eternal moment. But before we get to the answer, we really have to consider the need for an answer. Before we get to the cure, we have to diagnose the problem, and we need to do so, not in cold theological terms, but in relational terms, terms that can reach us.

A recent movie entitled Collateral Beauty goes straight to the heart of the matter, diagnosing the human condition. The movie begins with Will Smith portraying an advertising executive named Howard, a guru in his field, who is addressing his associates. Howard asks the question that is most likely at the heart of our burning questions today:

What is your why? Why did you even get out of the bed this morning? Why did you eat what you ate? Why did you wear what you wore? Why did you come here? We’re here to connect, so how are we supposed to do that?

Love, time, death. These three abstractions connect every single human being on earth, everything that we covet, everything that we fear not having, everything that we ultimately end up buying, is because, at the end of the day, we long for love, we wish we had more time, and we fear death. Love, time, death. Let’s begin there.

I don’t know if the writer of these words is a Christian, but I can think of no better description of the human condition. In the absence of Christ, humanity is forever trapped in an insoluble situation. We live always with the fear of death; we can’t do a single thing to gain more time; and real love can be ephemeral, elusive. So we go to church on Good Friday seeking an answer to our insoluble problem, one that rings true, and brings comfort into our situation.

And the movie ends up being the same sort of desperate search, because just after Howard’s speech, it picks up three years later, a year after Howard’s six-year-old daughter has died. She died of a rare form of cancer, and his love for her, and the cutting off of their time together by death, crushes him completely. It crushes him so completely that he slips from sanity, and he begins mailing letters to love, time, and death. The letters are full of his anger, his hopelessness, and his need to find a truth to hold on to. That’s when the movie takes its supernatural turn, because that’s when Love, Time, and Death, in the form of three actual people, walk out of the letters and into Howard’s life.

And, in a sense, that’s our answer in Christ. That’s what God has done for us in the form of his suffering servant. Through Christ, God stepped into our everyday human lives and demonstrated a love that is beyond all measure; he responded to our limited time with the answer of his eternity; and he forever defeated death to give us life. Those three universal human elements are what’s on display in the seminal and eternal moment contained in the Good Friday Gospel account, that moment when Christ has nearly reached the end of his passion. He is at this point broken, battered, blistered and bruised beyond recognition. He’s the suffering servant foretold by the prophet Isaiah. He drinks the sponge full of wine, then he speaks.

And what Jesus says in that moment, in the Greek, is actually just one word, “Tetalesti,” which means “It is finished.” More importantly, that’s a word from commerce, more accurately meaning, “It is now paid in full.” And so, we must ask, what? What is finished? What is paid in full? What is the truth that is within our grasp?

What is finished is death, and it is replaced with eternity. What is paid in full is the price for humanity’s sins, our sins, that brought death to the world in the first place. All of this comes to us as a result of God’s eternal, unflinching, unshakeable love for us. We need no longer fear death or wish we had more time, for all of this is paid in full out of God’s love for us.

Later in the movie, Love appears to Howard and says, “Do you remember me?”

Howard replies, “Listen, all that fabric-of-life stuff, save that for someone else…”

And Love answers, “It’s not just stuff, Howard. I know you don’t believe me, but you have to trust me…”

He yells back, “Trust you? I did trust you, and you betrayed me! I saw you every day in her eyes, and I heard you in her voice when she laughed, and I felt you inside of me every time she called me daddy, and you betrayed me! You broke my heart!”

And then Love gives Howard the answer of answers, “No, I’m in all of it. I am the darkness and the light. I’m the sunshine and the storm. Yes, you’re right, I was there, in her laugh, but I’m also here now, in your pain. I’m the reason for everything!”

What finally shakes Howard loose and brings him back to sanity is this conversation with Love. Not Death, not Time…but Love. Death couldn’t scare him; Time couldn’t cajole him. Only Love could reach him, and it did. This is why God’s answer begins with love, because God is love.

And that’s why the very moment of Christ’s death is the apex of God’s relational truth: for God so loved the world that he gave us back our eternity, and he did so by dying for us.  That’s love. That’s real love. Tetalesti! It is finished! It is paid in full!