Scorsese, Silence, and the Parable of the Sower

“Father’, said the Lord of Chikugo, ‘you and the other missionaries do not seem to know Japan.’

 ‘And you, honourable magistrate,’ answered the Priest, ‘you do not seem to know Christianity.’
Silence, page166 (Shusaku Endo)

imgres-1Written by Shusaku Endo and adapted for the screen by Martin Scorsese, Silence tells the story of two 17th century Jesuit Priests (Father Rodrigues and Francisco) who travel to Japan to address rumors of the continued persecution of Japanese Christians, and to find a missing member of their priesthood (Father Ferriera), who is thought to have apostatized in the face of growing pressure from the Japanese leaders.

For Father Rodrigues (played with honest conviction by Andrew Garfield in one of the best performances of his career), the journey is also intensely personal, a point made clear in his insistence that Ferriera is worth saving and deserved of God’s forgiveness. Ferriera, as we discover, was his mentor during the earlier years of his priesthood, and as Rodrigues eventually encounters the persecuted reality of the Japanese Christians first hand, it is the truth of his mentor’s apostasy that ends up having the biggest impact on the struggle that ensues.

Having recently finished the book and having watched the film, I find myself humbled and hurting over the depth of Rodrigues’ personal struggle. This is likely a testimony to the powerful narrative, a work of historical-fiction that Endo crafts with a deep sense of literary creativity and care, and that Scorsese adapts with a great deal of passion and respect. The story is harrowing and heartbreaking to watch unfold and has much to say about the struggle many of us face in finding (and holding) faith in the midst of a broken world.

Finding Silence in The Gospel of Mark
Representing a sort of symbiotic relationship, it was through spending some time in the fourth chapter of The Gospel of Mark this past week that I was finally able to make some sense of the struggle that Silence brings to the surface. At the same time, recalling Silence helped me navigate one of Mark’s more difficult passages, The Parable of the Sower (Mark 4:1-20), with a bit more clarity.

The Shared Questions
In an immediate sense, it is worth noting that both the parable and the film work in patterns of 3- In Silence the narrative unfolds through a series of three (potential) martyrdoms that frames the theme of forgiveness around the metaphor of Peter’s denial and the betrayal of Judas. Likewise, The Parable of the Sower is the first of 3 successive stories (4:1-34) that use the metaphor of the sower and the seed to call the reader to consider the notion of God’s forgiveness in light of the good seed/bad seed (insiders/outsiders) narrative.

With this in mind, here are 3 distinct questions that emerged for me as I considered the way these patterns used their successive metaphors to explore the theme of God’s forgiveness; questions that helped me to wrestle with my own faith with a greater degree of freedom and grace:

  • The question of evangelism- How does a Gospel remain universally true and yet culturally specific?
  • The question of mercy- Where does mercy begin and where does it end in God’s saving work
  • The question of Forgiveness- How do we offer forgiveness to others when we cannot forgive ourselves.
  1. The question of Evangelism- How does a Gospel remain universally true and yet culturally specific?
    The story of Rodrigues and his journey to Japan begins in a rather simple place; an outward journey born of a concern for his mentor and a desire to encourage the persecuted Christians abroad. But it is the act of actually stepping out of the boat and onto foreign soil that narrows us in on the more challenging part of Rodrigues story- learning to come to terms with his own need of saving and encouragement.The moment he steps out of the boat he is forced to reconcile the harsh reality of the visible persecution with the fact that the (preconceived) enemy is now given a face, a story and a context. In the book, the line between the good guys and the bad guys quickly becomes blurred, and Scorsese does a wonderful job in rendering this emotional development visually, carefully allowing the story to unfold without demonizing the persecuters or glorifying the martyrs. 

    The second struggle that emerges for Rodrigues is his ability to recognize the Gospel in its cross-cultural context. There exists a certain disconnect between his understanding of the Christian story (in its Western context) and the faith that he now finds expressed in the life of the Japanese converts. There is a developing question in the narrative- what happens if the Christian converts were never worshipping the true son at all, but rather a symbol of the “sun”? Does this mean they are dying for nothing? Or worse, does this mean they are dying for Rodrigues himself? Later, when Father Rodrigues finally finds his mentor, discovering that he has adopted the life of the Japanese culture, the encounter leaves him wrought with an unexpected burden of confusion, anguish and turmoil. He is left struggling to understand the once simple nature of God’s forgiveness in a circumstance that feels far from simple.

    Recognizing the Contrast
    There is a contrast between what Rodrigues expects when he departs and what he experiences in his arrival. As he steps off the boat, he faces an immediate contrast between these two things, and it causes him to question- How does a Gospel remain universally true and yet culturally specific? And if it cannot be both, how then does he know if he is seeing the truth?In the Parable of the Sower the question comes in this way- if God’s mercy is true, why do some see and others don’t? And if there is a right way of seeing, how can we know we are seeing the right way? These were troubling questions for Mark’s original audience, and for careful readers, they are questions Mark has been bringing to the surface in his first 3 chapters.

    Just like Rodrigues, the people in Mark’s Gospel seem to prefer the simple nature of where the mission begins, in our places of comfort and familiarity, in the temple sharing theology with like-minded believers. Where they face resistance and turmoil is in the call to step off the boat, to enter into the messiness of the faith journey… to eat at the table with the sick and the sinners (Mark 2:13-17). And yet this is precisely where we find Jesus heading, and it is the Way in which He is calling us to follow- straight into the mess. Jesus seems to understand that His Way is bound to raise some tension, some questions, and so he offers a parable, a 3-part story intended to help us make some sense of how God’s mercy and forgiveness works in the midst of the mess.

    The three layers of the Sower
    – The Parable of the Sower
    – The Parable of the Grower
    – The Parable of the Mustard Seed

    The First Layer- The Parable of the Sower
    The first layer- The Parable of the Sower- tells of a farmer whom we find out scattering seed in the field. In the story of the farmer we encounter three (that number keeps reoccurring) categories of seed that is being scattered- the seed on the path, the seed on the rock, and the seed in the thorns- that are intended to define the “outsider”, the one who does not know (see or hear) the “secret of the kingdom of God”. All three categories are intended to paint a picture of the kind of faith that falls away in the face of hardship and persecution, a faith, as the passage says, that is not rooted in much at all.

    Of the single category we are given to define the insider, this seed is simply described as the “good soil”. This is the seed that takes “root” and is able to stand against hardship and persecution, the seed that sees the secret.

    When faith is defined as “good” and “bad” seed, it becomes natural to presuppose the sort of insider/outsider language we find in this passage. It is a struggle that Father Rodrigues personifies when he begins to questions the faith of the Japanese Christians. Are they actually worshipping “true” Christianity if they continue to worship the “sun”? Can they be counted among the good seed, the insiders, and where does he draw this line?

    For Rodrigues, when he stepped in the boat the answers were simple. You either worshiped Jesus or you didn’t. You were either good seed or you were bad. In stepping out of the boat he encounters a Gospel that feels much harder to categorize. Similarly, in stepping off the boat to become “fishers of men”, the disciples encounter a Gospel in which those who see and those who don’t increasingly becomes less obvious as the narrative moves forward.

    When we begin from these places of comfort and familiarity, it becomes easy to judge everyone else around us, to place responsibility for being counted among the bad seed on the shoulders of the unfaithful, and to give due credit to those who are counted among the good. But it is when we step out of the boat into the unfamiliar and unexpected places that our faith calls us towards, that this sort of judgment becomes much more difficult.

    imgresAs Father Rodrigues encounters the first of three eventual martyrdoms, the death of the faithful Japanese villagers, he begins to recognize this tension. imagesHe is forced to wrestle

    with God’s silence in the face of a Gospel that appears to have become culturally bound and messy. And it is from the picture of this martyrdom that we find him being pushed towards the second question, the question of where God’s mercy begins and ends in the midst of the silence and the mess.

  2. The Question of Mercy- Where does mercy begin and where does it end in God’s saving work
    The journey continues for Father Rodrigues as we find him now separated from his partner and struggling through the fury of emotions- sadness. anger, doubt, fear, hope- that comes from feeling helpless and alone.How often does the journey of faith feel this way, spinning our wheels and feeling like we are not getting any farther ahead, wrestling with God over why such suffering and unbelief in our world continues to persist.

    The second Martydom- Father Francisco
    In the second of three potential martyrdoms, Rodrigues is forced to watch his partner from a distance as he is captured and forced to face an ultimatum- If he truly believes in the idea of a merciful God, he can choose to extend this mercy himself. Simply apostasize and the innocent Christians will be saved. Where God is silent, he can choose to act. After all, if God is truly present and merciful, surely He can forgive such apostasy. Refuse to apostasize and watch as three more Japanese converts drown in the sea.This was one of the most difficult scenes for me to watch on-screen. It is a truly heartbreaking moment, one in which we find Rodrigues helplessly pleading for his partner to apostasize, apostasize, apostasize, as he watches him choose to throw his body into the water and drown with the three converts.

    Back in the comfort of the temple, the answer to such apostasy would have arrived with a fair degree of certainty. Apostasy? That is unforgiveable. But in the face of such great uncertainty, the line between where God’s mercy and forgiveness begins and ends gets blurred. Apostasize? Surely God would understand and forgive such a difficult decision. And yet more death, more silence follows. And the larger the silence grows, the more it pushes the personal struggle of Father Rodrigues to surface. He begins to wonder, if there is no fruit to be found in Japan, no mercy to be seen in the suffering, could it be that even he shouldn’t be counted as an insider?

    When we are left unsure of who to blame for this unbelief, for the messiness of it all (as Rodrigues wonders- is it the fault of the Japanese, the people, or God Himself), this outward tension, the need to make sense of who belongs and who doesn’t belong in the Kingdom of God, it often ends up simply pointing us back towards ourselves. This is the real journey that Rodrigues discovers, the one that forces him to come to terms with his own feelings of failure and his own persisting doubts.

    The Peter and Judas Metaphor
    Behind the story of Peter and Judas we find the question of God’s mercy. Why does God seem to forgive Peter but turn his back on Judas? Rodrigues’ finds himself at a loss to understand or explain God’s silence. For the Japanese Christians, their death and suffering persists. For his captors, the fact that the seed remains buried in the swamp (Japan) after all these years testifies that God is certainly not the merciful God Rodrigues claims Him to be.

    As I write this, the sheer weight of these scenes, the sheer power of these questions, is welling up inside of me. It is a haunting struggle to watch unfold, a picture of the struggle that faith can become when we step out of the boat.

    The Second Layer- The Parable of the Growing Seed
    In a surface reading of The Parable of the Sower, we are the seed and it is the fruit (of producing a crop) that declares us to be good or bad (on the inside our the outside of God’s mercy).

    The second layer is intended to clarify the first (in which we find Jesus persisting, saying “Don’t you understand?” Well then, let me try and say it another way!), and in the parable of the growing seed, the “bad seed” are never mentioned. We find only a single man.

    Here the kingdom of God is like a “man who scatters seed on the ground” and simply watches it grow.

    Whereas the emphasis in the previous story was on what we can see and what we can know (the fruit, or the work), here the emphasis is placed on what we cannot see, what we cannot know. In this story we are the man who scatters the seed. We are the questioner, the doubter, the seeker in the story; the one who “does not know how” it grows, only that it does.

    In one sense, the second layer of this metaphor is not entirely comforting or assuring. It arrives as a sort of non-answer, leaving us with even more questions than we had before. And yet there is great comfort to be found in being freed from the weight of responsibility that comes with having to know who is in and who is out based on our production of fruit. Here we are reminded that God’s mercy is not ours to control, we are simply called to “scatter” it freely and without discretion. Here the declaration is that God’s mercy simply exists, even when we can’t always recognize it, even if we don’t always know how it works.

  1. The question of Forgiveness- How do we offer forgiveness to others when we cannot forgive ourselves.
    Where we finally arrive in Silence is in the eye of the storm. We find Rodrigues alone in his pain and lost in God’s apparent absence. As I have said about much of the film, it is a heart-wrenching process to watch unfold. Yet it is also incredibly revealing. Faith is a struggle we are intended to wrestle with. Stepping out of the boat is never easy.In the third potential apostasy, the same question of mercy presented to his partner is finally handed over to Rodrigues. After being brought face to face with his old mentor, he now must apostasize or watch the Japanese converts die in front of him. He must take on the responsibility of God’s mercy in His absence or bear the weight of God’s silence on his own shoulders.Rodrigues apostasises, and in the process relegates God further into the shadow of the darkness and the silence. He now finds himself completely alone in a foreign land having committed the same unforgivable sin that he had been so determined to forgive Ferriera for.Here is the truth- it is much easier to extend forgiveness than to accept it for ourselves. What begins as a journey to extend God’s forgiveness and grace to his mentor, now requires him to extend this same mercy to himself.

    The third layer- “Parable of the Mustard Seed.
    “Again”, Jesus declares. It’s as if to say “You still don’t get it? Then let me try to say this one more time”.

    This time the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, the smallest of seeds that grows into something larger than we could have imagined.

    If the second parable reminded us that growing the seed is not our responsibility, that the scope of God’s mercy is not ours to control (or even to fully understand), this parable pushes this thought even further. Here our role as the grower is relegated further to the background, now describing the seed, which symbolizes faith in God’s mercy and forgiveness, as something so small that it is almost impossible to see, let alone imagine how it could grow.

    Having arrived at this final layer, I took a moment to step back and contrast it with where I began in the parable of the sower. In doing so I uncovered an important point in the passage that I managed to miss on my first time around. It is a statement that explains why Jesus speaks in parables, and why Jesus doesn’t simply give us more concrete answers when it comes to being on the inside of His kingdom:

    “But to those on the outside everything is said in parables, so that “they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; lest they turn and be forgiven.”

    These words are borrowed from the prophet of Israel, words intended for a persistently unfaithful Israelite people; a people chosen to be insiders but who more often than not resemble outsiders. How striking it is, then, to read in the final words of chapter 4 that those who are apparently counted as “insiders” still don’t get it. In what is a fitting conclusion to this section (4:35-41), we are brought straight into the eye of the storm, set out on the sea of our doubts and our questions and our uncertainties. This is where faith is expected to live and to thrive. And the truth is, the insiders fail. They fall. They neglect to recognize Jesus for who He was in the storm and in the silence that eventually follows (vs. 40-41)

    Who are you God? Where are you God?
    If the insiders in these stories (the story of the Israelites and the story of the disciples) fail to hear, and if the good seed seems to look just like the bad, where does that leave the rest of us?
    In revisiting the parable of the sower, I also found two recurring words in the above passage that brought me back to where the Gospel started- repentance (turn) and forgiveness.

    These were the words that marked the life of John the Baptist and go on to define the ministry of Jesus.

    Lest they turn and be forgiven
    “Lest they turn and be forgiven”.

    Thankfully Jesus persists with telling this parable three times, finding another way to say it, and another way yet. It is so easy to miss this and get caught up in the imagery of the good and bad seed in a way that limits the scope of God’s mercy in order to avoid the messiness of the faith journey-the reason we resist God’s mercy, the reason we miss God’s forgiveness is because, just like Father Rodrigues, accepting God’s mercy in our lives, seeing our own need for God’s forgiveness first is always the much tougher process. We don’t see “lest we turn”. Another way to say this- we don’t see because it requires us to turn and face ourselves in the mirror.

    Re-thinking the Metaphor of the Good and the Bad Seed
    In a faith that is defined by good and bad seed, insiders and outsiders, the most important truth is that God’s grace persists in ways that are greater than we could ever imagine; even in ways that sometimes, or more often than not if we admit it, we cannot fully know or see in the silence. The real message of the parable of the sower, the real story of Silence, is that God’s mercy is even extended to us.

    “Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce crop.”
    -Mark 4:20
    Here, at the end of the parable of the sower, we are reminded that it is when we are willing to get out of the boat and enter the mess that God’s mercy, God’s forgiveness, God’s Gospel of Jesus Christ becomes ours to discover- to hear and to accept as true for us. Here we are reminded that it is okay to enter into the mess, to struggle with our doubts and to wrestle with our faith. It’s even okay to fail, as it is in the mess of our own struggle that God’s mercy becomes most clear. And an even greater truth yet- it is here where we also find the most mercy to extend to others; a mercy without limits, without boundaries, and without concern for our own ability to produce. A mercy left to God and God alone, and even sometimes, to the silence.

    There is a hope to be found in the not knowing- a light in the midst of the darkness, a voice to be heard in the silence. But not knowing means we must continually wrestle with what we see and what we don’t. We must continue to be reminded that we are in need of God’s same grace and forgiveness every single day, and that we must use this constant reminder to resist the need to bear the weight of responsibility for the fruit of our labor. Because when we measure the harvest based on our works, when we see ourselves as insiders or outsiders based on what we see and what we know, we will inevitably find ourselves with little grace left to offer ourselves, and even less mercy to afford to others.

Finding God’s Mercy in the Silence
We can rest in the truth that the reason something is secret or hidden, the reason God sometimes feels silent or His mercy feels absent, is so that it can be made known (vs. 21/22). God is not in the business of withholding his mercy, even if the mess makes this mercy hard to see. This wrestling with our faith, thankfully, begins with a willingness to hear, a willingness to step out of the boat, not with fruit or even acceptance. And it ends with the promised harvest, a work and a job that is God’s and God’s alone, the hope of a coming healing and restoration of this world.

We are given glimpses of this hopefulness in Silence. In the final scene of Silence we find his (given) Japanese wife (meant to serve as an eternal reminder of his apostasy) placing the cross of Christ in the now fallen hands of Father Rodrigues. Even before this, in one of the final conversations between Rodrigues and Ferriera that we see on screen, Ferriera accidently lets the words “our God” slip from his mouth. It is a moment that is meant to give us pause, to remind us to continue wrestling with our faith even in the face of such dominating silence.

images-1And in one of the most powerful moments in the film, it is a seemingly insignificant character, one whom has persisted in the sort of “cheap” or silent grace Rodrigues has now come to question, the one whom embodies the symbol of Judas with his continued betrayal of his faith and his Priest, and his persistent need of the forgiveness he believes might still be there to have. It is this insignificant character who brings with him a moment of true clarity, a moment of grace where it is needed the most. In this quiet moment, we find an exhausted Rodrigues kneeling down for the umpteenth time to offer this man forgiveness, a man who refuses to leave him alone and a forgiveness he remains entirely unsure of. And yet this is a man who still sees him as a Father inspite of his given Japanese name, inspite of his apostasy. It is just like all of the times before, only this time it forces him to come to terms with the reality of his own failure, his own personal need of this same grace, mercy, and forgiveness that this Judas character continues to demand from him.

In this moment he gains a small glimpse of Christ, a break in the silence that arrives, perhaps, at just the right time, a reprieve that affords him just enough strength, just enough understanding (vs. 33) to carry forward. And the amazing thing is, in Jesus this small bit of mercy is all that we need.

The Japanese leaders I think were right when they suggested the true battle was occurring in Rodrigues own heart all along, not with the Christian’s worship of the sun, nor with the Japanese government, nor with the failure of the Gospel to take root. The real battle was his willingness to wrestle with his own faith, to see the mercy that God could afford him in his own failure.

The mercy of Christ shows up in the unexpected places. The mercy of Christ shows up when we least expect it, even in the unbearable silence.

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