Digging in Deeper: Matthew 18:21-22

“Then Peter approached him and asked, ‘Lord, how many times must I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? As many as seven times?’ ‘I tell you, not as many as seven,’ Jesus replied, ‘but seventy times seven.'” (CSB – Read the chapter)

One of the things I love about being a parent is that I can occasionally convince my kids to watch movies that I enjoyed watching when I was growing up. It often serves as a nice dip into the pool of nostalgia. It also occasionally leaves me wondering what on earth my parents were thinking letting me watch some things…or at least how many things I watched they didn’t know about to stop me. My middle son recently watched through the entire Toby Maguire Spider-Man movies directed by Sam Rami. That trilogy of films, more than just about any others, helped to launch the modern superhero genre. Watching them again, they were all just as good as I remembered. More than that, though, watching them again was a reminder of just how Gospel-soaked they were. Join me in a quick trip down memory lane as we talk about how.

I’ve said before that all of our stories are ultimately rooted in the Gospel. We can’t help it. The Gospel beats at the center of all of our chests. The sense that the world isn’t as it always was, nor as it will always be is part of the collective memory of humanity. We just can’t shake the hope that comes from that. We are constantly on the lookout for a savior of some kind. We long to be reminded that we can overcome our weaknesses and insufficiencies to do more than we previously thought possible. But we know we can’t do this on our own as we are now. We have to have power added to us to supplement ours. There are a variety of ways this could be added to us, but we need it all the same if we are going to reach our fullest potential.

All of this longing and desire is something the superhero genre was created to satisfy. And satisfy it does. It satisfies and inspires so much that it is a multi-billion-dollar industry. As much as superhero stories reflect our need to do and become more than we can do right now, they also reflect where the culture is at any given moment. Just look at the way the stories of the various Marvel Cinematic Universe films have changed over the 15 years since the first Iron Man movie was released.

The original three Spider-Man movies with Toby Maguire came out in a season that was more culturally conservative and when Christianity was still fairly widely respected as a religious movement. But while big business (specifically Oscorp) was indisputably the villain throughout the trilogy, the number of clear references to Gospel concepts shocked me.

In the first movie, after Norman Osborn who becomes Spider-Man’s archnemesis, the Green Goblin, figures out that Peter Parker is Spider-Man and decides to go after his family because of it, his first target is Aunt May. The scene shifts to May perched on her knees at her bedside reciting the Lord’s Prayer. Osborn as the Green Goblin – clearly portraying a demonic figure – attacks right at the moment she gets to the part about delivering us from evil. Goblin demands that she finishes the line, but right as she says, “Evil,” he screams, “Me!”

More than that simple scene, though, the whole first film is about Peter’s getting his heart and mind wrapped around Uncle Ben’s famous admonition (which, reflecting the culture of today, they actually gave to Aunt May as she lay dying in the latest Spider-Man movie) that “with great power comes great responsibility.” That idea resonates strongly with the Gospel. We who are in Christ have access to the incredible power of God through the Holy Spirit who dwells in us. That power, however, brings with it the equally incredible responsibility to advance the Gospel through word and deed into the hearts and minds of the people around us. Even more generally than that, when we have been given a gift by God, it is always intended for us to steward in such a way that others can benefit from it as well. God’s first concern is always for the other. His love is meant to flow through us and not merely into us.

The second movie (which is still generally recognized as one of the best superhero movies of all time), is all about Peter’s coming to grips with his powers and learning to trust himself. That doesn’t square very much with the Gospel, I’ll grant you, but the idea that we have to be honest with ourselves both in terms of our strengths and our weaknesses lies at the heart of biblical humility, and that is pretty fundamental for our accepting the Gospel. As Peter struggles with the choices he has had to make as Spider-Man in order to protect the people he loves, he falls into a spiral of self-doubt. Ultimately, it is when he embraces the truth that he begins to climb out of it. He has to stop lying to the people he loves and instead walk in the truth with them. Only then is he able to become more fully who he has been called to be.

It is the third installment, though, that shines the brightest with Gospel hues. The two main villains in the film are Sandman and Venom. Sandman is created right near the beginning of the movie, and unlike the original source material, is written in as the petty crook who murdered Uncle Ben in the first movie. Venom doesn’t show up until the beginning of the third act when Eddie Brock, an aspiring photojournalist who has been in a constant competition with Peter throughout the first two acts, but has no real moral compass to speak of and is willing to lie, cheat, and steal to get ahead, is exposed to the alien symbiote as Peter is severing his connection with it. It is his jealousy of Peter and his insistence that the real problem is the world around him rather than the brokenness in him that makes him such a perfect (and deadly) match for the symbiote.

The real theme of the entire film, though, is one of redemption, grace, and forgiveness. First, and with Aunt May’s insistence, Peter has to learn to forgive the Sandman for killing Uncle Ben. He is able to do this at last when he learns more of the man’s story. He was just trying to steal some money to help pay for a life-saving surgery for his daughter. He never wanted or meant to hurt anyone. He was terrified and nervous and in the process of carjacking Uncle Ben, when Ben was trying to call him to become a better version of himself (just like he did for Peter), he accidentally pulled the trigger on him.

Second, Peter has to reconcile his relationship with Harry Osborn, the son of Norman Osborn, the Green Goblin, who died in the first film. Harry wrongly believes Spider-Man killed his father. He uses the same serum that created the Green Goblin on himself in his quest for revenge. Spider-Man while possessed by the Venom symbiote savagely defeats him in battle, leaving him nearly dead. After some wise counsel from the long-time family butler, though, Harry finally embraces the truth about his father, forgives Peter, and plays a critical role in the third act.

Third, Peter has to be reconciled with Mary Jane. The two of them are at odds when Peter, again while possessed by the Venom symbiote, becomes overly prideful about all the fame and recognition Spider-Man has received and leans into that just as Mary Jane’s career has hit a painful wall. He pushes her away and doubles down on it before finally coming to his senses. Once Peter rejects the bitterness, anger, and hatred brought out in him by the symbiote, he returns humbly to seek her forgiveness.

The story offers a picture of the Gospel in a nutshell. It is when we are willing to reject the sin and brokenness in us, and humbly receive the grace of our heavenly Father in Christ that we are able to move forward from out of all of that into the life He has waiting to give us. We live this life in part by making sure we are keeping our relationships with the people around us reconciled and right. As Jesus was trying to help a different Peter understand in these verses from Matthew’s Gospel, refusing to forgive brings the poison of bitterness to our lives. That is a deadly poison indeed that will ruin our lives and the lives of the people around us if we don’t address it and root it out just as quickly as it tries to appear.

It’s always fascinating to me when and where the Gospel pops up in the stories we tell. This trip down memory lane was a great reminder that it can be manifest with surprising clarity in the most unexpected places. We just have to be on the lookout. And when we find it, we do well to point it out to the people around us. Go find somewhere to watch these three great movies again sometime soon. It’ll be worth your time. Then, pay close attention to where you can find the Gospel in the stories we are telling today.

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