Notes from the underground

Texts: John 3:1-19 (being born from above) * Matthew 17:1-9 (the Transfiguration) * “Parasite,” 2019 movie

How many people here today have seen the South Korean movie Parasite? Last month, it became the first non-English language movie to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. It has won other awards and has earned $300 million at the box office.

Parasite tells the story of a poor South Korean family – two twenty-something children and their parents — who use deception and radical ingenuity to become the employees of a rich family. I thought the movie was funny, over-the-top, and intense. It is a broad social satire that uses an implausible plot to reveal some of the craziness and violence of our class-divided and rapidly changing world.

In offering this reflection, my hope is not to spoil the movie for those of you who have not seen it, but to examine how its themes might relate to the those of the two Gospel readings we just heard.

But before I say more, let us now watch the trailer from the movie . . .

Both of today’s Gospel readings, have themes of up and down, and light and dark. The reading from Matthew is set at the beginning of the journey of Jesus and his disciples from Galilee to Jerusalem. Jesus and three of his friends climb a high mountain where Jesus is transfigured into a figure of shining light; and where they encounter two prominent figures from the stories of their distant ancestors: Moses and Elijah.

But Lent and Easter don’t take place in the heights. Jesus, Peter, James and John descend the mountain and walk the valley roads that lead them to Jerusalem.

Why the gospels include this mountain-top experience at the beginning of the journey to Jerusalem is a matter for debate. To me, it underlines the idea that Lent is not about spiritual highs. Instead it is about the toil, pain, and troubles of life, which can end in what looks like tragedy, but which Easter shows us can also lead to the birth of the Risen Christ within us.

In today’s other Gospel reading from John, Nicodemus, an important Jewish leader in Jerusalem, comes to Jesus at night to question him. Jesus offers Nicodemus the puzzling metaphor that if he wants to enter God’s realm, he must be born from above, or born of the Spirit. Like the story of the Transfiguration, this story contrasts spirit from above with the hunger and need of Nicodemus that comes to Jesus in the night. Both short passages refer to height and depth, and light and dark.

In the movie Parasite, the mansion of the rich family is a vision of light to which the family members ascend. In contrast, the basement apartment of the poor family is reached by a ludicrously long descent. At a key moment of the movie, the city of Seoul is inundated by a great flood and the poor family’s apartment is destroyed.

The movie suggests that reality is better grasped by those who live in the depths. The light-filled mansion includes a hidden bunker, which the original owner had built in case of an attack by North Korea, but which he didn’t reveal to the rich family who bought his house. Knowledge of the bunker is reserved for the poor servants.

The bunker could symbolize both fear of war and the repression of such fears. The rich family’s ignorance of the bunker reminds me of how so much of our lives are driven by foolish fears, which we often shunt into our unconscious.

At various moments, some of the servants who live in the depths of poverty and oppression emerge from either the bunker or their lower-class neighbourhood to disturb the dreams of the rich family.

The title of the movie is a puzzle. Who is a parasite? It could be the poor family which fraudulently worms its way into the paid service of the rich family. Or it could be the rich family whose life of wealth is founded on the exploitation of the poor.

Conflict between rich and poor is another point of connection between the movie and the stories in the gospels. Jesus and his friends are poor peasants. The Jewish religious leaders with whom they clash after they arrive in Jerusalem and the Roman rulers who arrest and execute Jesus are a wealthy elite who could be seen as parasites on the peasantry.

Lent describes a journey from the low-lying area around the Sea of Galilee to the heights of Jerusalem. When their ascent is completed, Jesus and his friends meet violent resistance, which culminates in the execution of Jesus. But from the darkness of his tomb, the light of Easter morning arises.

So, Lent is a story of dark and light, down and up, and death and rebirth; and in many ways, so is the movie Parasite. But so what?

Parasite is not a realistic drama. It is a dark tragicomedy filled with broad metaphors. I chose to reflect on it today because of the awards it has received and because it seems to have captured some of today’s zeitgeist. But does discussion of a movie like this have relevance to our spiritual growth and to the life of the church during the Holy season of Lent? Perhaps not.

On the other hand, one could also ask if the stories of Jesus still have relevance. The gospels are not realistic dramas. They too can be seen as dark tragicomedies filled with broad metaphors. I choose to reflect on them during Lent, as during the rest of the year, because of the arc of spiritual struggle, growth, and rebirth that they sketch and because they are foundational to Christianity.

This is not to say that I believe salvation comes only from Jesus. Nor do I think the books of the Bible are the only sources of spiritual truth. Nevertheless, in the stories of the life, ministry, death, and rebirth of Jesus I find endless inspiration for life in a community of faith like this one. I am glad we have these stories, just as I am glad there are other sources of inspiration.

When a movie like Parasite obtains prominence in the culture, I believe it can be useful to see if its themes can help us reflect on our path. I am glad to have seen Parasite and that its striking images remind me of our buried fears; of the painful contrast between the lives of poor people and the unconscious lives of the rich; and of the violence that sometimes breaks out in the tension between rich and poor.

In church, we gather to reflect on our concerns and those of the neighbourhood in the light of tradition. We can also find inspiration in movies, books, and other cultural works. As with the gospels, the latter provide fodder for our thinking, our faith formation, and our questions about how to live up to our sacred values as followers of Jesus.

The journey of Lent reminds me of the yin and yang between spiritual heights and soulful depths; of birth from above that can flow from tragic defeat; and of the vicissitudes and joys of life together as we try to grow as individuals and a community in circumstances not of our own choosing.

In a world filled with parasites and in lives lived shaped by the realities of poverty and wealth, we spend time in Lent imagining that we are walking with Jesus to Jerusalem. Along the way, we join with others who, like us, have been shaped by life in bunkers and basements and by repressed fears.

As we stumble in joy along the paths of Lent, may we do so with confidence that out of bunkers and tombs can arise not just incomprehension or conflict, but a rebirth of spirit that brings us and this weary world a little closer to the Love that is our source.

May it be so.