The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

I have to confess that occasionally (when I am not listening to Kinship Christian Radio) I do enjoy a good Western. 


Now, there are lots of Westerns out there, but nothing beats a good “Spaghetti Western.” (So called because most had an Italian director either with dialogue in Italian or dubbed into Italian. Most were filmed in Spain, generally during the mid-1960’s.) 


In my humble opinion, the pinnacle of all Spaghetti Westerns was “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” filmed in 1966 and starring Clint Eastwood as The Good, Lee Van Cleef as The Bad, and Eli Wallach as The Ugly.


The cinematography is brilliant, the music (especially the theme song) is inspired, and the acting (especially by Eastwood) is superb. The plot is convoluted and twisted, but the ending makes up for it all. It is the quintessential epitome of its genre.


It’s no secret that any good story has to have a good guy and a bad guy. In fancy-schmansy writing classes we call these “the protagonist” and “the antagonist.” But you knew that, didn’t you? The cool thing about this particular movie is that it goes one step further. In addition to a good guy and a bad guy, we have an ugly guy. And, by ugly, I mean evil. 


It’s one thing to be bad. It’s an entirely different thing to be evil.


And that brings me to a story Jesus told. Charles Dickens once said The Parable of the Prodigal Son was the greatest short story ever told. It’s in Luke 15:11-13 and almost any Christian can tell you what happens. 


The younger son, who convinces his father to let him have his inheritance before he should have it, runs off and blows it all on bad booze and worse women. Clearly, he’s the bad guy.


But eventually the younger son comes to his senses and repents. He decides to go back to his father and beg him to take him back as a slave, but his father is waiting with open arms and immediately takes him back into the family, restores all of his rights and privileges, and throws him a huge party.


Of all the good guys in all the stories ever, the father in this parable is not just good, he’s fantastic. He’s the ultimate good guy. 


But the story doesn’t end there. No, the prodigal son had an older brother who never did anything wrong, and now that older brother isn’t just mad that dear-old dad has taken the bad son back, he’s downright ugly about it. 


The older brother refuses to go into the party, loudly complaining that he never once did anything wrong ever, yet pops never once threw any kind of a party for him at all, “Yet when this son of yours comes back after squandering your money on prostitutes, you celebrate by killing the fattened calf!” (Luke 15:30 NLT)


Can’t you just see the older brother stomping his foot and shouting with a pointed finger, “Yet when this son of yours…”?


See, what has happened here in this story by Jesus is that the bad guy (the younger brother) changed and wanted to become a good guy. His father, the really good guy, was more than happy to help him do that. So, now we have a story with two good guys and no bad guys at all until the ugly older brother enters the scene. 


The older brother is ugly because he trying to throw a bucket of cold water on the grace of the father. He’s hurt because someone is getting something he doesn’t deserve–something he wants. He didn’t know he wanted it until the younger brother got it, but he sure wants it now. He wants the younger brother to go back to being the bad guy so he can be the good guy, but in order for that to happen, the father would have to cancel the love he has already offered the younger brother. That’s the ugly and evil part of the story.


In order to try and get what he wants, the older brother points the finger and attempts to demonize the younger brother.


..this son of yours comes back after squandering your money on prostitutes


And, as I look at the news in our nation over the past week, it occurs to me we have become a nation of older brothers. 


There’s a whole bunch of people on one side of the political fence who are convinced that all the people on the other side of the political fence are not just wrong, they are evil. Those “other people” are demons. Meanwhile, the people on the “other” side of the political fence who believe exactly the same thing about the demons on their “other”  side of the political fence.


Now, just to make sure I am not misunderstood here, let me be absolutely clear. There are people out on the far edges of both political parties who believe evil things. White supremacy and racism are wrong. Marxism and anarchism are wrong. Both ideologies are dangerous, ugly, evil things.


But the number of people who believe those things are a tiny, tiny fraction of our entire population. We all intuitively know that. I don’t know anyone or associate with anyone in either of those political camps. You probably don’t either.


And yet, it seems our nation is operating under the premise that these groups are much, much larger than they really are. Both sides seem to act like the other side is a lot more ugly than they really are.


What’s happening is that, just like the Spaghetti Western, the story is a lot more interesting and people are far more likely to pay attention if your story has a good guy and a bad guy. In fact, if your story ends up with everybody in it being good and reasonable and willing to listen to reason, the people who write stories think that’s kind of boring. And, the people who write stories find that they tend to get what they want when those stories can demonize someone other than them.


In addition, the very few people who do hold those ugly ideologies have found that years of demonizing the other side does slowly draw more people and more support for their cause. 


Meanwhile, in the midst of all of this, our real enemies are sitting far out of the fray enjoying a concept they discovered long, long ago. It’s called, “playing both ends against the middle” and it consists of egging on both sides of the spectrum so that, eventually, everyone but them is destroyed.


A great Spaghetti Western builds tension and drama and conflict all throughout the movie so that it ends in a really cool gunfight with all the bad and ugly guys lying dead in the dust and the good guy riding off into the sunset at the end. But, while that makes a great movie, it does not make a great country. And that’s why a Spaghetti Western is a guilty pleasure. We enjoy seeing the conflict and we actually enjoy seeing the evil guy die. But no one wants anyone to die or even to be injured in real life. No one in their right mind believes violence is the correct answer to conflict.


And yet, we are routinely violent with our words, especially on social media. I see gunfights on social media almost every day as people try to assassinate each other, not with firearms, but with words.


But what would happen if love and mercy and grace stepped into the scene>> before any guns were drawn?


The difference between The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and The Parable of the Prodigal Son is that, in Jesus’ story, everybody wins. The older brother may have his feelings hurt because his father corrected him, but if he listens to his father, he has the opportunity to join the party and rejoice that his own flesh and blood is alive and well and restored!


The only loser in Jesus’ story is the real enemy or our souls, the devil.


And that’s as it should be.


Today’s Praise

“His father said to him, ‘Look, dear son, you have always stayed by me, and everything I have is yours. We had to celebrate this happy day. For your brother was dead and has come back to life! He was lost, but now he is found.” Luke 15:31 (NLT)

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