An Unexpected Journey
Yesterday evening Marion and I watched The Hobbit : An Unexpected Journey, based on the first part of Tolkien’s 1937 fantasy classic The Hobbit. This was my first experience watching a movie in 3D, and I found The Hobbit impressive in every respect. As someone who doesn’t go to a lot of movies, I was struck by how cinematographic technology has made it possible to create an alternate reality so powerful that it completely overwhelms your senses.
Yet for me, no matter how technically impressive it may be, a movie is only truly satisfying if it says something important. The Hobbit satisfies on that count too. This morning, while lying half-awake in bed, images and thoughts from The Hobbit were chasing themselves through my head. I sensed a blog post coming on, so I asked the Lord for clarity, and gradually found myself mulling over two significant and inter-related themes. Others may find other messages in this story, but for me these are the ones that stood out.
First there is the character of Bilbo Baggins himself. He’s an unlikely hero who doesn’t really want any part of the quest to recapture the dwarves’ lost kingdom, around which the story is built. But Gandalf the wizard chooses him intentionally, believing that Bilbo has a crucial role to play. Gandalf sees something in Bilbo that the others on the expedition – including Bilbo himself – seem to have overlooked. The legendary dwarvish warrior Thorin Oakenshield, leader of the expedition, despises Bilbo at first, and writes him off as a no-account who should have stayed home. Yet in the end the surprising Bilbo finds a reserve of courage within himself and saves Thorin’s life in a key battle.
Another significant though understated motif is the destructive effect of the dwarves’ lust for gold and gems. Smaug, the dragon who stole the dwarves’ wealth and their homeland, is an undeniably nasty character. Still, it was the unbridled greed and covetousness of Thorin’s grandfather that attracted Smaug’s attention in the first place, and thus ironically led to the downfall of the dwarves’ kingdom. Ever since, the dwarves have nursed hatred and resentment over their lost riches. Their quest to recover their lost kingdom is fuelled by more than just a desire to return to their homeland. It’s not just their homes that they regret losing, but their treasure troves of gold and jewels.
There is a subtle irony here. In the overarching delineation of good vs. evil that characterizes almost all fantasy literature, the dwarves are clearly among the good guys. They are basically positive characters. Yet their lust for ever more and greater wealth, like some sort of inner cancer gnawing at their hearts, has tainted them with an enduring bitterness over the loss of their mountain of gold. This bitterness has skewed their perspective until they mistrust anyone but themselves, and see even their potential allies – the Elves – as objects of suspicion. Obsessed with their lost wealth, they are so consumed with rage that they are in danger of becoming almost the mirror image of their hated enemy Smaug.
And then there is the Precious. In one of the many misadventures that characterize Tolkien’s tale, Bilbo stumbles upon Gollum, anti-hero of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Gollum has somehow found the One Ring of Power, an occult object that later turns out to be the key to a new attempt at world domination by the forces of darkness. The ring has taken possession of Gollum’s soul and transformed him into a despicable yet pitiful character. He is obsessed with the ring and calls it his Precious. Bilbo finds the ring, not realizing its significance. The ring helps him escape, but those who know the plot line of Lord of the Rings will remember that years later, Bilbo’s nephew Frodo would need to sacrifice the ring of power to save the world. So the theme of the One Ring, though largely undeveloped in this first installment of The Hobbit series, could be seen as a sub-theme of the “greed and lust for power” motif.
For those who are still with me, I want to shift gears now and talk a bit about why these themes stood out for me.
Jesus has been reminding me these last few months about the things that have true and enduring value. On one occasion Jesus compared the Kingdom of God to buried treasure. This treasure is so valuable, said Jesus, that if you find it, you should sell everything you own to buy it. He also compared the Kingdom of God to a merchant in search of fine pearls who found a single pearl of such great worth that he sold everything he had to buy this one pearl. As well, he said that the way to true life is narrow and few find it, while the road to destruction is broad and many take it.
The pearl of great price and the buried treasure are one and the same. The pearl is Jesus himself, the crucified one who bore our sins and who is coming to reign. He is the rightful king of our lives and of the whole universe. Jesus was king even while he was dying for our sins, and he is still king now while seated at his Father’s right hand in the heavens, but at present Jesus is king in a hidden way. Most people don’t realize that Jesus is the rightful king of the whole earth. Right now it looks to most people as though little or nothing is under Jesus’ control. That’s because Jesus is above all a merciful king. In his mercy and his patience he has chosen to delay the inevitable Day of Reckoning. He is waiting to see who will come to repentance – who will put their trust and their hope in Him. He is waiting for his enemies to be made his footstool. But Jesus has promised that one day the waiting will be over. Soon He will return in power and glory to rule the earth openly and restore all things.
God’s Kingdom is much more valuable than gold or jewels or power or any of the other things people chase in this world, but most people are blind to what is really worth investing their lives in. That’s why most people take the broad and easy road that leads to destruction. Even if they’re not consumed with greed like Smaug, most people want to live their own life their own way. They don’t really want to live life Jesus’ way, because that means giving up control, laying down their right to call the shots, run their own careers, set their own course, choose their own path. Jesus’ invitation is open to anyone – anyone may come on this journey – but it means surrendering our pride, our independence and what we think of as our security. Most people don’t want to do that. Yet ironically, the only truly secure place to be is with Jesus.
Jesus isn’t the only treasure in God’s kingdom. Another way to think of the parables of the Pearl and the Hidden Treasure is that Jesus is the one searching for treasure and looking for fine pearls. Every time he finds someone whose heart is hungry for reality, He says “That one’s mine! That’s my treasure, the one I gave my life for”. And so Jesus, the Pearl of Great Price, is himself on a treasure hunt. The treasure he seeks consists of all those who will put their hope in him – the unlikely heroes, like Bilbo, who aren’t impressed with themselves but are impressed with Jesus and are willing to walk with him through the adventures of life, no matter where he leads. They are willing to do this because He has promised them a homeland, an eternal city that is coming to earth.
All of this may sound horribly old-fashioned, but it’s as true today as when Jesus and the apostles first spoke these things. If we get sidetracked by the lust for wealth, power, control and security, then like the dwarves, we will become embittered and unfruitful as our hearts get burdened down with cares that we were never meant to carry. But when we surrender our independence, invest our hearts in Jesus and decide to follow where He leads, then like Bilbo we are transformed little by little until to our own surprise we become heroes in God’s army.
An unexpected journey? Not a bad name for the walk of a disciple of Jesus. It’s a journey down a road that not everyone wants to walk, but a journey that is more than worth the cost. All that we surrender – all that we have to lose – is our independence, our pride, our so-called security, and all the illusions that we have about ourselves. But Jesus has no illusions about us. He knows our potential. He knows what needs to die in us so that we can embrace this journey, and what we can become as we walk with Him. Down this road lies true treasure – not the fleeting pleasure of worldly wealth and power that will fade and vanish like a mist, but the lasting satisfaction of a love relationship with the One who made the universe, the promise that He will always provide for us and lead us, and the sure knowledge that one day He will rule the whole earth, and we will reign with him. That’s the homeland we are looking for, that’s the king we are eager to serve, that’s the treasure that we seek, that’s the life that is worth living – the life that is truly life.