Monday, September 20, 2010

Seven Pounds -- playing God, assuaging guilt

Director: Gabriele Muccino, 2008. (PG-13)

I like Will Smith. That alone kept me watching when the first act failed to engage me despite its introduction. Seven Pounds certainly starts strong. But it frustrated me by not explaining what is happening, leaving me confused and losing interest.

The opening scene teasingly intrigues. Smith is on the phone, looking pained. "There's been a suicide," he tells the 911 operator. "Who's the victim." Smith replies, "I am." This certainly grabs our attention. But then the film takes too long to elaborate the plot.

Ben Thomas (Smith) is an IRS agent with a secret and a mission. He also has a long list of people that he is winnowing down, with the help of his friend and lawyer (Barry Pepper). But they are not just recipients of upcoming audits. There is something more. He wants just seven.

Why seven? There is an earlier reference to God, when Thomas says, "In seven days, God created the world." Seven points to perfection or completeness. As well as the days of creation, there are seven miracles highlighted in the gospel of John, seven "I am" sayings in that same gospel, seven seals and seven trumpet judgments in Revelation. When Jesus hung on the cross, he uttered his "seven words." And, of course, the amount of forgiveness we are instructed to offer those who offend us is seventy times seven (Matt. 18:22) -- complete forgiveness.

Seven Pounds Publicity StillThomas adds to the explanation in a voice-over, "In seven days, God created the world. And in seven seconds, I shattered mine." Seven becomes the critical number in the film.

Why seven pounds? This comes from an allusion to Shakespeare's famous comedy, "The Merchant of Venice." When Antonio, the titular merchant, fails on a debt, Shylock, the Jewish money-lender, demands his pound of flesh. He wants Antonio's heart. Seven Pounds uses this thematically.

As Thomas begins his quest, he tells his lawyer, "It is within my power to drastically change his circumstances, but I don't want to give that man a gift he doesn't deserve."  But who is to say what a person deserves? Then, when one on the list voices the obvious question, "You know, Ben, I keep asking you this but why me?" Thomas responds, "Because you are a good man." This is his reason.

This raises the issue, how can Thomas play God? He wants to find seven good men, but what are his criteria? Are they appropriate ones? We often try to do this ourselves. Not necessarily speaking like this, yet we look at others and judge. We usually do this to raise ourselves in our or others' eyes: self-promotion by putting others down. But we and Thomas cannot play judge. We do not have the qualifications: the wisdom and knowledge. Neither do we have the objectivity and lack of bias needed.

Seven Pounds Publicity StillMoreover, the Bible looks at humankind from God's perspective. It is not a pretty sight. All have turned away from God and are considered broken and damaged (Rom. 3:12). None are good in the sense that God desires (Rom. 3:10). There may be relative levels of goodness, but that begs the question of how we determine the basic level. No, our nature has been affected by the fall and we are not good until we receive a new nature through Christ (2 Cor. 5:17). "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3:23).

As Thomas moves through his list, radically transforming the lives of total strangers, one impacts him deeply: Emily (Rosario Dawson). She is young and beautiful despite suffering from congenital heart disease. As he comes into her life, we can predict their attraction. Indeed, his ability to solve all her problems, from the broken antique to the weed-filled garden, in just a few days is totally unrealistic.

Seven Pounds Publicity StillWhether he is helping Emily or Ezra (Woody Harrelson), another on his list, Thomas is seeking self-redemption. He is looking for forgiveness from a hideous sin. He wants to buy this forgiveness and expunge the guilt that is driving, even consuming, him.

Of course, guilt cannot be assuaged by self-redemption or self-sacrifice. True forgiveness can only come through the sacrifice of Christ (Eph. 1:7). The purpose of Jesus' mission was to carry the sins of humanity and associated guilt onto the cross where he died. Through his death we can find forgiveness (Heb. 9:22). Through his resurrection we can find life (Rom. 6:8-10). We need not try to buy this in our own way. Grace comes freely from God (Eph. 2:8).

Half-way through Seven Pounds the plot becomes clearer. Once that happens the conclusion follows predictably. But we are left with a sentimental vision of sacrifice that helps others. For Jesus followers, it can remind us of the cost of Christ's sacrifice and its value to us today.

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

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