The opening of the Lion King is easily one of the most iconic opening scenes in cinematic history. The imagery and sound is a perfect combination, and it really sets the stage for the movie that comes. The opening of the song is written and sung in Zulu. To most English speakers what is being said is a mystery. That is a good thing, because the actual lyrics are underwhelming. When translated here is the entirety of what is being sung in Zulu at the beginning of A Circle of Life: “Here Comes a Lion, Father-Oh yes it is a lion. Here comes a lion, Father-oh yes it is a lion, a lion. We are going to conquer a lion. A lion and a leopard come to this open place.”
Disney made a good choice because if the lion king started with someone dramatically singing in English, “Here comes a lion” it would not be as memorable or as dramatic of an opening. For a good story to be truly memorable, it has to have great presentation. Opening in Zulu immediately grabs the audience attention, it communicates something exotic. For English speaking audience the opening image of a savannah and the sound of the language we do not know immediately evokes a feeling of being very African. It is all masterful presentation, but that should not a surprise. Disney is an expert at presentation.
It is Disney’s master-level presentation that has made the studio such great storytellers. It is why so many of their films have endured and found new audiences generation after generation. Jesus was also a great story-teller. Jesus drew crowds as a healer, but he must have also drawn crowds because he was so good at telling stories. People came to hear Jesus speak, and when Jesus spoke he told stories. Matthew 13:34 reminds us “Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable.”
The Lion King is one of Disney’s best known and most highly regarded stories. It happens to share common themes and a common message with one of Jesus’ best known stories, that of the Prodigal Son. If we consider the well-known story of an ungrateful son with the soundtrack to the Lion King in the background, perhaps we can see that Jesus describes a different kind of circle of life.
It cannot be understated enough, the Parable of the Prodigal Son is truly masterful storytelling. The story simultaneously embodies the radical love that God has for all people as well as create allegorical characters that the original audience could identify with. If you are not familiar with the story it begins with a son asking his father for his share of the estate. This is not simply asking for money. Typically the only way a family estate is passed own is upon the death of the patriarch. Essentially the younger son is saying, “I am done with you, and I wish you dead, so for all intents and purposes can we just pretend you are.” First century, Jewish culture was patriarchal with a large emphasis on respecting one’s elders. The amount of disrespect shown by the son would have been angering to the first century audience, and it must have been down right shocking to them when Jesus continues to the story and says the father agrees and divides his property.
Unsurprisingly, the son leaves with his money and squanders it all on “wild living.” This leaves him ill-prepared when a famine hits, and desperate for anything the son takes a job feeding pigs. Jesus told this story to a first century Jewish audience, and they would have assumed the son was Jewish. Pigs are not kosher, and even to this day are considered unclean in the Jewish faith. The prodigal son had gotten so close to rock bottom that he was doing the unthinkable for a first century Jew. Not only was he regularly living with unclean animals, he was to the point where he was considering eating the food the pigs eat. At this point, the first century audience probably thought this was going to a morality tale. The son had disrespected his father and he was getting exactly what he deserved. So they were probably shocked at what happened next.
The son comes to his senses and sets out to return to his father to ask forgiveness and seek to serve as a hired servant, but the father welcomes him back as a son with open arms. In fact, as Jesus tells the story the father was actively watching for the son and he ran to meet him. Even though the son had been completely disrespectful, had wished the father dead, the father never gave up his love. Once his son left, the father not only had hope he would one day return. He actively kept a look out for him.
The deeper meaning of this story would not have been lost on the original hearers, and it should not be lost on us either. Jesus told the story of the prodigal son as the third story in a series to illustrate how much God loves it when a sinner repents. Given that it is clear that the father of the story represents God. This story perfectly illustrates just how great God’s love for us. No matter how grievously we sin against God, no matter how much we rebel, no matter how long we have our back turned to our creator, God does not give up on us. God actively looks out for us, and God runs to embrace us when we come back.
The prodigal son paints a powerful image on a God defined by an unrelenting love. However, the story does not stop there. The story continues to the older son, who has been faithful and is now resentful. As a party is going on welcoming the prodigal son home, the older son is sulking in the field angry that mercy and acceptance has been shown to his foolish brother. Those who were following Jesus at this point would have caught on that the older son represented the Pharisees, the religious leaders of the day. Like the older brother the Pharisees elevated fairness not mercy. Like the older brother the Pharisees wanted to heap judgement and condemnation upon those lost in sin instead of rejoicing in celebration because the dead are alive again, and the last are found.
Jesus is a masterful storyteller and this morning’s scripture is a shining example of that. This brings us back to the Lion King though, because it to is a story of a prodigal son. The main character, Simba, also turns his back on his father. Now the circumstances are different, and the Lion King has a more Shakespearean tragedy feel to it, but the results are the same. The son has walked away from the father. In Jesus’ story the prodigal son comes to his senses when he hits rock bottom, but in the Lion King the father has to intervene in a powerful scene. The spirit of Simba’s father visits him and reminds Simba that he is the son of the king. He reminds Simba that by not living up to that he is not honoring his father like he wants to. Simba’s father gives him the charge to “remember who you are.”
Remember who you are. Simba, the prodigal son, and the older son are all guilty of the same failing. All of them forgot who they were. They are the son of their father. None of them were living life to the best life had to offer. Simba had settled for good enough, the prodigal son was lost in sin, and the older son blinded by bitterness. The story of the prodigal son reminds us of God’s great love for us, but it also reveals something about us as well. Because at different times in our lives you, me, we are the prodigals and then there are other times we are the bitter older children.
Throughout our days it seems we tend to go in a circle in life, where we continually lose track of where we should be and need to be reminded of who we are. We can be guilty of forgetting that we are children of God, meant to be in relationship with God. There are times when we are like the prodigal son. We are not obedient to God, we turn away from what we know is right, and we do what we know is wrong. We are selfish, prideful, and unfaithful. We might even delude ourselves that what we are doing is not bad or it is even virtuous as we “discover ourselves” or “live in the moment.” However, if you remember the times you have been down that windy and wrong road you know those are empty lies we tell ourselves.
Then there are times when we are like the older son. We go through the motions of being obedient to the father, but it is just that motions. It is an empty duty full of resentment not a loving relationship. We are quick to see the slights done against us and we are long to hold a grudge. We can fall into horrible ways of thinking where we pay lip-service to mercy, but we do not seem to actually think much of it. Instead of offering love and forgiveness to those in need, we cross are arms and self-righteously declare “God only helps those who help themselves.” We may play the role of the obedient child, but the reality is the fire has cooled and been replaced by far too much bitterness.
When we find ourselves on those extremes, we need to return to our center. We need to remember who we are. We are God’s children. It does not matter what you have done, it does not matter who you have hated, or how bitter you have acted. God still loves you, and if you turn back to God then God will run to meet you where you are at.