Louie Zamperini was a Lieutenant in the Army Air Corps in the Second World War, serving as a bombardier when his plane was badly damaged by Japanese anti-aircraft fire. The plane made it back to base but was no longer flight-worthy, so Louie was assigned to another plane and another mission: to search for a lost aircraft and her crew. During the search, the plane developed mechanical difficulties and crashed into the Pacific Ocean, 800 miles from Hawaii, killing 8 men of the 11-member crew.
Louie and two others survived the crash. They spent 47 days at sea, living off collected rainwater and whatever fish or birds they could catch. They fought off sharks and were strafed by Japanese planes and one of the three friends died. When they finally reached land, they were immediately captured by the Japanese and transferred to a prison camp. Later they were sent to another camp, where they were brutally, sadistically tortured.
The Army assumed Lieutenant Zamperini died with the rest of the crew and listed him as KIA. President Roosevelt sent his parents a letter of condolence. Can you imagine how his family felt when they learned he was alive, when he returned home, and they saw him again?
Being lost at sea was not the first time Louie was lost. When he was a teen he was constantly getting into fights and stealing and drinking. One day after a fight with his parents, he told them he was leaving. His parents pleaded with him to stay, but he refused. So his tearful mother made him a sandwich to take with him and his dad gave him $2 which, in the Depression, may have been all the money he had.
Louie hopped a freight train but nearly died in a boxcar after he got locked inside in sweltering heat. When he was discovered, he was run off at gunpoint. With nowhere to go, he sat around the rail yard, dirty, bruised, and wet. There was nothing to eat except a can of beans he’d stolen. While he sat there in misery, a passenger train went by and Louie could see people sitting at tables with tablecloths and crystal stemware, eating and laughing. In that moment, he remembered the sandwich his mother gave him and the money his dad handed him, and he stood up and headed home. He’d experienced repentance.
That is a modern (and true-life) retelling of Jesus’s Parable of the Prodigal Son – or better, The Parable of the Lost Sons, since both sons in the story are lost or, better yet, the Parable of the Loving Father. It is the crown of Jesus’s 37 parables and it powerfully portrays what the God and Father of Jesus is really like.
When Jesus told this masterpiece of a story, he was speaking to people who lived in a society where everyone was assigned a status. Who is you dad? Where do you work? What school did you go to? What is your annual income? What are your assets? How many languages do you speak? What are your religious credentials? Based on these particulars, we are assigning you to the fourth level, E-flight, 64th position. That is who you are.
Of course, people who were assigned to D-flight looked down on those in E-Flight but were looked down upon by people in C-Flight who, in turn, were looked down upon by people in B-Flight, and so on. In fact, looking down on people, especially those who didn’t measure up on the religion scale, was practically a matter of duty. And, since we assume God is like us, it was taken for granted God did the same thing.
Then came Jesus. He not only didn’t look down on people at the lower end of the scale, he got rid of the scale – threw it out. In a society where even little children could distinguish between the reputable and the disreputable, Jesus’s disregard for those distinctions was scandalous. He took people in, while other religious leaders shut them out—and thought they were doing right thing. What accounts for the difference?
The reason Jesus and the religious leaders treated people differently is that they believed radically different things about God. Beliefs have consequences! The Pharisees believed God did not want these people; that he didn’t like them. They thought God considered them to be a kind of infection and so they treated them that way. Jesus believed that God did want these people, that he loved them and considered them to be a kind of treasure. And so he treated them that way.
 Adapted from Laura Hillenbrand, Unbroken (Random House, 2010), pp. 11-15.
I enjoy your column in our Sat. edition of USA Today (Clarion Ledger local paper) You seem to be on same page as us Southern Baptist. Have you read about Father Solanus Casey as a guardian Angel and if you have what do you think about it?
Hi, Ina. I had never heard of Father Casey before but researched him and found him a fascinating character. Thank you for bringing him to my attention. Thanks also for reading the column in the Clarion Ledger. Best to you!