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Foil

30/08/17 - Pastor Young

There is a term used in literature to describe a particular character that contrasts with another character: a "foil". Usually, a foil will either be incredibly different from the character that he or she is contrasting with, or very similar with one or two key differences. Whichever the case, the foil serves to highlight certain qualities about the other character by contrasting so heavily with him or her.  

A modern example of one is Gaston, who serves as a foil to Beast in Beauty and the Beast. He contrasts completely with Beast, who is a man cursed to look like a monster, while the villain Gaston is outwardly a man, but inwardly his evil nature makes him a monster. 

This technique is interesting because of the way it highlights the admirable qualities in one character, but at its best, it can also confront our own biases. The Disney movie does so by subverting our expectations of what a protagonist ought to look like, and thus revealing our tendency to judge by outer appearances. 

This past Sunday, our passage introduced to us a rich man (or "the rich ruler"), who serves as a foil to a man who gets introduced in the following chapter: Zacchaeus. Outwardly, the rich man seems to present himself as beyond reproach -- he attests to keeping the commandments that Jesus mentions. Yet when he is confronted with the one thing that he still lacks by Jesus ("sell everything you have and give to the poor"), he shows that he is unwilling to follow Jesus with all his heart. In fact, the rich man betrays his own tongue by refusing to follow Jesus even after calling him "good teacher". 

Zacchaeus contrasts radically with this rich man. He is a hated tax collector, rather than a rich ruler; not only this, but he is a chief tax collector, especially hated by the Jews because of the way they worked for their oppressors and built wealth through the suffering of others. Yet this tax collector shows that he is willing to part with his wealth, and even to pay back those he cheated fourfold. In doing so, he displays signs of repentance, and wanting to follow Jesus.

As I mentioned earlier, the best use of literary foils often confront us about our own biases. Did you feel anything when you first envisioned Zacchaeus? If you were faced with the man who caused your family misery due to the harsh taxes he imposed upon you on behalf of an oppressive regime, what would you feel at the thought of someone you respected and followed going to be his guest at dinner? 

Perhaps it would be as in Luke 19:7, when the people grumble about Zacchaeus's status as a sinner. Yet this itself is a foil, for it contrasts starkly with the rich ruler, who didn't outwardly display the signs of being a sinner, and perhaps did not even consider himself one. What then would cause him to desire to follow Jesus, and to rid himself of the wealth that hinders him? 

In the identification of Zacchaeus as a sinner, we can look further back to Luke 18:9-14 to see another example of a tax collector who self-identifies as a sinner. In this instance, he is justified before God rather than the Pharisee, as he humbles himself. 

These various characters serve to highlight the fact that Jesus has come to seek and to save the lost. From Luke 15, when Jesus gave the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son, it has become clear that His mission is to call sinners to repentance. He is able to save, and He is powerful and merciful, willing to forgive those who are willing to humble themselves and recognise their status as sinners. Those who are lost can be found, but those who cannot even acknowledge they are lost will never even ask for directions. 

There are a lot of themes at play in these chapters, and so many things that God will highlight to us with each reading. This time around, however, I implore you to read and re-read this section while seeing the lost and broken for who they are -- our brothers and sisters who are in need of salvation; no worse sinners than we are, and dearly loved by God.

Your brother in Christ,

Pastor Young