In college I took a Short Stories class to meet an English requirement, and after about half a semester in the class, I approached the professor asking if she would give us a few stories to read that actually had happy endings. It seemed that almost everything we were assigned was dark and depressing, and personally, I like to feel good after immersing myself in literature. Well, we watched a movie the other day based on a play that would have fit right into this class. It was an abridged version of Arthur Miller’s play, Death of a Salesman. Josh had mentioned that he loved the play after being exposed to it in high school, and so I decided to surprise him for Christmas. Now this was a sad story that I approved of (I’m sure Arthur Miller would be glad to hear that).
If you don’t know, Death of a Salesman tells the story of Willy Loman, a 60-year-old washed-up salesman who has blown just about everything in life. The story is a recounting of his life and failures. In short, Loman is a man without substance – a salesman on a short fuse who is not about making sales but about having contacts, always longing to be “well-liked” and to have sons who are well-liked too. He dreams of the numbers of people who will one day come to his funeral, testifying to his beloved status. And at the heart of the story is a Boston mistress and a motel on his sales route, where Willy heartbreakingly fails everyone in his life, and forever drives a wedge in the relationship with his son Biff.
Viewing Willy Loman’s life is…uncomfortable, for through his skillful and subtle writing, Arthur Miller points his narrative finger at the failure in all of us. In fact I think that whereas we are tempted to ask the question at the end of the story, “Am I Willy Loman?” the better question is, “Where am I Willy Loman?”
I think this is the heart of the challenge that Jesus offers his disciples in Matthew chapter 5, the first third of the Sermon on the Mount. The Lord wants us to see what so many never do see, that we have failed God in almost every way. Adultery and murder may seem like unreachable sins to many, but Jesus brings them right down to shelf level where we can all partake:
But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
– Matthew 5:28 (ESV)
You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment;
– Matthew 5:21-22 (ESV)
It’s easy to look down on the Willy Lomans among us, but Jesus says that none of us will get to heaven if we don’t have a righteousness that surpasses the scribes and Pharisees. (Verse 20) And who, pray tell, could ever be that righteous? And then, of course, we can’t forget the impossibly high standard that closes this chapter, the standard that neither Willy nor anyone else will ever meet: “Therefore, you must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Matthew 5:48 (ESV)
Maybe our first step, therefore, is to recognize that, indeed, we are, all of us, Willy Loman, and in light of that truth, begin following the Lord as He points us to another way of righteousness.