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The Gospel According to Andy DuFresne 
By Dr. Todd B. Jones

OCTOBER 9, 2011

Relationships That Give Life:
The Gospel According to Andy Dufresne
2 Corinthians 8:1-7
Acts 20:31-35

In 1994, a movie was made based on a short novel by Stephen King called The Shawshank Redemption. It was immensely popular when it came out that year, but over the years its impact and following have only continued to grow. The main character in the story is portrayed masterfully by Tim Robbins, who plays the part of Andy Dufresne, whose wife is murdered along with the golf pro at his country club. Dufresne is accused and convicted of the double murder, though he steadfastly maintains that he is innocent of the crime. Andy is sentenced to life imprisonment in a horrible prison named Shawshank, which is a hell-on-earth when he arrives to serve his time. At the heart of the story is the friendship that develops between Andy and Ellis Boyd Redding, or Red, played by Morgan Freeman, who serves as well as the movie's narrator. It is as beautiful a picture of friendship as you can ever hope to find between these two men serving life sentences. When Andy arrived at Shawshank, he was clearly different. Red said, "I could see why some boys took him for snobby. He had a quiet way about him. A walk and a talk that just wasn't normal around here. He strolled like a man in the park without a care or a worry in the world, like he had on an invisible coat that would shield him from this place. Yeah, I think it would be fair to say I liked Andy from the start."

Shawshank prison is a jungle, and it is hard to tell who is more evil: the worst of the inmates or the people who run the prison. In Romans 12 Paul says, "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." Shawshank Redemption is all about how Andy Dufresne seeks to do this. One of the ways Andy begins to transform Shawshank is through offering his own considerable financial acumen to prison officials, doing their taxes and laundering money so the warden can use Shawshank for his own selfish gain. Andy points out to Red once, "I was honest on the outside. It is only in prison that I learned to become a crook."

Andy uses these favors he offers, though, to transform the prison, to make it a more humane place. He trades his favors mostly for things, small things that improve the lives of his friends and fellow inmates at Shawshank. Andy is beaten, he is abused, he is treated cruelly and unjustly from the start, but he refuses to be overcome by evil, and he refuses to allow Shawshank to break his spirit.

One day the men were given the job of tarring the roof of the license plate factory one hot summer week. Andy had done many favors now for Captain Hadley, one of the meanest, most brutal of the prison guards. Andy arranged for all the guards and men to be given a cold beer to enjoy when that back-breaking job nears completion. Red said, "And that's how it came to pass that on the second last day of the job, the convict crew that tarred the plate factory in the spring of '49 wound up sitting in a row at 10 o'clock in the morning drinking ice cold Bohemia-style beer, courtesy of the hardest screw that ever walked a turn at Shawshank State Prison." Hadley said, "Drink up while its cold, ladies." Red said, "The colossal jerk even managed to sound magnanimous. We sat and drank with the sun on our shoulders and felt like free men. Heck, we could have been tarring the roof of one of our own houses. We were the lords of all creation. As for Andy, he spent that break hunkered down in the shade, a strange little smile on his face, watching us drink his beer."

His friend Heywood said, "Hey, want a cold one, Andy?" "No thanks, I gave up drinking," he said. Red says, "You could argue he'd done it to curry favor with the guards or maybe make a few among us cons. Me? I think he just did it to feel normal again, if only for a short while." In point of fact, it is an act of pure, unselfish generosity on Andy's part. It is a magnanimous gesture, a simple act of giving that Andy does to bless the lives of both guards and inmates alike, and that he never touches a drop himself makes the act even more beautiful.

Andy spends most of his energy and ingenuity transforming the prison library into "one of the best prison libraries in New England." A dozen inmates use that library to gain their high school diplomas. In one of my all-time favorite movie scenes, Heywood, Floyd and Red are helping Andy file and catalogue the shipment of books Andy has gotten for Shawshank. Heywood looks at a volume and reads, Count of Monte Crisco. Floyd says, "It's Cristo, you idiot." Heywood reads, "By Alexandree Dumm-ass." Andy corrects him: "Dumas." "You know what that's about? It's about a prison break." Red says, "We ought to file it under educational, too, oughtn't we?"

But maybe one of the most beautiful scenes in the movie happens one day when Andy locks himself inside the room that holds Shawshank's P.A. system and puts on a record from a Mozart opera for everyone in the prison to hear. Red says, "I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about. Truth is, I don't want to know. Some things are best left unsaid. I like to think they were singing about something so beautiful it can't be expressed in words and makes your heart ache because of it. I tell you, those voices soared higher and farther than anybody in a gray place dares to dream. It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made those walls dissolve away. And for the brightest of moments, every last man in Shawshank felt free." 

Andy was beaten and spent a month in darkness and solitary confinement for his act, but it was one of sheer generosity, a gift Andy gave to every last prisoner in Shawshank. When Red asks Andy how he survived, Andy tells Red he kept the music inside him, "so you don't forget that there are places in the world that aren't made out of stone. That there's something inside that they can't get to, that they can't touch."

So Andy escapes Shawshank one rainy night in 1966, nineteen years after he enters. He crawls five hundred yards through a sewage pipe to freedom. He hides some money beside a wall so Red can join him in Mexico when finally he is granted parole. It is the final act of generosity by a man who keeps his soul alive and well in the midst of a hell-on-earth by one act of generosity after another. Andy spends nineteen years of his life serving time for a crime he did not commit, though he grieves his own part in the death of his marriage. "I didn't pull the trigger," he told Red, "but I drove her away. That's why she died. Because of me, the way I am." But Andy doesn't stay that way. He changes. He learns to give. He becomes a true friend, which is all about giving yourself to another. Andy's redemption at Shawshank comes from learning that life is all about giving, about generosity. Actually Dufresne is free long before he ever escapes from Shawshank prison.

In the Book of Acts, a word comes to us from Paul, which offers the only words of Jesus that come to us from outside the four gospels. Paul is saying farewell to the Elders in Ephesus, having spent three years among them building up the church in their midst. It is a beautiful moment that Luke, the author of Acts, remembers for us. And in his farewell, Paul shares a saying from Jesus that never appears in Matthew, Mark, Luke or John. It is almost as if Luke is saying, "The gospel isn't complete without this word!" Jesus' word, of course, is this: "It is more blessed to give than to receive." Andy Dufresne knows the truth of Jesus' words. Do you?

Generosity, giving, is what love is all about, dear friends. Without generosity, you never learn to be free. Parenting is all about giving, and giving, and then, giving some more. You give and you give so your children can grow up and leave you, and pass the blessing on to another generation. It is the beauty of parenting, but nothing in the world will ever be more costly to you. To do it well costs you your life.

It is what marriage is all about, too. Without giving, acts of sacrifice, giving of all that you have to give, marriage turns into a sentence. With generosity, marriage becomes a feast, the most exquisite joy in all the world. And it is the basis of any friendship worth having.

Friends, true friends, are always willing to give. It is what gives them joy. Saint Francis knew this. In his prayer he says it: "For it is in giving that we receive." "We make a living by what we get," said Churchill, "but we make a life by what we give."

And on this Stewardship Sunday, when I am expected to give "The Sermon on the Amount," let me remind you that it is giving, generosity of soul and spirit, that makes a church. Without generosity, churches only play at following Jesus. Without giving, without real generosity of spirit, all our talk about following Jesus is finally pretty empty. As the old bumper sticker puts it, "Tithe if you love Jesus. Any fool can honk!"

Andy Dufresne put it so well to Red: "I guess it comes down to a simple choice. Get busy living or get busy dying." What will it be for you? "It is more blessed to give than to receive." It might be the most important word Jesus ever uttered.

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