I recently watched all the Godfather movies again.
I started with Godfather 2, because it’s the best, then I watched Godfather 1, because it’s even better then best. Then I had a long break where I debated the merits of watching Godfather 3 and then I watched it, because hey, it’s still the Godfather.
Everyone says number 3 is inferior to 1 and 2, and it is. But Godfather 3 is still a good film with some memorable scenes – like the one where Michael confesses his sins.
For those who came in late: Michael Corleone is the Godfather who wants to get out of the crime business. For the sake of his children, he wants to go straight. He sells his casinos. He gives huge sums of money to the Church. He make every effort to become legitimate, but it doesn’t work out because his old friends and enemies won’t let him go.
“Just when I think I’m out, they pull me back in.”
One of the best scenes in the movie is the one where Michael visits Cardinal Lamberto looking for help rescuing a bad business deal.
During their conversation, the Cardinal picks up a stone from a fountain. He notes that the stone is wet on the outside but dry on the inside. Like Christianity in Europe, he says, the water has not penetrated the stone.
Just as the light of the gospel has failed to penetrate Michael’s stony heart.
Suddenly, Michael collapses on a bench.
He’s experiencing diabetic shock and struggling to breathe. Some orange juice is brought out and Michael drinks like a desperate man.
“When I’m under stress sometimes this happens.”
Yet perhaps there is more going on than meets the eye. Maybe Michael is being crushed under the weight of his guilt. The good Cardinal seems to sense this when he says, “The mind suffers…and the body cries out.”
Michael seems to have shrunk inside his clothes. The powerful man has become weak and frail, more a child than a mafia don. The Cardinal seizes the moment.
“Would you like to make your confession?”
Michael is flabbergasted. Confess? What is the point? He is beyond redemption. His sins are too great.
But the Cardinal is not giving up. He realizes this sinner has come to a sacred crossroads.
“I hear you are a practical man. What have you got to lose?”
And so, amongst the flowers and in the privacy of the courtyard, Michael bares his soul.
“I betrayed my wife.”
“Go on, my son.” A church bell tolls.
“I betrayed myself. I killed men.” The church bell tolls again.
“And I ordered men to be killed.”
“Go on, my son, go on.”
There is a long pause. We know there is one more sin to confess. It’s the Big Secret that has been gnawing at Michael for years.
“I killed … I ordered the death of my brother.”
Michael looks down.
“I killed my mother’s son…
“I killed my father’s son!” Michael weeps.
There is no doubt that Michael is the worst of the worst, and he knows it. He is a broken man, undone by his sin.
The Cardinal, towering over the shamed man says this:
“Your sins are terrible, and it is just that you suffer. Your life could be redeemed. But I know you don’t believe that. You will not change.”
The Cardinal’s damning judgment extinguishes any glimmer of hope and leaves Michael hanging over the abyss. Michael remains lost, and it’s all downhill from here.
In the end, it’s bullets and oranges and he loses everything.
But wait. Rewind. Let us consider the Cardinal’s judgment: “You will not change.”
These are faithless and hopeless words from the man of God. How does he know Michael won’t change? Has he not read the story of Saul of Tarsus or Moses the murderer? Has he not himself experienced the transforming power of God’s grace?
It has become a cliché to say that no one is beyond the reach of God’s grace. So how can the Cardinal say that Michael Corleone was beyond redemption?
Michael confessed his sins and instead of getting grace, he got damnation. Instead of hearing the good news of 1 John 1:9 – “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” – he was written off.
It’s as if the Cardinal had said, “To hell with you. You will never change.”
Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but the movie reminded me how important it is to give grace to sinners, because only grace can change us.
We encounter people every day who carry heavy burdens like Michael. They may not be mafia dons, but they are prisoners nonetheless.
If we don’t give them grace, who will?
If we don’t tell them about the unconditional love of God, who will?
To me, the most dangerous man in that scene is not the Godfather but the Cardinal, because he withheld grace from a desperate sinner. Sure, he got Michael to acknowledge his wretched state, but like a doctor withholding medicine, he failed to administer the grace that turns sinners into saints.
How I wish I could have been in the Cardinal’s shoes. This is what I would have said:
God loves you, Michael, more than you love your own kids. You have done wicked things, but while your enemies may hold a grudge, God keeps no record of your wrongs. All your sins were carried by Jesus who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification. On account of his great love, he has forgiven you. Receive his grace. Turn to God and be set free from your prison of sin.
(I would resist the temptation to say something clever like, “Your heavenly Father is making you an offer you can’t refuse.”)
The tragedy of The Godfather is that Michael is never shown grace – at least not by anyone in the church – and consequently he is unable to change. He tries to change, but he remains a prisoner of sin to the bitter end.
Every time he thinks he’s out, they him back in.
As a father who loves his kids, I have some sympathy for Michael Corleone. He wants nothing more than to spare his children from the consequences of sin. His desire is good, but good intentions and good deeds and all the money in the world can’t save anyone.
The Godfather is a story about the wages of sin, but it’s also a story about our inability to deliver ourselves from sin’s clutches. The bad news is we cannot save ourselves no matter how hard we try. The good news is that we can be saved no matter how bad we’ve been.
No matter what you have done, there is hope. God’s grace is greater than your sin.
Even if you have whacked the heads of the five families, betrayed your wife, and murdered your brother.