Children, Death, and the Journey: Luke 9:37-48 in Conversation with Logan

By Kyle Sears

[WARNING! SPOILERS AHEAD!]

In Logan, Hugh Jackman ends a seventeen year run as Wolverine, a mutant with advanced healing ability and member of the X-Men. With a skeleton protected by adamantium – and retractable claws to match – Wolverine ruthlessly channeled his rage by fighting against people who threatened the security of the world. Based on the Marvel comics character, Wolverine’s mantra was “I’m the best at what I do, and what I do ain’t very nice.” The film contextualizes Logan’s anti-hero role within an outlaw road movie, including strong influences from Westerns that also serve as the road movie’s progenitor. The film carries strong religious undertones while exploring the nature of death and the relationships between fathers and their children. These two themes collide in Luke’s narrative as a precursor to the journey to Jerusalem. This paper will bring Luke 9:37-48 into conversation with Logan as a consideration of Jesus’ call to welcome the marginalized among us as a response to his suffering and death.

Jesus’ road to Jerusalem in Luke’s gospel is a journey that brings him closer to death, a journey by which he fulfills his destiny while also imparting his call to discipleship to his students (Craddock, 136). Our text, in Luke 9:37-48, serves as a precursor to Jesus’ journey toward death, functioning as “a transitional unit in which Luke sums up what the apostles, the disciples, and the crowds understand about Jesus up to this point and directs our attention to Jesus’ sonship and the journey to Jerusalem” (O’Toole, 85). Similarly, the road in Logan brings the characters ever closer to death even as they are drawn into close relationship with one another. His companions on the road include an ailing mentor, Charles Xavier, and a mysterious child, Laura, whose gifts bear similarity to Logan’s mutant powers. Xavier has served as a father figure to Logan, giving him a surrogate family by way of the X-Men. The film opens with Logan working as a chauffeur, trying to earn enough money for Charles and him to escape from their persecutors once and for all. The introduction of a new mutant – a child no less – creates a trio that journeys from the borderlands of Mexico to the borderlands of Canada and the promised salvation of Eden – a refuge for mutants.

This journey north, in contrast to early road movies’ journey west, functions as an ascent and attempt to escape from the paramilitary Ravagers who are hunting the mutants. Although the drive to go to Eden comes from a comic book – which Logan remarks is mostly made up adventures of the X-Men – the hope of deliverance drives the trio to take the road. Success means salvation, and a payout for Logan to finally achieve his dream of escape. However, the viewer anticipates that this road will not be easy. Even as we cheer for the masterful display of power and strength from Logan, Charles, and Laura, there remains a sense of impending doom. Luke 9, similarly, includes the crowds becoming “astounded at the greatness of God” (9:43) when Jesus heals the boy from demonic oppression, but Jesus reminds the disciples that his road leads to capture and death (9:44). John Nolland recognizes that Luke’s text leaves out any notion of resurrection found in Matthew and Mark, for “his prediction here only speaks of being delivered up, and not of what lies beyond. That which is most difficult to accept is most needful to accept. Talk of resurrection would not have posed such problems” (Nolland, 515).

The film also offers a commentary on the nature of the marginalized in society in that they find refuge in the borderlands, but face the most threat in America’s heartland. The mutants can hide on the margins, and society prefers to keep them there. Similarly, Jesus receives welcome away from his hometown and out of reach of Jerusalem. The forces against him come from the heart of the community rather than its fringes in Galilee. As Logan encourages the viewer to travel with the mutant outcasts, we understand their pain, poverty, and prejudice. Although regarded as villains by others in the film, the viewer takes their sides. Jesus reminds the disciples, as they argue over who is powerful, that they must welcome the “little child” (9:48), insignificant to most of society but beloved by Jesus’ community.

The film carries strong Western influences common to traditional road films. Needing a change of clothes, Laura insists on Western wear advertised in a casino lobby, complete with cowboy hats and blue jeans. Charles and Laura watch Shane, and note the careful similarities to the loner hero who cannot stay in one place long. Shane’s final soliloquy is revisited at the end of the film in an ironic and heart-rending reversal on the lips of Laura. In the second act, the film intentionally slows down as the outcasts receive hospitality from a farming family from Oklahoma, tasting a sense of familial bonds before terror strikes.

The film reintroduces Charles Xavier as a dangerously senile old man, locked away in a fallen water tower to shield Logan and his friend Caliban from Xavier’s psychic powers. One of the most powerful mutants to exist has now become a dangerous bomb waiting to go off. He warns Logan of “forces” that are aligning against them and other mutants. This prediction is dismissed as the wild chatter of a crazy man. But tinged in this conversation is the hope and despair of finding oneself either protected by God or outcast by God. If forces are growing against us, the question presses: which side are we on? Logan’s past brutality seems to be coming home to roost, and Logan distances himself from love and concern out of fear that his protection of others only results in their harm.

In the film, we learn that the Weapon X program that created Logan continues to find ways to weaponize mutants, this time creating children mercenaries by cloning them from former X-Men. Laura is a clone of Logan, complete with adamantium claws and spikes in her feet to boot. The “forces” that Xavier feared are using children to wage a war that seeks to spread fear while making their kingdoms wealthy. So, too, we understand that the forces of evil use children in Luke’s narrative toward similar ends. Luke 9:37-43a is an account of an only son who is tormented by a demon in the form of grand mal seizures. But this tormenting is not construed as a physical malady, but a spiritual one. The disciples are unable to heal the boy, so the boy’s father pleads to Jesus. As Jesus approaches, the demon throws the child down, gripped by another fit beyond his control.

Luke’s presentation of this miracle functions as more than an exorcism and healing. John Carroll notes that “in characteristic fashion” it is “also an act of liberation from oppression” (Carroll, 221). Laura has been bred to be a violent weapon, codenamed X-23, and spends the first two acts unable to speak. Logan is introduced in the first scene of the film as regretfully violent, eviscerating car thieves with liberal use of his claws. The audience cheers. However, watching similar displays of violence coming from a young girl – even as she is impaled by a harpoon – is disturbing. The forces that created her fail to see her as anything more than a tool. James Edwards sees a similar depiction of violence in Luke’s description of demon possession, noting that “demon possession is portrayed more in terms of violence than of fear and horror . . . . The present episode testifies to the mission of Jesus . . . to confront and to defeat the powers of evil. This may be the reason why Luke refers to the malady in terms of spiritual rather than medical causes” (Edwards, 287).

The presence of children in such a brutal film illustrates the forces of unapologetic violence that claims our world. Logan’s companions upon his road trip north are a disabled old man and a mute little girl, the embodiment of weakness in our culture. The X-Men comics have long embraced the outsider, using its stories as an allegory for the abuse and fear surrounding those beyond the mainstream. In this film, age becomes a liability. Inspired, in part, by the comic Old Man Logan, the once powerful Wolverine is slowly dying, poisoned by the adamantium that once made him invincible. Laura is considered cargo, a means to receiving a payout that grants him freedom. However, he soon discovers that she was made to be just like him, a continuation of the havoc unleashed upon the world by violent aggressors.

Luke 9:37-48 is a pericope about death, bookended by encounters with children. Like Logan, the proximity of the subject matter can feel disturbing. While Jesus demonstrates his power against dark forces that oppress the vulnerable, he also reminds the disciples that he will be handed over to death. Their exuberance is lost to confusion and dismay. They soon devolve into arguments about who is to be considered the greatest by Jesus. Jesus’ response challenges the assumption of the culture: to find honor you must embrace the least, the forgotten, the dishonorable. Children had little function in their time. Yet Jesus says that the embrace and welcome of children is a welcome and embrace of himself, and by extension, God (Luke 9:48). This text challenges the disciples’ understanding of themselves and how to relate to the world around them, just as the film exposes Logan’s self-sufficiency as empty. As Edwards notes, “God often appears in the world in the small, powerless, and insignificant, and the response of Christians to such – the hungry, thirsty, lonely, naked, sick, and imprisoned – is their response to God” (Edwards, 291).

Logan considers Laura to be a liability, and a threat to his existence. Even as he comes to know the truth about his relationship with Laura, he resists it. He does not want to admit that they share a bond as father and daughter. In a heartbreaking conversation, Logan tells her that the people he cares about often end up suffering or worse. She stingingly remarks, “Well then I will be fine.” She is a liability because she exposes a vulnerability in Logan. Jesus’ call to embrace the least of these also exposes our vulnerabilities, as Carroll notes, because “the measure of right relationship with Jesus . . . is hospitality toward ‘this child,’ that is, one lacking status and power, one possessing no claim to position or advantage, one who can offer little in return, as opposed to social peers and superiors, who can reciprocate in ways that bestow advantage” (Carroll, 225). The search for greatness in the kingdom is an embrace of the weak among us and the weaknesses within us.

The film also explores the connections between father and children, or teachers and students. Charles Xavier was Logan’s teacher, and in many ways became a father figure as they developed a mutual trust of one another. As they find hospitality at the dinner table of a Christian farming family, Xavier tells stories about his son and student, winsomely recalling their troubled journeys. To maintain their cover, the trio have introduced themselves as a three-generation family on vacation – and to Xavier this seems not as far from the truth as it is initially presented. He has always been Wolverine’s conscience, believing in Logan more than Logan believed in himself. For all of his qualities as a loner, Logan was redeemed when he joined the X-Men and became part of a family.

Luke pays careful attention to the disciples as they prepare to embark upon their journey with Jesus to Jerusalem. Jerome Kodell offers a thesis that Luke’s travel narrative is bookended by stories of children that function as “exemplary pairs” that instruct would-be disciples, namely Luke’s readers (Kodell, 416). Jesus is preparing the disciples for their experience of death, both his own and their surrender as they take up a cross to follow him. The theme of discipleship prevalent in the travelogue is introduced in Luke 9:37-48 in Jesus’ instruction about God’s power over the demonic, his impending death, and their call to hospitality (428). The disciples, though they are not ready for the journey, find themselves on the road, learning as they go. Luke underscores their role as students by showing how unprepared they are to face what is coming, noting that “they did not understand,” “the meaning was concealed,” “they could not perceive,” and “they were afraid to ask” (9:45). They are like children attempting to learn for the first time. Carroll notes that their “failure to understand Jesus’ vocation has as its corollary a failure to grasp the vocation of disciple” (Carroll, 224). The road will provide their instruction.

The road also provides the character progression for Logan’s titular hero. Logan’s past catches up to him in the form of X-24, an identical clone of Wolverine – young, strong, and filled with rage. The ultimate weapon destroys the idyllic hope of redemption by savagely murdering Charles as he sleeps. Logan is unable to save him, and barely survives his first claw-to-claw encounter. He rescues Laura and buries his mentor with barely a word to say, wracked by guilt and sorrow. But he does not abandon his child. She saves him as he succumbs to his injuries, and she first speaks to him (albeit in Spanish). Lamenting the futility of their trek to Eden, he nevertheless relents as they make the journey together. After seeing Wolverine on screen for seventeen years, his brutality and power have diminished, save for necessary bursts to keep the action flowing. Like Jesus’ disciples, who must contend with “the difficult position of having to picture Jesus in two scenes at once: power and powerlessness,” (Craddock, 136) the audience must acknowledge that Logan most likely will die. The driving question of the third act is “how will he die, redeemed or lost?”

Throughout the film, Logan carries an adamantium bullet, reserved for the final moment when he submits to death. As he leads the children to their rescue, Logan does final battle with X-24, a symbolic battle with himself and the legacy of blind rage he has left in his wake. Director James Mangold rejects the typical messiah-imagery of outstretched arms in favor of the more subtle (but no less powerful) wounded side. Logan is impaled upon a fallen tree, and hangs on it from his bleeding side. He is rescued from this death by the adamantium bullet, as Laura kills X-24 and saves Logan from his past.

Logan’s final words showcase the redemption he has found through Laura and Charles. He tells her, as she cries out, “Daddy!” to “not be who they made you to be.” Logan has recognized that, in spite of his past, he can overcome the purpose of his creation as a mindless weapon. This is embodied as well in his final words, “So this is what it feels like.” These words have a double meaning – as Wolverine, Logan has never been threatened with death. After over 200 years, he has finally found release after years of pain. But he also knows what it feels like to love, and more importantly, to be loved. This humble, painful death is reminiscent of Jesus’ death, the death foreshadowed in our text. At his death, Jesus cries out for the release into his father’s hands (23:46). He embodies his teaching that “greatness is not for those who act out the part, but it is the gift of God to those who humbly serve the lowly” (Nolland, 521).

Laura grieves for her father as she recites the final words of Shane over Logan’s burial place: “There are no more guns in the valley.” Logan has brought salvation to the children. In her final act of remembrance, as the children walk toward freedom, Laura returns to turn Logan’s cross on its side, making an X. He is identified by the calling that redeemed him, but this should not be read as a rejection of Christian faith. Instead, the cross has transformed Logan’s journey, forever identified by the redemptive community that he saved even as it saved him. Like Luke’s narrative, Jesus and the disciples share in the vocation of redemption. Edwards reminds us that Jesus’ “journey is one of fulfilling who he is as Messiah, whereas [the disciples’] journey is one of becoming faithful witnesses of all they have seen and heard” (Edwards, 286).

Logan offers an unflinching look at the toll of violence upon the world, even as it finds permanent embodiment in the heroes. Logan, Charles, and Laura are forever damaged by their stand against evil. Luke also regards the work of Jesus and his disciples as an embrace of the lowly and its offer of liberation to the oppressed. This will inevitably lead to conflict with diabolic forces. But, as Luke asserts, even death is redemptive. Contemporary disciples of Jesus can find beauty in Logan’s violence, as sacrifice is redeemed so that future disciples can testify to the hard journey toward salvation.

References

Carroll, John T. Luke: A Commentary. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012.

Craddock, Fred B. “Luke” in Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1990.

Edwards, James R. “The Gospel According to Luke,” in Pillar Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015.

Kodell, Jerome, O.S.B. “Luke and the Children: The Beginning and the End of the Great Interpolation (Luke 9:46-56; 18:9-23).” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly. no. 49, 1987: 415-430.

Nolland, John. “Luke 9:21-18:34,” in Word Biblical Commentary, Volume 35b. Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1993.

O’Toole, Robert F., S.J. “Luke’s Message in Luke 9:1-50.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly. no. 49, 1987: 74-89

Rev. Kyle Sears serves as senior minister at La Cañada Congregational Church in La Cañada Flintridge, CA. Although a native of Texas, Kyle, his wife, and their three children have found California’s diverse climates and cultures to be a welcome chapter to their story. Prior to moving to California to pursue an MDiv at Fuller Theological Seminary, Kyle served as a church planter in Dallas and Austin. Kyle enjoys cooking (currently eating his way through the Bob’s Burgers cookbook), playing boardgames with friends and family, and reflecting upon the stories told on film, TV, and videogames.

 

 

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