Yesterday, as I was thinking about Memorial Day and the soldiers who have died to secure and defend my freedom, I watched the movie Saving Private Ryan for what must have been the 12th time or so. It is the fictional account of a group of Army Rangers who land on the beach at Normandy on D-Day in June of 1944. When the Army discovers that a particular family in Iowa has lost three of its four sons in recent combat, General Marshall decides to send out a unit to find the fourth son, a Private James Frances Ryan, who is missing in action after having parachuted into France during the invasion. The rest of the movie details the heroic and costly efforts of this small group of soldiers, most of whom sacrifice their own lives in order to find and protect Private Ryan so that he can go home to his mother. In the climactic final battle, as Captain Miller is about to die, he whispers a final word into the ear of James Ryan, “Earn this!”
The movie ends with Private Ryan, now an old man, visiting the grave site of Captain Miller with his wife and his children and grandchildren. As he kneels in front of the white cross marking Miller’s grave, Ryan turns to his wife and says, “Tell me I’ve lived a good life…Tell me I’m a good man.” To which his wife replies simply, “You are.” This closing scene highlights the tremendous price that was paid for the sake of Private Ryan’s life, and the weight of that knowledge as he speaks to Captain Miller, saying, “My family is with me today. They wanted to come with me. To be honest with you, I wasn’t sure how I’d feel coming back here. Every day I think about what you said to me that day on the bridge. I tried to live my life the best that I could. I hope that was enough. I hope that, at least in your eyes, I’ve earned what all of you have done for me.”
While Saving Private Ryan is certainly a moving story, I couldn’t help but think about what Captain Miller said to Ryan as he lay dying and compare it to the words and works of Jesus Christ. In Mark 10:45 Jesus said, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Jesus came to earth for the express purpose of giving his life for mankind. He had no intention of saving himself or protecting himself at the cost of others. He would never have said, “Earn this,” to you or me. In fact, Jesus made it a point of saying that he did not come for those who could earn it, but for those who were helpless and knew it. “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance” (Mark 2:17). The message of the gospel is that you and I could not earn eternal life by our own righteousness, and that we needed Christ as our substitute to suffer the wrath of God for our sin and to defeat death by rising again. Even as we reflect on and give thanks for the men and women who have died to defend our freedom, let us give thanks even more for the One who died to secure our ultimate and eternal freedom, Jesus Christ.