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Elwood, Harvey, and Jesus

Updated: May 17, 2021



Growing up, my family and I watched one movie at Easter time every year. It was hardly an Easter story, except for the giant white rabbit for whom the movie is named -- Harvey.


Elwood P. Dowd, the main character played by James Stewart, is a likeable, persistently content lush who happens to be friends with the six foot anthropomorphic bunny that no one can see but him.


The movie is somewhat of a farce in which Elwood’s family conspires to institutionalize him because of his giant pooka delusion. What is a pooka? I had to look it up, too. Elwood, however, is distinctly pleasant and kind to everyone in his path. His constant invitation to strangers into his home is more evidence for his family to lock him away.

“Years ago my mother used to say to me, she'd say, ‘In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant.’ Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant.”

Throughout the movie, the rest of the characters are frustrated, perplexed, and delighted by him.


Elwood doesn’t desire to be the smartest or the cleverest. Yet his family is attempting to have him committed to a mental hospital for the rest of his life. If there’s ever a time someone needs to be clever or smart it would be then

He possesses something that eludes the rest of the characters in the film. While they are

frantic, he is calm. While they are exasperated, he is delighted. He rises above the scheming frenzy of those around him. Though he is considered committable, Elwood stands apart as centered and sane.


He’s willing to be the fool, the chump, the sucker, risking his reputation rather than be unkind. He explains his philosophy to whomever will listen:


“Years ago my mother used to say to me, she'd say, ‘In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant.’ Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant.”


For whatever reason, that quote stuck with me.


There’s something attractive and courageous in risking being thought a fool, rather than sacrifice kindness.

I desire that kind of powerful quietude -- the ability to remain unflustered while drama and turmoil swirl around me -- to meet outrage with generosity, discord with peace, ugliness with love.


Instead, I’m easily frustrated when things don’t go my way. I seek to impress with my wit. When someone is rude or even disagrees with me on social media, I’m tempted to leave a stinging reply, utterly disarming them. Drop mic.


By the end of the film Elwood remains unchanged, while all the other characters are morphed by Elwood’s consistent, unrelenting thoughtfulness. Elwood’s pleasantness is the anvil on which all the hammers break.


I watched this movie the other day, and I couldn’t help but think of Jesus. His courage in the face of religious legalism, tradition, and well-worn prejudices frustrated, perplexed, and delighted those he encountered.


The Pharisees were frustrated with Jesus’s threatening love. He interpreted the law in a new way, one that shifted from an obedience of arbitrary law, to true interpretation and fulfillment of the law. One that brings about a loving relationship with God and humanity (Mark 3:1-6 is one example of many).


At times the Apostles were perplexed with Jesus’s inclusiveness of the “nothings” of society. His interactions with lepers, children, Samaritans, and women left them stunned (John 4, for example).


But he delighted… he DELIGHTED those that were thirsty for him. Those that were humble enough to know they needed him (Mark 12:37).


Jesus was the anvil on which all hammers break. His love and kindness remained unchanged even to his death when he asked the Father to forgive his murderers. Unlike Elwood, he unflinchingly criticized those that were blocking the path to God. He spoke up for others, but never in his own defense. “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23). If anyone had the right to speak up for himself, it was Jesus. If anyone had a reason to strike back, it was him.


Jesus was the fool, the chump, the sucker for us. He not only took the humiliation, but he suffered the punishment of death for our benefit. “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).


When we celebrate Good Friday and Easter, we realize that we’re not Jesus. We’re not even Elwood. But Jesus’s kindness and love reaches out to us in his death and resurrection.


We say we want to be like Jesus, but we never want to be the fool, the chump, the sucker. We never want to be accused of being weak, or slow, or naïve. No, not naïve. That’s worse than being stupid. At least with stupid you have an excuse. Stupidity is not your fault. Naiveté invokes ridicule.


But I’m called to be a fool for Christ. So, with His help, this hammer will continue to change and morph, as it encounters the anvil that doesn’t change.


Happy Easter. ~


By the way, Elwood gets away scot-free. I didn’t want to spoil it, but the movie has been out for seventy years.




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