I went with my family earlier this week to see the new Fred Rogers documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Overall it was an excellent film, and we enjoyed it very much. As I said in my night-of tweet thread, you and I could quibble with portions of it—the filmmaker seems intent on highlighting Rogers’s treatment of a gay cast member as indicative of his inclusive outlook, which is actually not evident from any of Rogers’s public statements and not at all clear even from the anecdotes included—but a few directorial concerns aside, it was a moving tribute with many touching interviews with family, friends, and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood cast and crew.
This will not be one of those “the gospel according to [insert film here]” posts, but I do think one particular portion of the documentary lends itself to (what ought to be) a deep question at the heart of every person. The filmmakers seem largely disinterested in Rogers’s theology, such as it was, although of course they couldn’t avoid the subject entirely. Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian (PCUSA) minister, and it should be clear to those who can make the connection with a Christian worldview that he was intent on treating every person he met as an image-bearer of God. As far as I can recall, the name Jesus is not mentioned at all in the film, which is interesting (and telling), except in one humorous moment where one of Rogers’s sons talks about what it was like having “Mr. Rogers” as a dad—”He was a like a second Christ to us.”
Of course, we don’t need a second Christ. The first is Christ enough. But we shouldn’t read too much into this statement. What mom or dad wouldn’t want their adult kids to be able to say in some form after we’re gone that being parented by us was like encountering Jesus?
But what really impressed me was the one clear reference in the film to the implications of Christian morality. It comes in the second half of the movie when Rogers’s widow Joanne recounts a question he asked her when he was near death. He said:
“Am I a sheep?”
What an amazing question.
The filmmakers bungle the answer, which was to be expected. They depict Joanne explaining the context of the question, the separating of the sheep and the goats at the end of days.
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. (Matt. 25:31-33)
From what is included in the movie, we have basically an affirmation of what most people who believe in an afterlife believe about who goes where—good people go to heaven, bad people do not. Joanne then recalls that she said to her dying husband, “If anyone is a sheep, you are.”
I don’t want to assume too much about her apparent response to the question. It’s quite possible she said more, and the filmmakers cut it out. As I said, they don’t seem inordinately interested in theology, and this moment appears briefly if only to prop up the idea of Mister Rogers as a “good man,” one of the best men in fact. But I couldn’t stop thinking about this question and its implications for Fred Rogers, and for you and me.
“If anyone is a sheep, you are.” Whatever you think of Fred Rogers, he was undoubtedly a kind, generous, patient, caring man. He is almost universally affirmed as one of the nicest men ever in public life, nice even to the point of being hated by many as being too nice. He had given his life to making children feel cared for, valued, and encouraged. And he did the same for many adults as well. His wife and kids confirm that the man we saw on the screen was the man they had at home, that it wasn’t an act. He really was a kind and gracious person. But facing the end, knowing he was about to give an account to his Judge, he was still uncertain enough of his goodness to wonder: Was I good enough?
I think this is because Rogers knows what Jesus says in a parallel passage to the sheep and the goats, found earlier in Matthew’s Gospel:
Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?” And then will I declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.” (Matt. 7:21-23)
There will be many, I figure Rogers reckoned, who claim their goodness before Christ that find themselves rejected.
So Mister Rogers’s deathbed question was really a deathbed confession. He was confessing that, facing the weight of eternity and the undeniable prospect of his justification before God, he wasn’t sure that his lifetime of “sheepishness” was merit enough. Because of course it’s not.
And if anyone ever asks you, “Am I a sheep?”—or you ever wonder about yourselves, as I hope you would—the correct answer is no,t “Of course—you’re a good person. Hardly anybody’s better than you. If anyone’s a sheep, you are.” The correct answer is, “You’ve done a lot of good things, but none of them will earn you the credit with God. Nobody is good enough to enter his glory. Nobody, that is, but Jesus himself. And regardless of your morality and in spite of your immorality, you know you are a sheep if you listen to the voice of Jesus and put your faith in him alone. Then his goodness becomes yours. It’s the only way in.”
Your goodness isn’t good enough. But Christ’s is.
For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Rom. 3:23-26)