A Barber, a Profligate, and the Devil

What do a barber, a profligate, and the Devil have in common? Tragic death and enormous guilt. 

A man named Peter is the barber. He killed his son-in-law. Peter was at Dietrich’s house for a party. A drunken Dietrich was bragging that he had survived so many battles because swords could not harm him. Peter, drunk as well, decided to put Dietrich’s boast to the test and stab him. Dietrich lost his life; Peter lost his house and citizenship. The profligate is William S. Burroughs. In 1951, when he and his wife were drunk, he shot her in the forehead while trying to “William Tell” a glass that was perched on her head. (It was ruled an accident by Mexican authorities though Burroughs was an excellent shot and was only six feet away from his wife when he fired.) Finally, we all know the Devil. In a German folktale titled Der Freischütz (The Marksman), a young man needs to win a shooting contest so he makes a deal with the Devil for some magic bullets. The Devil promises that they can’t miss, but that “’some of them are for thee and some of them are for me’” (Call Me Burroughs, 603). On his wedding day, while shooting at a wooden dove the bullet travels full circle around the wedding party and kills his bride.

Burroughs, a self-described, homosexual, pedophile, junkie, and profligate, is driven half-mad by his foul deed and spends the rest of his life seeking peace with his crime. He delves deep into drugs, the occult, sex, Scientology, shamanism, and psychoanalysis.  He makes no attempt to find forgiveness for two reasons. First, though he knows the heavy guilt of sinfulness and sin, he rejects their reality, and two, Christianity, to him, is only about making people guiltier. So Burroughs chooses to try to think his way out of guilt either by numbing or expanding his thoughts.

Depending on the version of Der Freischütz, sometimes the bride is not killed. The groom is given a chance to still marry her by atoning for his sins. He is required to live a faultless life to gain forgiveness. Even when this works, it doesn’t. Those who think they succeed in time fail in eternity.

The barber Peter was a friend of Luther. Luther wrote A Simple Way to Pray for him. An exiled Peter sought comfort from Luther. He needed assurance that he was still God’s child though he had killed his own child’s husband. If you were guilty of such a horrible crime, what could ever move you to pray again? Only radical, unconditional grace.

In all three cases someone was killed needlessly, tragically, and in a way that would stick with you forever. Grace was absent from two of the three of these tragedies, and the Devil won. Only a constant stream of God’s grace in Christ flowing over you in Baptism could enable you to live with what you had done. Of course, Burroughs and Max also lived with what had happened, but in different sense of the word.  Burroughs “lived” either running away from, to, or grappling with the deed. The fictional Max “lived” to make up for the deed. In either case, both died with the deed and never to it as Peter the barber did and any Christian can.

About Rev. Paul R. Harris

Ordained pastor of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod
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