Pay It Forward – A Biblical Comparison
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“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This is what we know as the golden rule. In today’s society, it seems to have been altered just a tad – “Do unto other’s before they do unto you.” Albeit a negative connotation, it can be turned one hundred eighty degrees into a positive thought and gesture. The movie Pay It Forward does just that. This movie tells the story of a social studies teacher who gives an assignment to his junior high school class to think of an idea to change the world for the better, and then put it into action. Movie critic David Bruce remarked, “When one young student, Trevor McKinney, creates a plan for “paying forward” favors, he not only affects the life of his struggling single mother, but he sets in motion an unprecedented wave of human kindness which, unbeknownst to him, has blossomed into a profound national phenomenon.” (Bruce, 2000) These actions have three requirements: It has to be something that really helps
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people, It has to be something they can’t do themselves, and I do it for them, they do for three other people. This movie gives us a fictional, yet highly symbolic example of this power of self-sacrificing love and how humanity could be changed by the thought patterns of mankind. A simple change in the thought pattern of one person did, in all actuality, change the world. It’s not ironic, nor coincidental, that this movie has significant Biblical parallels and symbolism. This writer will delve into the archetypes and protagonist symbolism as well as the religious symbolism and biblical parallels in this film.
There is no doubt there are numerous archetypes in this film. Mr. Simonet was the herald/harbinger, the carrier and initiator of Trevor’s journey. He gave the assignment to his class that started the journey. Sean, Trevor’s best friend, was seen as a loyal retainer in that he stuck with Trevor through thick and thin… just as Trevor sticks with him.
Arlene, Trevor’s mother, was considered the hearth keeper. She was a single mother and was willing to work at any job to protect and care for Trevor. Trevor filled the shoes of the hero. After all, it was his idea of “pay it forward” that spread throughout the nation and gave hope to countless thousands. In the end, Trevor became the scapegoat in that he gave his life to defend his friend Sean.
The situational archetypes are also rather forthcoming. First, the quest was set in the first five minutes of the movie. The social studies assignment was the quest. The task was the idea of “Pay it Forward”. Secondly, the initiation was almost immediate. Trevor knew what he must do before he left class that day. Third and finally, the death and rebirth was when Trevor was literally killed by a classmate. Interestingly enough, even though he did not physically come back to life, Trevor’s “Pay It Forward” theory kept him alive. Moreover, his life and memory were uniquely patronized at the end of the movie when the entire town lined up in Trevor’s front yard in a candlelight vigil. People and cars were lined up as far as the eye could see.
The protagonist symbolism began when Mr. Simonet, the Social Studies teacher, introduced the opportunity for Trevor to accept the project, or the call to adventure, to “”Think of an idea to change the world and put it into action”. (Abrams, 2000) The first threshold was when Trevor found a homeless man, Jerry, and brought him home to feed him. Was this a life or death situation for Trevor? Probably not, however, Trevor’s overcoming this first hurdle sent his idea into action. As a result, Trevor’s idea was proven successful when Jerry was caught repairing Trevor’s mom’s vehicle. Jerry told her, “…because of her son’s kindness, he was just paying it forward.” (Abrams, 2000) Likewise, the road of trials is quite noticeable. After Trevor helped Jerry, he later found out that Jerry was taking drugs again.
That was strike one for Trevor’s idea. Also, Trevor tried to get his mother and Mr. Simonet to fall in love. Seemingly, that appeared to fail as well. That was strike two for the pay it forward theory. Lastly, Trevor tried to help his friend, Sean, from getting beat up at school. The result seemed to be the same as the other two situations, failure. In the eyes of Trevor, that was strike three. In spite of what had appeared to have happened, two of the three “deeds”, a love relationship with his mother and Mr. Simonet, as well as Sean’s overcoming the school bullies, do eventually come true so his theory is quite a success. As you can see, this film was heavy laden with archetypical and situational symbolism.
In addition to the literary symbolism, the religious symbolism and biblical parallels were quite astounding. Particular events stood out immediately. Trevor was killed by a stab wound to his right side, just as Jesus was. He died as the sun was beginning to set, just as Jesus did. His idea that “The world is bad and the idea of sacrifice, humility, and forgiveness is the only hope,” (Abrams, 2000) was mirrored within the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John by Jesus Christ himself. To draw the parallel of Trevor with Jesus Christ is quite apparent. The overall idea of pay it forward stands alone as what God did for us by “paying forward” Jesus Christ into our lives. David Drury, writer and contributor to Next Wave Christian Web Magazine explained, “The idea is not just parallel to Christian principles; it may in fact be what the real “movement” was meant to be. Consider this: what thing can a Christian do that can never really be paid back to them, but can only be ‘Paid Forward’?.” (Drury 2003) In the Christian life, the most important thing a Christian can do is to lead someone to Jesus Christ as their Savior – and act that can never be paid back, but can only be paid forward.
The three requirements for paying it forward are scriptural as well. First, it had to be something that really helps people. The concept of salvation clearly fits this category. Jesus said, “I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved.” (John 10:9) Trevor proved this by bringing Jerry home with him to feed him. This was not something Jerry could do himself and, more importantly, it saved his life. Secondly, it has to be something they can’t do themselves. Paul wrote in Acts 4:12 says, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12) Undoubtedly, the actions of Trevor trying to protect and defend Sean against his enemies, the bullies, paralled with Jesus taking up for us against Satan and sin, who are our bullies. Thirdly, I do it for them, they do for three other people. Mark illustrated this best in Mark 16:15, “He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation.” (Mark 16:15) As was alluded to earlier, when Jerry fixed Arlene’s truck, he said he did it because Trevor helped him.
The “pay it forward” requirements spoke volumes of what Jesus tried to teach us in all of the Gospels. Marvin Williams, writer for The Soul Journey and RBC Ministries, states “More important, it was symbolic of Jesus’ sacrifice, suffering, and humiliation on the cross. He was doing something big, something that we were incapable of doing for ourselves. His simple request to His disciples, and to us, is that we ‘pay it forward’.” (Williams, 2003)
Some consider “Pay It Forward” a novel new idea, but in actuality, it is as old as the Bible. King David gave us his version by saying, “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me. Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and the broken will turn back to you.” (Psalm 51) What this is telling us is to pay it forward, to invest ourselves in others that they would do likewise. Just as Trevor was doing for his a complete stranger, his mother, and his best friend, we should invest in those we know and, equally important, those we don’t know.
Finally, a concrete conclusion can soundly be drawn that this film is saturated with literary and religious symbolism and biblical parallels. Protagonists symbolism has been clearly identified as were the character and situational archetypes. Even more intriguing was the religious symbolism and biblical parallels. It all came down to a basic concept that was put into place more than two thousand years ago by one man, Jesus Christ. Similarly, two thousand years later, one eleven year old boy had the same impact on a city and a nation. Bruce explained it best when he said, “When Jesus came to earth and was put to death, many people misunderstood the message.
They thought that his crucifixion was a sign of failure. They thought that the darkness of the world had overcome the Light. But as time went on and one individual reached out to another who reached out to another with the same sacrificial love that Jesus showed, a movement began which is still multiplying two thousand years later (Bruce 2000).” Likewise, when Trevor was killed, people initially thought his idea would die and that because he was killed it was a failure. That too, was untrue. Much to our surprise, and to our benefit, the idea of paying it forward is still very much alive.
Abrams, Peter, Carson, Paddy, Levy, Robert , McLaglen, Mary, Reuther, Steven, Treisman, Jonathan (Producers) & Leder, Mimi (Director). (2000). Pay It Forward [DVD]. United States: Warner Brothers Pictures
Bacon, Cynthia. (2003, March 16). Pay it Forward-Sermon Archive. Retrieved December 8, 2003, from http://
Bruce, David. (2000, October 15). Pay it Forward 2000. Retrieved December 6, 2003 from http://www.hollywoodjesus.com/pay_it_forward.htm
David. Holy Bible – New King James Version (1982) Nashville TN; Thomas Nelson Publishers (Citation – Psalm 51)
Drury, David. (2000, November). An Analysis of the Pay it Forward Idea. Retrieved December 7, 2003, from: http://
John. Holy Bible – New King James Version (1982) Nashville TN; Thomas Nelson Publishers (Citation – John 10:9/13:14)
Mark. Holy Bible – New King James Version (1982) Nashville TN; Thomas Nelson Publishers (Citation – Mark 16:15)
North Church. (ND). Person to Person – Pay it Forward. Retrieved December 7, 2003, from http://www.north-church.org/sermon051202R.html
Paul. Holy Bible – New King James Version (1982) Nashville TN; Thomas Nelson Publishers (Citation – Acts 4:12)
Williams, M. (2003, October 18). Pay it Forward – Journey through John. Retrieved December 7, 2003, from http://www.gospelcom.net/rbc/sj/20031018.php
Author?. (2003, March 5). Pay it Forward, Ash Wednesday Sermon. Retrieved December 8, 2003, from