The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger


Delivered 2/29/04
Text: Luke 4:1-13
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

OK. I saw the movie. As I went into the theater late Thursday afternoon, I admit I felt a bit strange. After all I had read and heard - newspaper and magazine articles, advance reviews, commentary from religious leaders, both Christian and Jewish, a lengthy interview with Mel Gibson, the film maker - I felt a bit anxious as I made my way into the half-lit room.

I am not a fan of cinematic violence, and I had heard that this one was not merely violent, but could rightly be called the first Christian splatter film. I understood Mel's point - that what happened to Jesus that day was indeed bloody and awful - but I was not sure how much I would be comfortable having it shoved down my throat.

I relaxed some when, as I sat down, I heard a stage whisper from right behind me asking, "What's a Presbyterian doing here?" The nice thing about life in a small town - everybody knows everybody. It was Janet Templeton, a Methodist, and Mimi Levinson, who is Jewish, who said she wanted to see this controversial film with a Christian friend. After all the comments about the anti-semitic bent of this movie, I told Mimi that I would be most interested in getting her take on it after it was over. No question that Passion plays through the centuries have indeed fanned the flames of religious hatred with people getting so worked up that they would leave the production and go find a Jewish village to burn down. There IS history of danger here.

The room went dark, the audio came up, the obligatory half-dozen previews of coming attractions, then finally, "The Passion of the Christ." It starts off in a deep blue light that envelopes the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus is wrestling with the prospect of what would soon come to pass. An androgynous character meant to represent the devil is there with him to dissuade him from the task at hand, but to no avail.

A side note here. The gospel accounts make no mention of an appearance by any devil in the garden, but Mel Gibson had an extra-biblical source for this material, the 200-year-old writings of an Augustinian nun, Sister Anne Catherine Emmerich, "The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ." Her book is said to have been received in miraculous visions while she was an invalid; a friend wrote the chapters down in narrative form, as she dictated them. Many details from the current film, including the portrayal of the Jewish leaders in a particularly dastardly light, come from this book.

Within moments, the violence begins. Judas leads the Temple police to Jesus in the garden. A fight breaks out. The blood-letting begins. And for the next two hours, it hardly lets up. It was as gory as advertised. I doubt that, in the history of legitimate film-making, there has ever been a single character who spilled so much blood, so violently, in such vivid color. This is NOT a film for kids.

In a way, it is a very Roman Catholic film, which makes sense, since Mel Gibson is a Roman Catholic even if he happens to belong to a sectarian movement of folks who have broken away from mother church, seeing it as being too accommodating of contemporary culture. Particular reflection on the suffering of Christ has been a mark of Catholic piety since the Middle Ages. There is an interesting piece in this week's Time Magazine about it:
It was starting in the 1300's that the Passion truly bloomed. Scholars located details of Jesus' suffering in allegedly prophetic verses in the Old Testament. Mystics built devotions around his scourging after a Cardinal returned from the Holy Land bearing the pillar to which he said Christ had been chained. Flagellant lay groups clogged the streets, seeking bloody identification with the flayed Christ. So dominant grew the Passion, writes Catholic historian Gerard Sloyan, that believers felt "meditation on [it] alone could achieve unity with Christ and yield some share in the work of redemption he accomplished." It came to overshadow not just "the Incarnation, but even the Resurrection."(1)
In his interviews, Mel says that precisely that kind of reflection has helped him to deal with some of his most difficult times. The theology behind it is, "No matter how much I am suffering, Jesus suffered more." Now, Gibson and his screenwriter, Benedict Fitzgerald, have put on film their belief that the Passion is far and away the most important part of Christ's story, and that is why they focused on these last twelve hours of Jesus' life to the exclusion of most everything else.

A great deal of time is devoted to Jesus' scourging. What is conveyed in three sentences in the gospels takes almost ten minutes on screen. It is horrific torture, and even though it is not presented as such, you could say it was nothing less than a miracle that Jesus could survive it, much less get up and walk to Calvary, for awhile even carrying a heavy cross. The viciousness of the beating was so vile and so extended that it began to lose its impact on me - enough already; I got the message.

An essay in the New York Times yesterday(2) reported on an interview with Mr. Fitzgerald and his response to a question on why they had made the film so violent. He answered that in an age of great violence, you had to use violence to make your point. He then related a story: A man buys a mule from another man, who tells him that the mule will do anything if he is treated with loving kindness. So the man gives the mule the best feed, then some sugar, but he still won't work. So he brings it back to the seller, saying he's been duped. The seller hits the mule on the head with a two-by-four. The buyer says, "But you said he needed to be treated with loving kindness." The seller says, "Yes, but you have to get his attention first."

OK. Point taken. But, to let the essayist continue, "My problem with "The Passion of the Christ" is that I felt as if I were being continually hit over the head with a two-by-four, but I never tasted the sugar and I wasn't even given my portion of healthy feed." For myself, I would contend there comes a point of overkill and violence simply for the sake of violence. I mean there is no reason for the crucifixion scene to include a crow plucking the eyes out of one those who was crucified along side Jesus. Enough already.

As I mentioned, this film is very much a reflection of Catholic piety. One of my good friends in the Homiletical Feast, Carlos Wilton from Point Pleasant, NJ, wrote yesterday after seeing the movie;
Empathizing with Christ's sufferings is clearly Mel's goal -- and for that reason, this is a very, very Catholic film. It's really a cinematic Stations of the Cross...I've been to a number of those services over the years: the slow, deliberate pace and episodic organization are very much what "The Passion of the Christ" is all about.

There's also a not-so-subtle emphasis on holy-relic spirituality: Veronica's veil, the two Marys wiping up the blood from the scourging, the lingering closeups on hardware connected with the cross -- even the literally-portrayed fountain of blood at the end, that spatters Mary, John and one of the more sympathetic-seeming Roman soldiers as they stand at the foot of the cross...Which makes it all the more amazing to me that the Southern Baptist crowd is promoting this film so energetically. Those folks wouldn't dream of walking through a Stations of the Cross service at a Catholic church -- but crafty ol' Mel has brought the Stations to them, using the medium of film. He's probably laughing all the way to the confessional.
Hmm. No question, it is a powerful film. As the house lights came up, I just sat...letting the experience sink in just a bit more. I turned around to Janet and Mimi. They were just sitting too. We said we would talk later.

Anti-semitic? No. No more than the gospels themselves are. To hate all Jews for the actions and policies of their leaders is the same as hating all Americans for the current administration's actions and policies around the world. A stretch. But, as we know, some people do stretch. Sad.

My biggest concern going in is the one with which I came out. There was no context for this horrific suffering. What was Jesus all about? What did his life and ministry entail? What got him so hated by the religious establishment? Why would his suffering be any more redemptive than the suffering of millions of others, both in his day and our own? For the rest of the story, I guess you will just have to read the book.

Speaking of the book, I am intrigued that our lectionary text speaks in an interesting way to our problem. It is the story of Jesus' temptations in the desert and is read every year on the first Sunday in Lent. This is how we begin our faith pilgrimage toward Holy Week and Easter.

Number one: Jesus, you are incredibly powerful; use that power to meet your own needs. If you do not take care of yourself, you will not be able to take care of anyone else. On top of that, if word gets around that you turn stones into bread, think how many folks would follow you. Everyone can use a little extra bread. Who could have blamed Jesus for doing something like that?

Number two: unchallenged political power to right all the wrongs...all the kingdoms of the world. How incredibly simple, Jesus: you can ORDER folks to listen. You can ORDER justice and an end to all oppression. What a wonderful opportunity! All it will take is a tiny compromise, an ever-so-slight division in your loyalties. You do not have to stop worshiping the God of heaven, just spread that worship around a bit. Jesus, this is the offer you cannot refuse. Who could have blamed him for accepting?

Number three: equally enticing. Let folks know beyond the shadow of a doubt that YOU ARE THE MESSIAH, the Chosen One of God. What a spectacular stunt to leap from the Pinnacle of the Temple, drop the 450 feet straight down into the Kidron Valley, and land unharmed. God's angels will protect you. People will SURELY listen to your message when they hear what you have done. Would anyone legitimately reproach Jesus for deciding to take that course?

The three temptations of Christ. No doubt there were more. There are certainly more for us. The title of this sermon is "The Most Seductive Temptation of All," and if you have been waiting for me to tell you what it is for you, I cannot. Only you know that answer. But for our society, I am coming to believe that it is the same temptation that Mel Gibson fell to in the making of his movie - the constant temptation to focus too narrowly, to see trees rather than the forest, with the result that we end up too often majoring in minors while what is truly important is neglected or downright ignored.

Look at the evidence. Can you explain to me the incredible amount of ink and air that was expended over the half-second view of Janet Jackson's partially-exposed breast on television? On and on people thundered about this - we are all DOOMED. Gracious! To be honest, if this is what gets our attention, we are nation with entirely too much time on its hands. Our politicians are apoplectic that loving, committed people in a lifetime relationship who happen to be of the same sex want to get married. A piece of paper. It will not change anything they do, simply make plain and public the commitment that already exists. Horrors! What about the sanctity of marriage? Right. What about it? It is OK for Brittany Spears to pop off to Vegas with a buddy and get married for a few hours, then bag it, but this other is not? Would not our politicians be better serving us by concentrating on getting our kids out of Iraq alive or encouraging employment growth to replace the two-million American jobs that have disappeared? How about business? Is the only thing worth considering the bottom line and shareholder value? Or does any consideration beyond what the law demands go to loyal and dedicated workers who keep things going? Are there ways to do both? What is the big picture here?

Temptation. By the way, did you note in the lesson the way Jesus avoided giving in? Scripture. After each of the temptations was offered, he quoted scripture. Is that the answer to overcoming temptation? Know all the scripture you can? It would have helped Mel Gibson, and it certainly would not hurt you, but... Unfortunately, a huge red flag is raised at the end of the lesson. Did you hear it? Verse 13: "When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time." In other words, this struggle with temptation, whatever it might be for you and me, is ongoing...for Jesus, and most certainly for us. Isn't THAT good news?

No. Of course not. But there IS good news here. As we begin our Lenten pilgrimage, this unique period during which we are called to self-examination, we can note that the temptations we encounter are not new. Indeed, they are common to us all. Yes, there WILL be wilderness journeys - times when we experience physical or emotional hunger, times when we are frustrated at not being able to make a difference in our own life or anyone else's, times when we are tired of being ignored and wish someone would notice us - the same temptations that Jesus felt. The message is BE CAREFUL ABOUT FOCUSING TOO NARROWLY ON A QUICK, EASY ANSWER. It may be nothing short of evil.

Yes, there is evil in the world, and Mel Gibson surely captured that in "The Passion of the Christ," and yes, we are always in danger of being caught in its snare. But we know one thing more, and this one thing is the most important of all: we are not alone in our struggle. We know beyond a shadow of a doubt that, "nothing living or dead, angelic or demonic, today or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable - absolutely NOTHING can get between us and God's love" in Christ Jesus our Lord."(3) And that is good news indeed.


1. David Van Biema, "Why It's So Bloody," TIME, 3/1/04, p. 66

2. Mary Gordon, "For One Catholic, 'Passion' Skews the Meaning of the Crucifixion," New York Times, 2/28/04

3. Romans 8:38-39 in Eugene Peterson's paraphrase, The Message, (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1995)

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