The Passion of Christ

Back in 2004 Mel Gibson made a movie he called, “The Passion of the Christ.” You may have seen it. I saw an unfinished version of it a few months before it was released. And months before that, I was involved in discussions about it. You may have heard about some of those discussions. People had visceral reactions to it. [See a talk I gave in several places in 2004, and a chapter I wrote for a book on the subject]

Columnist Linda Chavez called it, “An intensely Catholic account of the Passion.”

Reviewer Michael Medved said, “The movie is definitely for adults only. It’s one of the most brutal, disturbing pieces of cinema ever made.”

The Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish organization, said it “relies on sinister medieval stereotypes,” “historical errors,” and “an anti-Jewish account of a 19th century mystical anti-Semitic nun,” “to weave a narrative that oversimplifies history, and is hostile to Jews and Judaism.”

I agree with all those statements. It is indeed a beautiful and well-crafted work of art, many of its scenes inspired by great artists such as Caravaggio.

It is also a clearly Catholic interpretation of the Passion, accenting the self-sacrifice and suffering of Jesus, his relationship with Mary, and the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist (it is so Catholic, in fact, that I have a hard time understanding why it has been so well-received by Evangelical Protestants).

And it is gory, with excessive and gratuitous violence, including a prolonged flagellation of Jesus in which most of the skin is ripped from his body, and a scene in which a crow pecks out the eyes of a thief crucified alongside Jesus.

And the ADL was right. It does exaggerate the role of the Jews, adding to the New Testament account and reviving stereotypes associated with medieval passion plays. In many interviews Gibson admitted he included scenes from the writings of an early 19th century German nun, Anne Catherine Emmerich, and this resulted in the inclusion of some problematic elements. Her book, The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, said to be the result of visions, reflects both misunderstanding and ignorance of Scripture and unquestioning acceptance of antisemitic assumptions that prevailed among German Catholics of her era. Her “visions” are so much a part of this movie that it would be fair to say it is a movie of her book, not of the Gospels.

In the Scriptural account, Jesus is snatched quietly, at night, to avoid the crowds. Jesus is willing to go quietly, and keeps the disciples from fighting back. He is held while the high priest gathers his council. During it, there is some physical abuse by the guards and some taunting and one slapping of his face, but the Gospel writers don’t elaborate on this or draw it out. Then he is delivered to Pilate.

Gibson changes the tenor of all these scenes, making them more dramatic, more violent, more frightening. He adds horrific images of unseen demons. He also adds scenes that contradict explicit statements in Scripture. In Gibson’s version, the beating of Jesus begins immediately upon his arrest. He is wrapped in chains and ropes, beaten with fists, chains, and sticks, and then thrown off a bridge. These added beatings, by Jews, and the behavior of the Jews in subsequent scenes, make them appear to be an overwhelmingly bloodthirsty, barbarous people.

Mel Gibson came to Houston in 2003 and showed his movie at the Museum of Fine Arts. He intended to show it to a group of people preselected to like it [I didn’t attend this screening, but went to one some weeks later in another city]. His people asked conservative Catholic commentator Deal Hudson to assemble appropriate audiences in different cities. Deal asked Leo Linbeck III, head of Linbeck Construction. Leo had heard about some of the questions, and he decided to do something bold—but what he thought the only Christian thing to do. He has lots of Jewish friends—so he invited them. The audience included conservative Catholics, evangelicals, and Jews. And in the weeks that followed, Leo invited many of them to come together each week to talk about their experiences and their perceptions. They didn’t argue, they didn’t debate, they spoke of feelings and impressions and their own personal stories—and it was a time of grace. [And Linbeck was honored by the ADL for his efforts.]

They all, Christian and Jew alike, went into that movie with preconceptions. Evangelicals filtered out Gibson’s heavy Catholic emphasis because they were caught up in the imagery of a story about Jesus, who was willing to suffer all this out of love for them; Evangelicals went in thinking it wasn’t the Romans or the Jews who were to blame, but our sins.

Jews went in having had the experience of being called “Christ killers” on school playgrounds when they were children. Of being told by Christians that Jews today are guilty of killing Christ. That they as Jews were rejected by God because of the passion. They saw Gibson’s film as another medieval Passion Play, like Oberammergau, in which the high priest was depicted until very recently with a headdress with horns—these were the sort of Passion Plays that were used to reinforce hatred of Jews and to instigate pograms—the sort of hatred that left German Christians predisposed to the scapegoating of Jews by the Nazis, and to acquiescing to Hitler’s “final solution.” Jews couldn’t see the movie without remembering these things.

Catholics, on the other hand, went to it and heard all the right accents on Mary, and the Eucharist. They saw Jesus endure more than any man could—because he was divine. They saw Jesus passively accept suffering upon suffering, to gain merit for us. Not a substitute, but a victim who gained merit. They might not have known that Mel used the writings of a visionary, and of Catholic tradition, but that would have been fine for them, because Catholics don’t believe in Scripture alone.

And many of the folks who have seen this movie—perhaps even some of you—when they now read the Bible account, will have in their mind images created by Mel Gibson. They will read the Bible in light of this movie, instead of the other way around—evaluating a movie on the basis of the Bible, and the Bible only.

Many of you have seen this movie. Put it out of your mind. We are now going to turn to Scripture, to look at some things it says–and doesn’t say–about the Passion of Christ. It is important that we can separate the Bible’s teachings from our own feelings, or thoughts, or experiences, or the traditions we’ve learned from others, or the images that we have seen in paintings and movies. We need to let the Bible speak for itself.

And when we turn to the four accounts of Christ’s passion, the first question we have to ask is, “Who did it? Who is responsible?”

And the answer is clearly given in John, chapter 10. I begin reading at verse 14.

14I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine.  15As the Father knoweth me, even so know I the Father: and I lay down my life for the sheep.  16And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd.  17Therefore doth my Father love me, because I lay down my life, that I might take it again. 18No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This commandment have I received of my Father.

So who was responsible? The Father and Jesus. It was the Father’s commandment, but Jesus’ willing offering of himself.

And why? Because of his love for the sheep. Sheep “of this fold,” and “other sheep,” “which are not of this fold.” Who are the sheep “of this fold”? The Jewish people. Who are the sheep “not of this fold”? The Gentiles. Jesus says I am bringing them in here, into this fold, so that there might be one fold, and one shepherd. Does he say he’s chasing the first group of sheep out? Does he say he’s going to kill them and destroy them and curse them and go build another fold somewhere else? No. He says he’s laying down his life for the sake of the sheep of this fold, and then will gather in the others. He is the Jewish Messiah. He loves his people. They were subjected to human shepherds who did not care for them or protect them, but he would be the good shepherd who would not only take care of them, but bring in others.

Paul teaches the same thing in Romans 11. He compares the Jewish people to an olive tree. Some branches were cut off, because they didn’t bear fruit. Was the whole tree cursed? No. Was the whole tree destroyed? No. Some branches were cut off so that wild branches, the Gentiles, might be grafted in.

And he tells the Gentiles, “Don’t get cocky.”  Romans 11, starting with verse 17:

17And if some of the branches be broken off, and thou, being a wild olive tree, wert grafted in among them, and with them partakest of the root and fatness of the olive tree;  18Boast not against the branches. But if thou boast, thou bearest not the root, but the root thee.  19Thou wilt say then, The branches were broken off, that I might be grafted in.  20Well; because of unbelief they were broken off, and thou standest by faith. Be not highminded, but fear: 21For if God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest he also spare not thee. 22Behold therefore the goodness and severity of God: on them which fell, severity; but toward thee, goodness, if thou continue in his goodness: otherwise thou also shalt be cut off.  23 And they also, if they abide not still in unbelief, shall be grafted in: for God is able to graft them in again.  24For if thou wert cut out of the olive tree which is wild by nature, and wert grafted contrary to nature into a good olive tree: how much more shall these, which be the natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree? 25For I would not, brethren, that ye should be ignorant of this mystery, lest ye should be wise in your own conceits; that blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fulness of the Gentiles be come in.  26And so all Israel shall be saved: as it is written, There shall come out of Sion the Deliverer, and shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob:  27For this is my covenant unto them, when I shall take away their sins.  28As concerning the gospel, they are enemies for your sakes: but as touching the election, they are beloved for the father’s sakes.  29For the gifts and calling of God are without repentance.

Is God finished with Israel, according to Paul? Not at all. Did he reject his people? Not at all. God still has them in his heart. God still has a plan. God still intends their eyes to be opened, and all Israel to be saved. Because of his covenant with them. A covenant we saw last time he made with Abraham to be an everlasting covenant. They were chosen by God, elected by God, and “beloved for the father’s sakes. For the gifts and calling of God are without repentance.”

Or here is the English Standard Version:

28 As regards the gospel, they are enemies for your sake. But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. 29 For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.

When God gives a gift, he doesn’t take it back.

Those who want to brand the Jewish people as a whole for what a few leaders did 2000 years ago forget what Jesus said in the Scripture reading we heard from Luke. Jesus prays, in Luke 23:34. He is suffering, but his thoughts are not on himself. He prays, but not for himself. He prays for those Jewish priests, the puppets of Pilate, who called for his crucifixion. He prays for Pilate, the embodiment of earthly power. He prays for the soldiers and the thieves and the bystanders. And he says, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” If Jesus forgave them, how can we say any of them, or their descendants, remained guilty?

This is a line Mel Gibson slides over in his movie. He showed lots of suffering, but he downplays the most important piece—Jesus’ forgiveness of those who would do this to him. Jesus mumbles it, and the bad thief mocks him, and immediately is punished by having his eye eaten by a crow.

Mel portrayed his version of Jesus—not the Bible’s version.

Some people in 2004 confused the two. They said, “If you fight against this movie, you fight against God.” They said, ‘The critics have a problem with the Bible, not with Mel Gibson.”

That wasn’t true.

Another movie came out that same year. “The Gospel of John.” The producers aimed to include only the words of the Gospel, all the words of the Gospel. They wanted to give not their own vision, or their own interpretation, but to be faithful to Scripture. Some Jewish friends of mine saw it, who had seen “The Passion” at that special preview screening. They were repelled by “The Passion,” but attracted by “John.” Even though John’s gospel has lots of negative things to say about Jews, they weren’t offended. They saw the full picture of who Jesus was, from John’s prologue about the eternal Word, the Creator, made flesh, through the stories of Jesus’ miracles and his own teachings, to his condemnation and death and resurrection. They saw the whole picture, as portrayed not by legend or tradition or a human storyteller and they came away inspired. They came away feeling better about Jesus—and about Christians.

If people don’t believe us when we witness to them, maybe they aren’t rejecting Jesus. Maybe we’ve just framed his picture in an unattractive way. Maybe they are rejecting us, and our agenda, and the way we’ve told the story. But if we get out of the way, and let the story speak for itself, let Jesus speak for himself, in the fullness of his beauty, maybe they’ll have a different response.

Mel’s problem was that he thought “passion” means merely suffering. And he heaped suffering upon suffering, and made it brutal and graphic.

But a dictionary defines “passion” not merely as “suffering,” but as “any powerful or compelling emotion or feeling, as love or hate.” The true “passion of Christ” is his love. Powerful and compelling love. Love that will not let us go. Love that gives of itself. Love that doesn’t value its own life. Love that forgives even enemies. Love that forgives present wrongs because of past promises. Love that is all-embracing, unquenchable, undeniable, and everlasting. That’s what is revealed in the story of the cross and the resurrection.