The Last Temptation of Christ
Each year during Lent I make it a point to spend an afternoon with one of my favorite versions of the story of Jesus. Usually it is the original recording of Jesus Christ Superstar, but this year I watched The Last Temptation of Christ, a film that generated a major controversy when it was released in 1988.
Directed by Martin Scorsese (a Roman Catholic, who as a child wanted to be a priest), written by Paul Schrader (from a Reformed background), and based on a novel by Nikos Kazantzakis (who was raised Orthodox), the film is the product of people for whom the story of Jesus is not to be taken lightly. Even though each has issues with the church of their early years, the ministry of Jesus continues to have a role in their work.
The story is not based in the biblical accounts of Jesus, although some of the biblical stories are told here. This is a look at the dual nature of Christ from the point of view of the humanity of Jesus. Since the Council of Chalcedon in the Fifth Century, Jesus has been deemed to be fully divine and fully human. In his novel, Kazantzakis sought to understand the struggle that had to entail. Without ever denying the divinity of Jesus, The Last Temptation (both in the novel and the film) focuses on the very human desires that Jesus could have had. As a man, Jesus was at times in rebellion against what God was calling him to. He does the most despicable job he can find (making crosses for the Romans) to prove to God that he is not worthy. To him, Jesus is an eagle that descends on him with its talons – forcing him to go where he doesn’t want.
Judas is Jesus’ closest friend. He is angry with Jesus for his collaboration with the Romans, and is even sent by the Zealots to kill Jesus, but instead becomes his disciple.
Slowly Jesus accepts the ministry God has for him and as he carries out each new mission, discovers that God has more in store for him. Jesus’ idea of what God wants from him evolves as he becomes more willing to do what God wants. Eventually, but not without the agony of
It is on the cross that Satan comes to Jesus in the form of an angel to offer one last temptation. The angel tells Jesus that he had done all that God wants, and that Jesus can quit now and go on to live a normal life. He leaves with the angel, marries Mary Magdalene and after her death, Mary, the sister of Lazarus. He becomes a father and grows old.
In the midst of this life, he meets Paul, who is preaching about the death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus confronts him, but Paul rejects what Jesus says, because his message to needed to save people. He tells Jesus that even if he had never lived, he would have to be invented.
When Jesus, now old, is on his death bed, some of his disciples come and visit. Judas is livid that Jesus took the easy way out. It is then that Jesus discovers that the angel who has been with him all these years is really Satan. Is it too late, or can Jesus still do God’s will? Is all this real, or just a dream that Satan gave to Jesus in his dying moments?
It is what happens in the last temptation that is upsetting to some people. The idea of Jesus being so human that he desires and enjoys sex and would even father children is hard for some people to accept. But the church has said since the Fifth Century (and before, really) that Jesus was fully human. Every aspect of his life is based in that humanity. Indeed, one of the issues addressed at
While Kazantzakis and the filmmakers emphasize the humanity of Jesus, it never denies his divinity. In fact, the way he deals with his humanity clearly shows this Jesus to be divine. When I first read the novel, I was impressed that by making Jesus so desirous of being fully human, his choice of the cross was made more meaningful than if he were merely some heavenly being pretending to die, knowing that everything would be okay in the end.
So this year in my Lenten look at Christ, I found again what I think is the best depiction of the sacrifice of Christ ever filmed.