No. 48. >> A great public debate took place over a movie entitled: The Passion of the Christ. How does Isaiah 53 relate both to the movie and the reactions to it? >>DR. DANIEL L. GARD: I like that question. The reason I like it is because we need as pastors to not only, as they say, exegete the text. But we also need to exegete the context. That is to say to understand the influences that are there for the people to whom we preach. And that's very important. So that your sermons and your pastoral ministry does not become abstract. But actually addresses questions that people are asking. There is a real temptation to answer questions that nobody is asking. But by paying attention to the culture, one can begin to understand more clearly the biblical text. And most especially understand more clearly how that biblical text speaks to real life. I think that this movie, the Passion of the Christ, is a great example of that. Now, I'll begin by saying I loved the movie. And that will become clear as I talked about this. And I'll explain why I loved the movie. And why, perhaps, the context of our people's lives is one where that movie comes at a wonderful time for us to speak to the issues of Isaiah 53. Those of you who have seen the movie may recall that the very beginning, without attribution to a particular book, these words flash across the screen: He was wounded for our transgressions. He was bruised for our inequities. Now, as those words from Isaiah 53 flashed across the screen, what I believed to be an extraordinary cinematic masterpiece called the Passion of the Christ began. To my memory no movie has evoked as much controversy. When it first came out there were daily reviews that seemed to appear in print, on the television, on the Internet. My question is: What can be discerned in all of that fervor? In other words, what's this context of the world today in which people hear these words or see these words and react to them? I think one way we can get at that and to help understand the influences that exist within the Christian congregation and our culture is by critiquing the critics. Trying to identify some common issue that lies among them. Many have stated their dislike for the film for a number of different reasons. But I think all those stated reasons are purely superficial. Underneath there exists a basic presupposition held by what I would say would be three identifiable groups. The first group are the secularists. And they tend to simply criticize the movie for its overtly Christian content. For some the very idea of religious faith in the public arena is repugnant. Especially if that religion is Christianity. But then along comes this movie, the Passion of the Christ. And it comes right into the neighborhood theater. Mr. Gibson, the producer, produced the film that takes seriously the central article of the Christian faith. And he happens to also admit to being a believer in Jesus Christ. Now, it's certainly true that Mr. Gibson is a conservative even preVatican II Roman Catholic. But he doesn't pretend to be anything else. The virtue of integrity of faith in public confession seems to be lost, though, on some. And really a flash point for others. You see, to the secularists, religious faith of any kind is appropriate only as a matter of private life. Not of public life. One may believe whatever he or she chooses to believe because we are, afterall, post modern although nobody really seems to be able to define what that means. But one dare not say publicly what one believes privately. The only public discourse on religious that's permitted is the degradation of religion. With the possible exception of religious faiths that are seen as either a minority faith or one act of opposition to Christianity. Degrading comments about Jesus Christ are quite acceptable. But nothing similar dares be said about other gods like Allah. That would be insensitive. But even more to the dislike of secularists, the Passion of the Christ takes seriously the historicity of the death of Jesus. Many have decried the violence of the movie. But I don't think it's violence, per se, that secularists detest. Since even more violent films have been produced and have received critical acclaim. It is a particular violence that took place some 2,000 years ago and was directed at one who is proclaimed to be God. A Jesus who serves as a guru of social values and teacher of morality and an example of a man misrepresented by his followers is an acceptable Jesus. A Jesus who was wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our inequities is not. When Gibson portrays this Jesus as one who actually lived and suffered for humanity, the secularist fears the outcome. He cannot allow the foolishness of the bloody religion of Christianity to define the purpose and value of human life. The message of forgiveness and sacrificial love contradicts the very central ethic of this culture where the human being is no more than the chance byproduct of improbability. The meaningless end result of an evolutionary process that itself comes from nowhere and leads to nowhere. For the secularist, it is really a bleak universe. The human being has no real purpose for being. And no end other than the oblivion of death. But if Jesus of Nazareth is taken seriously, the secularist's universe is threatened at its very foundation. If the story of Jesus is true, and God has redeemed this world by becoming a man, then human beings are not the chance encounter of molecules. But the intentional product of a Creator. And we have an immense value based upon the decree of the Creator who redeems his creation. The Christ we see in Gibson's film reverses the secularists universe. God was in Christ redeeming the world through the cross. Now, another group of critics are those that hold a religious faith that is distinctly non-Christian. Now, among those, the ones I found most interesting, are the Jewish reviewers. Some of the films most vocal critics. And also some of its strongest defenders have come from that religious community. Surface level charge against the film is that it is anti-Semitic. A charge that, by the way, is taken up by some of the secular critics, as well. The historicity of the biblical accounts of Jesus' final hours is sometimes challenged. But even when the historicity is not, the appropriateness of the film's portrayal of Jews is. In order to lessen that criticism, the film was modified in certain respects. For example, in a couple cases, the English subscript of the Arabic -- or Aramaic dialogue was omitted. For example, when Jesus -- or rather Pontius Pilate says: I am innocent of this man's blood. And the English subtitle appears. In Aramaic the crowd responds: His blood be on us and on our children. But no English subtitle appears for that particular phrase. Nor do the words of Jesus to the daughters of Jerusalem. The audience in these cases are to hear the words in Aramaic. But not to understand them. Now, it's true that the film does not portray the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem in a favorable light. But then again, neither do the gospels. The simple fact is it was their decision to destroy Jesus. Their witness failed to agree with one another. The real charge of blasphemy was altered to insurrection when they brought Jesus to the Roman authorities. Now, that's not anti-Semitism. That's the assertion of the biblical text recounting the trial and crucifixion of Jesus. By the way, lost in the charges of anti-Semitism is the positive portrayal of Jews in the movie. It's a Jewish actress, Maia Morgenstern, who happens to be a daughter of the rabbi who portrays Mary, the mother the Jesus. Jesus himself is unquestionably Jewish. He's no northern European looking man as he often is in Western films. He speaks Aramaic. Follows the Passover customs. And reflects the culture of his Jewish environment. While some Jews plot his death, other Jews seek to protect and comfort him and mourn his sentence. Even the Jewish leaders mistreatment of Jesus pales compared to the way the Romans treated him. Gibson does not call his audience to hate Jews because of what happened to Christ. But rather, to look within themselves and see the evil that resides within all of us. See, the real problem to me, again, is that it is the -- it's not the supposed anti-Semitism of the film. Rather, it's that hermeneutic that flashed across the screen at the very beginning: He was wounded for our transgressions. He was bruised for our inequities. Because this is the offense of the movie and the offense of the story cross. This Jew, Jesus, bloody and battered, nailed to a cross, is openly held up to be the fulfillment of Isaiah 53. And by extension, every Hebrew Scripture prophecy of the Christ. At the end when Jesus dies, Satan is seen screaming in the agony of defeat. The earth trembles and the Holy of Holies is open. And it is declared that this man is the Son of God. Now, a final group that I would briefly speak of are the critics that arise from amongst Christian circles. One Lutheran writer Ed Schroeder offers a critique that I think reflects that of a lot of Christian reviewers of the movie. He says: The second hero, possibly the first, is Mary. That's where Gibson's old style Catholicism jumped off the screen for me. She, too, is a suffering servant. Hers is bloodless in contrast to the oozing blood of her son. And if suffering is a sine quo non of saving sinners, he presents her to us almost as co-redemptors. I think that's a common Protestant fear of Mary. A fear that has no roots in the biblical or historical structures of the Lutheran heritage. Schroeder himself later asserts in his article that Mary is the ***atacus, that is the God bearer. Mary has exactly -- is exactly like all of the human beings when she rejoices that God is her Savior. Yet her relationship to Jesus was unique because she alone was chosen to bear, birth and nourish the very Son of God. Thus, she is the one that every generation is to call blessed. Now, in fact, there are a number of embellishments throughout the movie that are rooted in Roman Catholic tradition and are not found in the biblical text. But I think all of those embellishments certainly would make sense historically. Did they actually happen? Well, maybe. But probably not. Could they have happened? Certainly. Could Mary have spent time wiping up the blood of her Son after his beating? We know she was there. She followed her son suffering. What mother wouldn't? Would your wife not follow her child as he went through this suffering and be there by his side? All of those embellishments simply reflect what very likely could, in fact, have been the case. While they may not be in the biblical text, they are nothing more than artistic embellishments. And ones that very likely or very possibly at least could have been part of those events that are not recorded. The point of this is that the suffering of Jesus was no abstract suffering. Endured by one who only appeared to be human. It was suffering that very few have to endure. But human beings, even the rest of us who are human only and not at the same time truly God, can, in fact, endure tremendous pain if our will is committed to fulfilling a mission. Was Jesus' suffering beyond that which a normal human being might bear? Yes. Both in the movie and in historical fact. Every record of the process of crucifixion by the Romans is one of incredible brutality. That Jesus could have endured it all is made possible by one thing: His commitment to fulfill the mission he had come to complete. That is the salvation of the world. Such an image is most unsavory in modern Christianity. Sanctuaries once held multiple images of the suffering Christ. Many Lutheran churches had as their focal point a crucifix. And there before the eyes of God's people was the image of Jesus nailed to a cross. Almost always, however, that crucifix was a work of art. And in that partially hid the horror of Calvary by depicting Jesus in peaceful death. Head bowed after giving up his spirit. Encased not in the wood and gore of a Roman cross. But in the polished silver, gold or brass of piety. Today many Lutheran altars have crosses that are devoid of a corpus. Still other church buildings are more barren of empty crosses on modern altars. With no cross at all to be seen. With or without a corpus. The liturgical cross is a rejected symbol since the modern Christian faith is supposed to be a positive experience. An uplifting, if shallow, encounter with God. More tragically, much of what passes as Christian preaching is as devoid of the cross as the building in which it takes place. Far too many Christians -- or for too many Christians the message is that no one shall feel sorrow by gazing upon an image and hearing words spoken about God's suffering and dieing for us. So what's the common thread between these different critics of the Passion of the Christ? What is the culture that shapes the way in which our people read Isaiah 53? It all centers on what we could call the Theology of the Cross. Now, I'm reminded of another biblical text that serves as a hermeneutic for understanding human reaction to Isaiah 53 and to its fulfillment in Jesus. Saint Paul wrote: Jews demand miraculous signs. And Greeks look for wisdom. But we preach Christ crucified. A stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. I Corinthians 1. The cross with its suffering, dieing God is as much a stumbling block and offense today as it was then. Only in the cross do we see the hidden God. This is where God is found. Hidden in the Christ. Hidden in suffering. Hidden in the ugliness of the cross. No one would expect to find God there. Simon Peter didn't. Nor would Luther. Nor would the most artful secularists or the most devout Jew. Not the most liberal Christian. No one. But there and only there do we find him. And every fiber of our being resists that discovery because it contradicts all of our assumptions about God. How could the almighty be weak? How could the Creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible, suffer, be crucified and die? Human reason absolutely revolts against this. And human wisdom denies that could be so. Recall that opening scene of the Passion of the Christ. And after that hermeneutic of Isaiah 53 flashes across the screen, we see the scene set in the Garden of Gethsemane. The appearance of Gibson's androgynous Satan is of course not in the biblical account. But is another embellishment. But in that embellishment Satan asks Jesus: How can one man bear the sins of the entire world? It is as if Satan perceived that which we human beings cannot fully contemplate or understand. What was about to happen to Jesus would justify a world of condemned human beings. And forever defeat every power of Satan and death and hell. But this is where the Passion of the Christ forces us to come to terms with our failure and to fully comprehend both who Jesus is and who we are. The Jesus of this movie and the Jesus of history is no frail, beautiful corpse shining on an artistically designed crucifix. He is certainly not the Christ of positive thinking and glorious but crossless popular Christianity. He is the Lamb of God. The sin bearer of the world. The horror of his scourging crucifixion and agony is the horror of our scourging crucifixion and agony. That is the great exchange. The sinless one dies. The sinful one lives. The one who kept the law suffers the death of a criminal. The breakers of the law like Barabas are set free. The Holy One becomes sin. The sinful ones become holy. And we and our people live in that paradox of his power that is found in the passion and cross. The contrast between good people and evil people seems pretty obvious in the movie. But there is another problem. The Theology of the Cross insists that we see ourselves among those for whom the passion occurred. Gibson is showing the bloody sacrifice for what it was and still is. As the Roman soldiers almost gleefully pursue their torture of Jesus, professionally selecting just the right instruments to inflict as much pain as possible, the blood begins to flow. Not just drops of blood. But pools of blood. As they strike him, the blood splatters across his tormenters. As Mary kneels down to clean up that blood, it soaks her towels, her hands, her robes. It splatters on those who nailed his hand and feet to the cross. As Mary stands besides her crucified son, the blood pours over her. Like the rain, the blood falls on the evil and the good. Martin Luther the great theologian of the cross wrote in the Heidelberg thesis: True theology and recognition of God are in the crucified Christ. There is God. Hidden yet revealing himself. And in so doing, revealing who we are. We are not the meaningless result of the course of evolution or simply animals like all other creatures. We are the redeemed creation of a God who has so loved us that he did give his only begotten Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. Yet, there's one final aspect of this Theology of the Cross that I don't think we can ignore. We are called by this same Jesus to take up our crosses and to follow him. Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a pastor in Germany during the darkest days of the second world war wrote this: When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die. To take up our cross has nothing to do with bearing those afflictions that come from being human. The cross of the Christian is properly only that suffering that he or she endures because of the Gospel. To live with Jesus is to die with him. And to die with him is also to rise with him. It's that final scene of the movie that is perhaps also the shortest. From the ***pioticine of Mary embracing the dead body of her son, the camera shifts first to Satan screaming in defeat. And then to a tomb. There the gray clothes lie empty. And one sees so very briefly the risen Christ. Glorious in his victory. And yet in his hands still bearing the marks of his passion. It is perhaps this very brevity that makes that short resurrection scene so very powerful. The movie, like the Theology of the Cross, ultimately leads people to an empty tomb. This is the hermeneutic at the end of the movie. Wonderfully balancing the hermeneutic of Isaiah 53 at the beginning. This is the essence of Christian hope in a life lived under the cross. And through the call to discipleship. Our death is rooted with him in baptism. But so, also, is our resurrection. The same cross of Jesus that leads us to the tomb with him brings us to our resurrection with him. This is in our baptism. This is in the blessed sacrament, the foretaste of the marriage feast of the Lamb and his kingdom shall have no end. This is our past, our present and our future. This is Isaiah 53.