Day 236: Matthew 26:39, 42

My Father, if it is possible, take this cup of suffering from me! Yet not what I want, but what you want…. My Father, if this cup of suffering cannot be taken away unless I drink it, your will be done.

Jesus asked three of his disciples to accompany him into the night to a place named Gethsemane. This was the place where he chose to pray on his last night on earth.  Not the Temple.  A hill, or a garden.  An open space.  Perhaps a garden, perhaps an olive grove.  In Matthew’s version of this story, which is the same as that of Mark, he is overwhelmed by a heart-crushing sorrow.  He throws himself face down on the ground.  The description written much later by Luke is far more embellished.  There is a lot of other stuff going on like angels and sweating blood.  A lot of people like that sweating blood business, but Matthew doesn’t mention it.  And who would have been there to witness it?  The disciples were all asleep.  What is it with this fascination with blood?  Everyone has it.  Matthew and Mark don’t mention blood.  In Matthew and Mark the attention on a man who doesn’t really want to take the difficult journey that is before him.

Back on Day 221 I talked about the debate among Christians concerning predestination vs. free will.  When I read this scripture it sounds like Jesus had free will to choose what he was going to do.  This prayer certainly makes it sound like he had to agree to go to the cross.  It sounds like he was trying to get out of it.  Certainly he wanted reassurance from God that it was absolutely necessary.  He didn’t want to die for nothing.

The concept of what might have happened if Jesus had made a different choice is explored in the 1953 novel The Last Temptation of Christ which was made into a movie in 1988.  The premise is this: When Jesus is on the cross a girl who calls herself his guardian angel comes to rescue him.  She says that it isn’t necessary for him to die on the cross because God loves him and wants him to be happy.  She brings him down from the cross and takes him to Mary Magdalene.

He makes love to her, marries her, has a child, and lives a quiet life in a forest cabin.  When Mary dies he forms a family with Mary and Martha and has children with them, also.  He later meets the apostle Paul, who is looking for the Messiah, and his disciple Judas, who (ironically) calls Jesus a traitor for not going to the cross.  Finally, in his old age Jesus realizes that he was deceived and that the angel who stopped his crucifixion was Satan in disguise, tempting him into the comfort of the life of an ordinary man.  Jesus realized he should have died on the cross to bring salvation to all.  He pleads with God to let him complete his mission. Ultimately it seems that the whole thing was a hallucination, because the film ends with a young Jesus back on the cross, smiling because he did not miss the chance to fulfill his destiny.

The film created a big furor.  A French Christian fundamentalist group bombed a Parisian movie theater that was showing the film, seriously injuring many people.  The Roman Catholic Church attacked the film.  The Archbishop of Paris, Jean-Marie Cardinal Lustiger, said “One doesn’t have the right to shock the sensibilities of millions of people for whom Jesus is more important than their father or mother.” The leader of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, a Roman Catholic group that had promised to stop the film from being shown, said, “We will not hesitate to go to prison if it is necessary.”

Wikipedia describes protests against the film here in the United States:

Because of these departures from the gospel narratives—and especially a brief scene wherein Jesus and Mary Magdalene consummate their marriage—several Christian fundamentalist groups organized vocal protests and boycotts of the film prior to and upon its release. One protest, organized by a religious Californian radio station, gathered 600 protesters to picket the headquarters of Universal Studios’ parent company MCA; one of the protestors dressed as MCA’s Chairman Lew Wasserman and pretended to drive nails through Jesus’ hands into a wooden cross. Bill Bright of Campus Crusade for Christ offered to buy the film’s negative from Universal in order to destroy it. The protests were effective in convincing several theater chains not to screen the film; one of those chains, General Cinemas, later apologized to Scorsese for doing so.

In some countries, including Turkey, Mexico, Chile, and Argentina, the film was banned or censored for several years. As of July 2010, the movie continues to be banned in the Philippines and Singapore.

I never saw the film, but I think it raises an interesting question.  What would have happened if Jesus had made another decision up there at Gethsemane? What if he had chosen to live a comfortable life instead?  I don’t think it would have been a disaster. I think that if something needs to be done, God doesn’t give up just because we are uncooperative.  I think that if something needs to be done God continues to send people until the task that needs to be completed is accomplished.  I don’t think God gives up very easily.

I can’t understand why people got so upset about The Last Temptation.  It’s a work of fiction.  I think the real issue was that people don’t want to believe that Jesus was free to make a choice.  For some reason it offends them that Jesus might not have been predestined or obligated to die for them.   They also found those sex scenes offensive, even though they were apparently very brief.  People don’t mind seeing all those “bloody Jesus” films where he is tortured ad nauseam, but they get totally bent out of shape that Jesus (whom every Christian denomination admits was at some level human) might have had sex.  The Bible doesn’t say whether or not he was ever intimate with a woman.  He could have been married and had 12 kids for all we know. I guess thinking about Jesus having sex is kind of like thinking about your parents having sex.  Disconcerting.

One final word about this scripture.  I think it is applied inappropriately to situations where people are suffering for reasons other than persecution.  Jesus had a choice as to whether or not to risk his life and take up the role of a martyr. But sick people, for example, don’t get to make a choice.  Sick people shouldn’t have to be resigned to being sick.  They shouldn’t be told to stop complaining and drink their “cup of suffering” and resign themselves to being miserable when it’s accomplishing nothing relative to the greater good. Very different from the suffering of a martyr.

So did Jesus have a choice?  I say yes. His first statement, “Take this cup of suffering from me” is the plea of a victim.  But the final part, “Your will be done” is the declaration of one who has made a choice.  He is choosing to face his fears and go to the cross.  He has crossed over from being a victim to being a victor.  His mind is set. He’s good to go.  He is saying, “Bring it on.”  What’s makes me sad is that I think he was hoping, right up into the last minute, that humanity might change its mind and show him a little love.  I think that right up until this scripture he secretly held out hope that there would be a better outcome.  My heart breaks that people forced him to make this decision to suffer and die prematurely.  Seriously, it makes me sick.

What does this scripture say to you?

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