Oh boy, here comes this movie. Until Christmas break, I hadn’t even seen this movie, only because I never saw it around at the video rental or anywhere. But I had a chance to finally see “The Last Temptation of Christ” about a month ago, and… well, all I can say is, it was interesting. Director Martin Scorsese has made probably his most interesting film (although “Raging Bull” and “GoodFellas”, to me, are more entertaining), although it’s not exactly theologically correct.
“The Last Temptation of Christ”, as it states in a title card at its beginning, is not based on the Gospels, but is rather a fictitious account of Jesus’ life if He actually was a sinner. Christianity widely believes that Jesus, though He was fully man, was also fully God and therefore never sinned. But what if He did? But what if he struggled with his identity as the Messiah? And what if He wanted to live His own life on Earth, as a married man with children? And from its release in 1988 to today, this part of this film has received enormous controversy with good reason. But all that said, I’m really glad I was able to see the film so I could have my own viewpoint on it all.
The film begins showing Jesus (Willem Dafoe), indeed the son of a carpenter, but a very different Jesus than what many Christians are used to seeing. He carves crosses used to crucify convicts and even helps nail them to the crosses. He has an interesting relationship with Judas (Harvey Keitel), who seems to know Jesus’ destiny even more than Jesus does. And Jesus has also apparently had an intimate relationship with Mary Magdalene (Barbara Hershey), who we see working as a prostitute as Jesus even sits and watches her.
WHAT THE HECK?! I’m not kidding, all this we see within the first hour. I was tempted to turn it off, I was so ticked. I know the filmmakers acknowledged this was fiction, but it’s still frustrating to see a sinful Jesus. But then things start to make a little more sense… but not really. Finally, Jesus decides that He really is the Messiah and needs to be about His Father’s business. (I guess Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader forgot about Luke 2:49.) But anyway, we see Jesus gaining disciples, forgiving the woman caught in adultery, being tempted in the desert, preaching the Sermon on the Mount, turning over tables in the temple courts, and calling the Pharisees hypocrites.
But here’s another thing that was really strange: a lot of this happens out of order. Jesus forgives the adulterer, THEN preaches the Sermon on the Mount, THEN gains disciples, and THEN is baptized. Why is all of this in another order than what’s recorded in the Gospels? Seriously, 90% of this movie is just dang confusing.
But I will admit, seeing another perspective on a lot of these stories from the Gospels opened my eyes a little bit. For instance, all of this dialogue is basically paraphrased from the Bible and not taken word-for-word. It’s kind of like the Message Bible if it were written by Paul Schrader. Here’s an excerpt of Jesus’ preaching to a crowd of Pharisees:
JESUS: I'm here to tear down everything around you, and you know what I'm going to replace it with? Something new: God. The World of God. …You have gold and silver? It's going to rot, and that rot is going to eat away your heart. All of you! There will be a flood, and there will be a fire. Everything will be destroyed. But there will be a new ark riding on that fire, and I hold the keys and I open the door, and I decide who goes in and who doesn't. You're my brothers from Nazareth, and you're the first I invite on the ark.
And then there is other dialogue that seems completely contradictory to the Gospels. In one scene, Jesus talks with Judas and almost convinces him to have him killed, because the Messiah needs to die.
JESUS: I wish there was another way, but there isn't. I have to die on the cross.
JUDAS: I won't let you die.
JESUS: You don't have a choice. Neither do I. Remember, we're bringing God and man together. They'll never be together unless I die. I'm the sacrifice... Forget everything else, understand that.
And you guessed it: Jesus and the disciples take part in the Last Supper (where the wine actually turns into blood, which I thought was a fascinating Catholic image), and that night Jesus is arrested and taken to Pontius Pilate (played by David Bowie, of all people), and He is crucified. However, before He is to die, an image appears to Him: a little British girl (weird) who claims to be His guardian angel. She takes Him off the cross and leads Him to a house where Mary Magdalene is waiting for Him and cleans off His wounds. They make love, have a kid, she dies, He grows old, and then on His deathbed, His aged disciples come to him and confront Him about why He didn’t die on the cross after all.
And Jesus realizes that the little girl was Satan in disguise: this was the last temptation of Christ. And Jesus runs out of his house to Jerusalem on fire around Him and cries out to God:
JESUS: Father, will you listen to me? Are you still there? Will you listen to a selfish, unfaithful son? …Can you forgive me? …I want to be your Son! I want to pay the price! I want to be crucified and rise again! I want to be the Messiah!
And with those words, Jesus is transported back to the cross, where He dies after crying out: “It is accomplished!” And in my opinion, the movie was worth it for those last two minutes. Why? Because I believe that’s what my reaction has to be. I am a sinner and have tendencies to want to run my own life my own way. But that’s not what God wants for me: he wants me to play a part in his saving of the world! And I have to cry out for forgiveness and want to serve God in the same way that this “Jesus” does in the film.
I’ll be honest, I do not appreciate “The Last Temptation of Christ” making Jesus a sinful human being, because even though He was indeed human, He was without sin: as is written in 1 Peter, we are not redeemed by silver or gold, “but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect”. (1:19) But I do appreciate the image of surrender portrayed in the film, similar to what the Christian believer has to do everyday. And I pray that you would today.