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Embrace the Lepers!
August 21, 1988


I saw the movie, "The Last Temptation," and in deciding to tell you about it, got so involved I had to change today's sermon. I'm sorry, but you will have to have to control your curiosity on how to make relationships work in the light of the text, "Wives, be subject to your husbands," until September 18! Friday afternoon, Ellie and I met friends in the city and saw the controversial movie which I mentioned two weeks ago, "The Last Temptation of Jesus Christ," based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis. On the way out, my friend, who is also a United Methodist pastor, said, "What's all the hullabaloo about?"

I am intrigued with the viewpoint of the editor of the United Methodist Reporter, which is contained in the inside pages of our church paper, The New Outlook. The editorial in the current issue called, "Universal deserves `best hornswoggle' Oscar," accuses Universal Studios of orchestrating a public controversy over the film in order to increase the audience. Universal Studios produced a movie that in itself would reach a very limited audience, so they masterfully manipulated or "suckered" conservative Christians, especially those who predictably launch campaigns and causes on the flimsiest of evidence, into acting as the studio's public relations department! Without the uproar, the movie would have come and gone with little impact on anyone.

In another article on the Reporter's editorial page, Stephen Swecker, who traveled from Dallas to Chicago to see the movie, wrote,

It does not mock God or Jesus.

It does not suggest Jesus sinned.It does not deny Jesus' divinity.

It does not imply homosexual conduct.

It does not contain salacious sex.

It does not show eating of human flesh.

It does acknowledge that it is based on a work of fiction, not on the Scriptures.

What the movie and the controversy have done is to bring ancient theological controversies into the public arena. I mentioned two weeks ago the question which has divided Christians since the second century: was Jesus a human or of God? The historic church in the fourth century, after years of debate, sometimes violent, hammered out the Nicene Creed, to which most Christians subscribe, which affirms that Jesus was truly human and truly divine, both a real human being and the Son of God. Some Christians today have difficulty accepting the idea that Jesus was a real human being who experienced the same temptations and struggles that humans experience.

There is a further question which the movie raises, a question debated by those who accept the humanity and divinity of Jesus. Did the Christ become Jesus, or did Jesus become the Christ? In other words, did Jesus realize from the beginning, from the age of twelve, his unique relationship with God? Was Jesus fully conscious of his divinity, fully conscious of the fact that he was the Messiah, throughout his life, or was the realization a gradual development? Was Jesus a man who gradually discovered his mission, his messiahship, his unique relationship with God?

Kazantzakis and the movie portray Jesus as a man becoming the Christ, and the process was a process of tremendous struggle for Jesus, according to Kazantzakis. Therefore, in the movie Jesus is seen struggling with himself and his call, doubting his integrity, saying he lies, doubting his call, ascribing it to Lucifer at times. The human Jesus, according to the movie, was not that sure of himself, and his self-understanding as divine was realized by struggling with temptations and doubts. Through it all, the movie shows Jesus as one who did not give in to his temptations. He did not sin. He came to realize that God's way was not the way of the ax, nor the way of the sword, but the way of the cross. "Without sacrifice, there is no salvation," Jesus said to Judas, and that line probably is the theme of the movie.

Are you now wondering what I thought of the movie? Well, it is long, and it has its boring moments. It is not the best movie I have ever seen, nor is it the worst. Overall, I found it entertaining, and sometimes inspirational. It has some of the typical Hollywood stuff; remember, Universal Studios produces a lot of Frankenstein and horror movies. So, there is a lot of blood, but those were violent times. There is the melodramatic point when Jesus removes his heart from his chest and holds it up for the disciples to see. There are some sex scenes, but not nearly as offensive as most current movies. What was refreshing was the absence of the F... word. It was not spoken once. It is difficult to see a movie these days without the F... word used as a noun, verb, adjective and adverb! Movies have such limited vocabulary! But this movie got along nicely without it!!

Also refreshing was the realism. I have never liked the Cecil B. DeMille biblical extravaganzas where they wear shiny white robes and combed hair. DeMille's movies usually exaggerate the supernatural with voices speaking out of the sky, lightning, clouds. This movie emphasizes the natural. Sometimes their clothes are dirty, and their hair unkempt. Except for Jesus, they look like Middle Eastern folk, and not transported blond, blue-eyed Anglos like the typical Hollywood Bible movies.

The movie barely resembles the biblical accounts. The movie is based on a novel and most of the material is not found in the Bible. However the material is not anti-Bible either. There is some pantheism which I doubt Jesus preached, and some of the theology is weak, but that is a matter of preference. The movie is an interpretation of the life of Jesus. It is a way of looking at Jesus, a way that is different from the typical views, but no less legitimate. After all, none of us has a first-hand experience.

What I appreciated about the movie in particular is the Kazantzakis theme of struggle. Swecker in the Reporter summarized, "It portrays Jesus' human struggle in the most positive sense, as an intensely excruciating effort to heed God's call to fidelity, integrity and renunciation." On the basis of Scripture, we know that Jesus struggled to do the will of God. In the Garden of Gethsemane the night before his execution, he agonized over his future, but ultimately, completely, submitted himself to the will of God. It is not easy to do the will of God. It is not easy to do that for which you were born. The path ahead is not necessarily paved, level and clear. It is marred with potholes, loaded with detours, and bordered by treacherous cliffs.

Two weeks ago I shared with you a story of St. Francis, as seen through the eyes of Kazantzakis. Let me repeat it and then continue the story, illustrating the struggles we all encounter along this journey we call life. St. Francis and Brother Leo are walking. (From St. Francis, pp.90-95)

"Brother Leo, the only joy in this world is to do God's will...Because what God wants, that, and only that, is also what we want--but we don't know it. God comes and awakens our souls, revealing to them their real, though unknown, desire. This is the secret, Brother Leo. To do the will of God means to do my own most deeply hidden will."

"...But, Brother Francis, sometimes we want many things. Which among all of them is the will of God?"

"The most difficult," Francis answered with a sigh.

There were claps of thunder in the distance. The air smelled of rain.

"And what do you want deep down within you now, Brother Francis? Can you find it before God tells you?" Francis lowered his head as though listening for something.

"I can't," he said finally, sighing again. "I know what deep down within me I do not want, but I don't know what I do want."

"What is it that you don't want, Brother Francis? What is it that you hate and fear more than anything else?"

"Lepers--that's what I hate. I can't bear the sight of them. Even when I'm far away from them, just hearing the bells they wear to warn passers-by to keep their distance is enough to make me faint. God, forgive me, but there is nothing in the whole world that disgusts me more than lepers."

He spat. Suddenly he felt nauseated and dizzy. He leaned against a tree to recover.

(Several days later, and skipping over part of the story, Francis and Leo are again walking.)

Suddenly Francis stopped and grasped Leo's arm. He was deathly pale. "Do you hear?" he asked in a low voice. "No. What?"


And as he said this, they heard the sound of bells coming from the plain, still far in the distance. Both stood still. Francis' lower jaw was quivering.

"He's coming" stammered Francis, leaning upon Leo for support. His whole body was quaking now.

"Let's get away, let's escape," Brother Leo cried, and clasped Francis around the waist in order to carry him to safety.

"Where can we go? Escape--escape from God? But how, my poor, unhappy Brother Leo, how?" "We can take another road, Brother Francis."

"There will be a leper on every road we take."

...Francis darted forward. The leper emerged from the clump of trees...Half of his putrescent nose had fallen away; his hands were without fingers--just stumps; and his lips were an oozing wound.

Throwing himself upon the leper, Francis embraced him, then lowered his head and kissed him upon the lips. Afterwards he lifted him in his arms and, covering him with his robe, began to advance slowly, with heavy steps, toward the city.

He walked and walked...Suddenly Francis stopped abruptly. He bent down and drew aside the robe in order to uncover the leper. But all at once he uttered a loud cry: the robe was empty!

Francis turned...His face was resplendent--ablaze!...The tears flowing from his eyes, he fell prostrate on the ground and began to kiss the soil...It wasn't a leper; it was Christ Himself.

What are the lepers in your life? What is deep within you propelling and yet repelling you at the same time? As you struggle to live your life, as you struggle to discover the will of God, as you struggle to do the will of God, (which is actually your own deep will, and the reason why you were born), what are the lepers? What are your options? Run, hide, escape? But "there is a leper on every road."

Jesus had the cross to face. It was not a pretty future. It was not peaches and cream. It was not a future of roses and accolades. It was not a future of wealth and plenty. It was not a future of comfort and ease. The cross was Jesus' leper. He could not escape, he did not escape; he embraced the cross. As Francis embraced the leper, Jesus embraced the cross. And Jesus says to you and me, "Take up your cross and follow me." Take up your cross, embrace the lepers in your life, kiss them on the mouth. Turn, face, accept, and do the will of God, and you will experience joy.

Continuing the story of Francis:

A villager came along. Seeing Francis sprawled out on the ground in the rain, weeping, he stopped. "What happened to him?" he asked. "Why is he crying?"

"A moment ago Christ came by here. He saw Christ, and he is weeping from joy."

The villager shrugged his shoulders, laughed, and continued hastily past.



© 1988 Douglas I. Norris