To Be or Not to Be Spartacus: Jesus, Yoder, and the True Last Temptation of Christ


ImageI admit it. I saw it. At same point late at night I came across The Last Temptation of Christ on cable and curiosity got the better of me. By that point I had heard a friend describe watching the film. I remember him arguing that the film was not near as blasphemous as it was purported to be. So here I was late at night not the least bit sleepy and that film was just starting up. And since I did not have a cat, I would have to be the one that curiosity threatened. In this case the curiosity did not kill but merely bored (the film is quite boring to tell the truth). Yet I was converted to my friend’s stated view: the work was actually in its own way quite faithful.

For those who go to bed at reasonable times and have mastered your curiosity, let me explain. There is a framing mechanism at work (which explains the so-called nasty bits if understood). Christ is on the cross, and while he suffers the enemy comes with one last temptation: a look at the life he could lead if he were to get down off the cross. In this look at life, Christ settles down with Mary Magdalene, goes the family way. He and his disciples set up a nice little community with their wives and kids. The movie ends in a rather fantastic speech by Judas about the damage done to the world by Jesus’ selfish retreat into what then constituted an easy suburban existence. And just like that the temptation ends and Christ remains on the cross.

And so for the last decade or so this idea of a Christ with his temptation to avoid the cross for the family way remained a viable reflection (for me as a single man) during the Holy Week. That was until I signed on to participate in the Transit Lounge Book Club[1], and came upon this month’s reading: The Politics of Jesus by John Howard Yoder. In truth I should have read Yoder sooner.[2] And so here I was spending time on a Thursday morning during Lent reading Yoder’s macro-account of Luke’s Gospel. Then it happened. I read this passage (reading, so dangerous to previously held ideas)[3]:

“In the reverence which surrounds Christian interpretation of Gethesmene, the reader and even the professional commentator seldom have indulged the historical curiosity which would ask what it could have meant for ‘this cup to pass.’ In what way would it have been possible, in the situation Jesus’ offensive behavior in the temple had brought upon him to avoid the ultimate clash and destruction? What was the option with which he was struggling? Was it that he might slip away to Qumrun until the storm was over? Or could he have reconciled with the authorities by retracting some of his more extreme statements? Should he have announced a de-escalation, renounced his candidacy for the kingship, and gone into teaching?

The only real option in terms of historical seriousness and the only one with a slim basis in the text, is the hypothesis that Jesus was drawn, at least in the moment of temptation, to think once again about the messianic violence with which he had been tempted since the beginning. Now is finally time for holy war. All four Gospels report Peter’s use of the sword in legitimate defense. All but Mark interpret it in such a way as to suggest that the episode is symbolic of a deeper struggle. According to John, Jesus’ rebuke of Peter uses the very language of his prayer: ‘Shall I not drink the cup which the Father has given me?’

The narrative of Matthew interprets the episode of the sword by spelling out at greater length what Jesus might have done. ‘Do you think that I cannot appeal to the Father, and he will send me more than 12 legions of angels? How then should the Scriptures be fulfilled that it must be so?’ The themes of appeal to the Father and the notion of fulfillment of prediction again place the sword episode in the context of the words of the Prayer. I have little qualification for surmising what it would have looked like for 12 legions of angels – a Roman legion is said to be have been 6,000 soldiers- to come into the garden. But what I can imagine is not very much the point. Matthew’s report is clear, and Matthew could imagine that final encounter with Judas and the Jewish and perhaps Roman police would have been at just that point at which God would unleash the apocalyptic holy war, where the miraculous power of the angelic hosts, Jesus’ disciples as shock troops,  and the crowds of Jerusalem with their long-brewing resentment would rise up in one mighty surge of sacred violence and would finally drive the heathen from the land and restore to God’s people (as Zechariah had predicted) the possibility to serve JHWH in freedom and without fear….

This is the third chance. As the tempter has suggested, Jesus once could have taken over the rule by acclamation after the feedings of the multitude. His second chance for a coup d’etat had been at the entry into the Temple, with the jubilant crowd at his back, the temple police thrown off guard by the noise and the Roman guards cowed by Jesus’ air of moral authority. Both times Jesus had turned away from the challenge to take over.

Here now is the last opportunity. As Satan had come thrice in the desert, so the real option of Zealot-like kingship comes the third time in the public ministry. It is not without both literary and theological justification that commentators have pointed to a parallelism between the testing in the desert and the trial in Gethsemane. Once more, now clearly for the last time, the option of crusade beckons. Once more Jesus sees this option as a real temptation. Once more he rejects it.”[4]

ImageAnd there we have it, the real reason that Scorcese’s version of the Last Temptation is bunk: not because he didn’t become a Jewish Cliff Huxtable but because he didn’t become the Jewish Spartacus. If one believes the work of N.T. Wright in his magnificent Surprised by Hope, this was not just a problem for Jesus in an emotional or mental way; but it was a temptation in a very real social way. For the Messiah to take up the sword and rain hell upon the heathens was the expectation of the masses. Why do you think that Peter and the disciples felt the need to grab for the swords after 1 to 3 years of non-swordish ministry? This was what Messiah did. He grabbed the sword and kicked Babylonian, Assyrian, or Roman youknowwhat. The men who had grabbed the sword and made the oppressors feel the wrath of God were celebrated.[5]

Before we get all self-righteous with Peter, roll our eyes,[6] and talk about how great our Protestant, Evangelical, and 21st century faith is; let us confess that the sword and youknowwhat kicking temptation is as real today as it was in the garden. Hello, have you met the internet, or perhaps any of the poster boys of post-modern masculine Christianity, or perhaps spent a 9/11 anniversary in an AmericanEvangelicalChurch, or paid any attention during an election season or watched that news channel recently? The temptation to get righteous with the heathens who take away our freedoms and threaten our abilities to do whateverwewantwhenwewanttodoit remains.

Yet one can see Christ slowly taking the sword out of our hands, picking up the ear of the LGBTQ[7] person in front of us, healing the afflicted, turning to us with those tearing eyes, and asking ‘Would you not let drink this cup that the Father has poured for me?”

The temptation stands. The sword burns in your hands. What will you do? Will you go away with the crowd? Will you take up your cross? Will you follow Christ to your very own Golgotha? The choice is yours follow the way of Christ or the way of the Maccabees.

The frame is in place. You are on the cross. The camera has panned in, and the temptation has played out in the middle reel. My hope and prayer is that in the movie reel that is your life the screen will go black, and you will reappear on the cross as the credits roll.


[1] Still plenty of room on the bandwagon. Join us. See link for details.

[2]  Which was the deciding factor for participation in TLBC. Each month is a book I should have read already.

[3] I apologize for the length of the quote; yet Yoder has made his point so well and so fully that only the full quote seems worth while. I intend this not to be a review but a renewal of Yoder’s call to messianic submission.

[4] John Howard Yoder. The Politics of Jesus (2nd edition). (Grand Rapids, Mich.; William B. Eerdmans, 19940, 46-48.

[5] And still are. See Hanukah.

[6] A very real necessary for reading stories about Peter. I can imagine among the apostles he was that guy: the one constantly saying things that had the other disciples rolling their eyes and snickering amongst themselves.

[7] Or Muslim. Or Atheist. Or feminist. Your pick. I used LGBTQ based on the joys of yesterday’s Supreme Court hearing.

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3 Comments

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  1. I think we were both struck by this… the real temptation was always violence, would He resort to violence. Could violence ever be redemptive, even in the hands of Christ? And you nailed it (wrong week for this pun?), Jesus wasn’t the Jewish Spartacus. He refused the violence, never called on the legions of angels but submitted (then subverted) the legions of Roman soldiers. And we never saw it coming – because we didn’t have eyes to see. It appears the woman who anointed him with oil might have been the only one who had a clue.

    In a footnote (I think) Yoder mentions that the phrase ‘pick up your cross’ might have been a zealot slogan. It wouldn’t have been referring to self-mortification, as we tend to use it in Christian circles these days. The slogan would have meant to engage the enemy, even if it leads to the cross, even if you will be crucified for insurrection or sedition. It most likely was a war cry for those who believed in just war, the myth of redemptive violence (per Walter Wink), those wanting Spartacus. And so this week that phrase has been looping through my mind. What might it have meant, and what might it have meant when Jesus co-opted it? Was He saying die to yourself and embrace self-sacrifice, or was He saying that His way of non-violent confrontation of the legions would inevitably lead to a cross. And that we ought to know that beforehand, count the cost, and still go toward Jerusalem. But He would have radically reversed the meaning… not to violently engage like a zealot, but suffer the violence and still end up on the cross. So this week I’ve been thinking of bitter cups, violence, carrying crosses, restoring ears to some people.

    Most see Easter as Jesus in victory over death. Yes, I see that, God restoring life. But I’ve been considering it another way, too. Jesus is victorious over violence on Good Friday. He never gave into that final temptation. He trusted God to redeem beyond human modes of violence. So in the end, no violence but brave trust. This sums up Easter for me this week…

    Thanks for reading with me, tweeting and offering such a great reflection. I so enjoyed engaging with your ideas here! I’ll set up the link tool tonight and post my own response tomorrow. (Spoiler alert: it’s all about jubilee for me!) Hope you’ll be reading Prophetic Imagination with us this April, another seminal text if you haven’t already read it! It’s a re-read for me, but it’s been a few years so I’m ready to come at the text again with older eyes.

  2. Rickman Cubed 03/27/2013 — 5:26 pm

    Thanks for the kind words. It is really life-saving to get to be a part of a group that is excited about theology; but even more so to find kindred spirits who are seeing the same things I am. I spent the better part of the last several years feeling alone (sometimes even asking if I was the only one left) in the sea of my God and GOP loving state where any mention of abhorrence for violence set me up as the crazy liberal. To find others for whom God’s call to self-sacrifice resonates is a great boon.

    I was also stuck this week thinking about Passover. How easy would it have been for the Israelites in Egypt to take matters in their own hands (a la Moses and the slave-driver); yet God never rewarded the pursuit of emancipation by armed revolt. In the end they left with all the riches of Egypt without any blood on their hands. God fought their battle for them, and bought judgment in his own way. I have been prone to think of it as wrathful; yet there is grace there in the doorpost. I was praying through the passage and wondered what would have happened if an Egyptian person would have placed blood on his door. it seems to me that by the blood of the lamb, there was an avenue of grace to avoid the catastrophe. I wonder how many times we harp on God’s wrath without seeing that God’s ‘wrath’ is simply the soft, small underbelly of his benevolent grace. I read in CT where the Shack dude flabbergasted his interviewer by remarking that he felt we misunderstand wrath as angry punishment of a wronged entity; when it might better be understood as the loving discipline of a parent. Just some thoughts.

  3. Haven’t read the book, but have read many similar texts (being raised Mennonite). I loved this post and feels like it captures what I’ve learn about Yoder (and Mennonites) perfectly. There is always a choice. Thanks for including the long quote for those of us who couldn’t quite make it past the third page of the book. 🙂 It almost makes me want to try again…almost.

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