Movie of the Week: The Gospel According to St. Matthew by Pier Paolo Pasolini 1964
Clip: 22:50 – 28:35
Old Testament: Genesis 4:1-14
New Testament: Romans 6:1-14
In earlier weeks, we reflected on other portrayals of John the Baptist, so it would be easy to glance past yet another one. However, Pasolini’s perspective differs so greatly from the others, it’s worth pausing to take note of the message he conveys (and we often miss) regarding John’s ministry – and, subsequently, Jesus’. W. Barnes Tatum notes that most movies about Jesus use John the Baptist simply to announce the coming of Jesus. Certainly, that was a major purpose of his coming, but Pasolini presents a fuller picture of John’s purposes. No doubt, Pasolini’s Marxism saw some resonance with Matthew’s story of John the Baptist.
John is often portrayed as a crazy, Grizzly Adams type of character with his strange, hairy clothes and odd diet of locusts, but we often gloss over the audacity of his message and the prophetic edge with which he spoke. Unlike the other filmmakers, Pasolini includes every word of John prior to his baptizing Jesus. His sharp rebuke of religious leaders sets the tone that will carry through the entire movie. “No film more exclusively places the responsibility for Jesus’ death on the Jewish religious authorities than The Gospel According to St. Matthew.” It is interesting to note in our capitalism-driven world that a Marxist would see in John’s message one that resonates with him. Lest we become too ideologically-blinded and forget, there have been many Christians who were also communists throughout history – not to mention all other kinds of political parties. The point in observing this is not to posit communism over capitalism (or any other form of government), but simply to remind us that we are reading these stories (and watching these films) from a particular perspective relative to our own experience, personalities, and beliefs. God is bigger than all -isms.
Pasolini’s portrayal of John helps us remember that both John and Jesus offered a pointed critique at the systems of sin in their world. “You brood of vipers” is how he referred to them. We often see John as a gruff and slightly disturbed messenger, but his message echoed Jesus’ message when it came to upending the system. Really, Jesus’ words in Matthew 23 speaking out against the religious leaders are even stronger than John’s. Western Christianity, set against the backdrop of the rise of individualism in the West, has emphasized the role of personal sin, but too often neglects the role of systems of sin. We are quick to condemn sinful choices of individuals, but often give the systems that contribute to those sinful choices a pass. More to the point, we too easily ignore and copout of the sinful systems that we contribute to.
spend some time reflecting on the bigger systems of which we are a part that
contribute to sin. Theologian Cornelius Plantinga boils down some lofty
theological ideas to the simple phrase: “the world’s not the way it’s supposed
to be.” At the heart of Christianity is the longing for another world – a
better one. One that is the way it’s supposed to be. Along the way, the church
is supposed to be a people working to help “your will be done on earth as it is
in heaven.” We all contribute to systems of oppression and injustice. In our
worldwide, capitalistic world, we constantly buy goods that were made with
child labor or environmentally destructive practices. Racism and oppression
helped make America what it is, and we constantly live in the reality of that
long, dark shadow.
It’s easy to shrug our shoulders and
quickly dismiss things as “just the way they are.” The darkness of sin in our
world can obviously paralyze us and harden our hearts (like pharaoh’s). At the
same time, if we never acknowledge our own complicit-ness in these systems, we
let ourselves off the hook. Spend some time lamenting our role in these systems
of worldwide oppression that help foster our life of ease.
 W. Barnes Tatum, Jesus at the Movies, 3rd ed. (Salem, OR: Polebridge Press, 2013), 118.