Sunday, March 14, 2004

Does Mel Gibson’s ‘The Passion Of The Christ’ Portray Pontius Pilate In A Positive Way?

"I am personally opposed, but . . . "

(Third Sunday of Lent (C): This homily was given on March 14, 2004 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. Read Luke 13: 1-9.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Third Sunday of Lent 2004]

One of the most controversial aspects of Mel Gibson’s movie on the Passion concerns his portrayal of Pontius Pilate. Certain critics of the film are saying that Gibson has “whitewashed” the Roman procurator and portrayed him in a positive light, while at the same time making the religious leaders of the Jews seem almost demonic. Here’s how one reviewer put it: “Gibson's movie all but absolves [Pilate] of any crimes—suggesting that [he] did everything he could to avoid a death sentence, that he condemned Jesus only after being relentlessly browbeaten by the Jewish high priests.”

As I see it, there are two issues in this controversy that need to be addressed. First of all, is it true? Does Gibson actually depict Pilate in a favorable way? And secondly: Why are so many of these secular movie critics insisting that he does? Why are they so adamant about it?

Take the first: Is it true? Does Gibson portray Pilate in a favorable way—as an innocent victim of circumstances beyond his control?

I don’t believe he does. In fact, I think the Pilate of this film is almost exactly like the Pilate of the four Gospels. And that, by the way, is not a compliment!

For example, consider today’s Gospel story from Luke, chapter 13. It speaks about a horrid event that took place during the ministry of Jesus: Pilate had some Galileans murdered, and then he mixed their blood with the blood of the animals they were offering in sacrifice. Now, as grotesque as it may sound, that was actually rather typical of Pilate’s behavior as procurator. Josephus, the Jewish historian of the time, tells us that he also had some Samaritans murdered on Mt. Gerazim when they were engaged in a religious service. On another occasion, Pilate killed a number of Jews who voiced their disapproval when he stole money from the Temple treasury to build an aqueduct in Jerusalem.

It’s clear from all this that Pilate was a man consumed with power. He greatly enjoyed flaunting his authority in the face of others. He did it with our Lord during the Passion, when he said to him, “Don’t you know that I have the power to release you and the power to crucify you?” Gibson, by the way, includes that line in his film.

It’s also clear from Scripture—and the movie—that Pilate was a skeptic. When Jesus said to him, “For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth hears my voice,” the procurator immediately responded, “Truth, what is that?”

The Pilate of Scripture—and Gibson’s movie—was also a moral weakling. He was a spineless wimp! He knew Jesus was innocent, but he didn’t have the guts to acquit him and let him go. And so he ended up becoming the poster-boy for all those men and women throughout history who have said “I am personally opposed, but . . .” In the Gospel of Matthew we read, “Pilate called for water and washed his hands in front of the crowd, declaring, ‘I am innocent of the blood of this just man. The responsibility is yours.” Let me now modify that line for you ever so slightly: “Pilate called for water and washed his hands in front of the crowd, declaring, ‘I am personally opposed to the death of Jesus of Nazareth, but . . . he will be crucified anyway.’”

And he was.

Pilate wasn’t interested in doing what was right; he was interested in saving his political skin and looking good in the eyes of Caesar.

Please hear that, all you so-called “Catholic” politicians who have sold your souls to the pro-abortion lobby, and the gay-rights movement, and the pornographic industry in this country—and who try to hide behind the line, “I am personally opposed, but . . .”

Didn’t John Kerry—who claims to be Catholic—just say that the other day with respect to “gay marriage?”

Pontius Pilate would have been proud of him, no doubt about it.

I’ve just mentioned several of Pilate’s negative personal qualities—all of which are clearly observable in Mel Gibson’s movie. Which brings us back to the first question I posed: Does “The Passion of the Christ” portray the Roman procurator in a positive light?

No, it definitely does not! That should be obvious by now.

But that still leaves the second question unanswered: Why are so many secular critics insisting that the movie does cast a positive light on this morally bankrupt man?

Simple: It’s because Pontius Pilate in this film—and in the Bible—is a person who possesses many of the qualities that they admire! He embodies the very vices that they mistakenly call virtues!

In Scripture and in the movie, for example, Pilate is a skeptic. But, lest we forget, many of these film critics are also skeptics! They have little or no faith, and they think those of us who do are unenlightened, irrational fools!

Pilate is a morally-weak, spineless wimp—and these critics, in many instances, are just like him!

“Oh, they must be so ashamed of themselves, Fr. Ray!”

No—not at all! Believe it or not, they’re proud of it! They’re happy to be wishy-washy! In fact, they think the greatest thing you can possibly say about a person is that he or she is “non-judgmental!”

Pilate condemned Jesus to death, but he hid behind the line, “I am personally opposed.” Many of these people do the very same thing when it comes to abortion and a host of other social evils. They say, “I’m personally opposed; I would never do that myself, but I still think it should be legal!”

Pilate thought politics and power were more important than morality, and so do many of these critics! In our culture right now, they are among the most politically-correct of the politically-correct!

You see, the sad truth is that Pontius Pilate embraced the very same value system that most of these secular movie critics embrace. Although they would never admit it, Pilate was the kind of person they would consider a good role model! So of course they think Gibson is portraying him in a positive light in his film!

Their reaction is totally understandable.

Where do you stand—those of you who have seen the movie? With these secular movie critics?

Personally, I stand with Matthew, Mark, Luke, John—and Mel!