There’s someone who seems to be overshadowing everyone else when it comes to providing daring entertainment. I’m talking about Ethan Hunt, the guy Tom Cruise plays on the many installments of the Mission Impossible film franchise.
And Ethan Hunt’s/Tom Cruise’s turn this summer as IMF agent extraordinaire seems to be one of his best and most profitable. In Fallout he gets rave reviews for the MANY dramatic action sequences he blasts through, believe it or not, without a stunt double. Wow and double wow! Isn’t he about to reach the age when you start wincing from a bad back???
In any case, and call me old-fashioned, I like my IMF agents a little more on the heady and subtle side. I’m talking about those from the the remarkable tv show of the 1960’s that way more known for it’s twists and turns of a more mental jousting nature. That original batch of Impossible Missionaries - I guess that’s what you could call them! - took atomic bombs and other ultimate evil machinations - out of the hands of really bad players with a ton of cleverness. There were always fantastically convincing masks and elaborately staged mock spaces and strategy that slowly unfolded slowly but surely…. The audience was never quite sure what was going on until the end, when everything came to a most amazing, nice, neat and most satisfyingly accomplished conclusion. All with that super cool Lalo Schifrin best-on-tv-ever-music playing under their schemes.
Now THAT’s what I call a show!
Call me even more old fashioned, but I find it even MORE amazing - and satisfying to watch - and even MORE clever and impossibly accomplished - the machinations of the even MORE former…imo the ORIGINAL IMF agent: Jesus.
In our gospels, Jesus is often set up as one who is given an impossible task. It’s not some smart-sounding guy speaking on behalf of some mysterious branch of the US government on a tape that then self-destructs in 60 seconds. Rather, it’s the Temple authorities - the Scribes, Pharisees and Sadducees - who pose legal riddles to Jesus that are intentionally impossible to answer without getting in a lot of trouble.
But…like a good Mission Impossible episode, the seemingly impossible mission is not, as it turns out, not possible! Like an intellectual Houdini, Jesus manages to escape his menacing set-up and with even less sweat and furrowed brow than you might occasionally see crossing Cinnamon’s otherwise perfectly porcelain visage!
For example, Jesus is presented with quite the conundrum in John 8:1-11. This is the very popular account (even if it doesn’t show up in the Revised Common Lectionary) of “Jesus and the Woman Caught in Adultery.”
Beyond whatever else we may think this story is about (including my favorite Jesus joke, retold below), here we have another in a line of stories showing how Jesus’ opponents set booby traps for him and how then Jesus, with almost super-human cleverness and knowledge of the Law, turns the trap right on its ear, rendering his opponents nothing but boobies. And in no time flat.
Now THAT's what I call a show!
In John 8 the set-up is this: Jesus is in the temple teaching, and a woman is brought before him by religious authorities who, as they loudly state before Jesus and the crowd, have caught this woman in adultery. Furthermore, the authorities loudly remind Jesus that the law of Moses says her penalty for this sin is stoning. What does Jesus have to say about this?
Ancient hearers would be on the edge of their seats at this point, sort of like when Rollin Hand, IMF’s “man of a million faces” gets caught by some Third World despot’s secret police putting on the mask that is key to IMF’s plot. When I was a kid watching the show, and the plan ran into a kink (which it often did, and often involving Martin Landau’s cool make-up tricks), my heart sank, assuming all was lost.
In the present (er ancient) circumstance, what edge-of-your-seat kink might be going on that threatens Jesus once and for all?
Well, for one thing, because, as the scribes and Pharisees have said, the punishment for adultery is stoning. If Jesus is an honorable Jew and especially a Rabbi to be respected, he must agree that she should be stoned (even though the Law says the man committing adultery must also be brought forward and stoned).
However, for Jesus to say yes to the Law and the stoning, Jesus not only reneges on everything he said about God’s Kingdom being more than anything about compassion and grace, he commits treason. Because Rome is presently occupying Israel, it’s their court that is to determine who is guilty and who isn’t. (That’s why, later in the gospels, Jesus has to go before Pilate and be judged before the Temple authorities can crucify him.)
If Jesus commits treason, he goes to jail, or worse.
However however, if Jesus agrees that Rome must decide this case, then Jesus commits blasphemy; he’s not following the law of Moses, as God has clearly commanded.
As a blasphemer, Jesus also goes to jail, or worse.
What’s a Messiah to do?
Well, THIS Messiah pulls a couple of very subtle, super clever fast ones. And without a mask!!
First, we’re told Jesus bends down to write in the sand. What is he writing? No one knows. (I read one scholar who suggested he wrote “Be prepared to duck.”) Actually, he is probably, with a bitter, ironic wink, referring the scribes and Pharisees - and the crowd - to the great prophet Jeremiah, who says at Jeremiah 17:13
Without saying a word, he’s speaking volumes. Including the message that he’s not going to get caught up in a war of words about what or what isn’t behavior necessitating such vicious, ungodly behavior as stoning.
Secondly, Jesus quickly and effortlessly turns the situation on its ear and throws the scribes and Pharisees some considerable shade. He says, “He who is without sin cast the first stone.”
Now, the spotlight shifts entirely away from Jesus to his challengers, and their reality. Of course they’ve sinned! We all do! And for them to be making “sin judgments” upon another shows up their self-righteousness and hypocrisy more than anything else.
And beyond that, even, Jesus puts the scribes and Pharisees in the very lose-lose position in which they’ve tried to trap him! If one of those Pharisees did decide to cast the first stone (because Mosaic law also required the first one to have witnessed the adultery to commence the penalty), he would either be committing treason (acting without Rome’s permission) or committing blasphemy (not fulfilling the Law as demanded).
Ha ha ha!
It’s a lot like the end of many an IMF episode where two villains suddenly find themselves pitted against one another - and publicly - so they both have to admit their nefarious plans to the world. And as Barney and crew promptly hop onto his refashioned milk truck and zip to the airport as one more nifty lick of world’s best tv theme aesthetically seals the deal!
Like we MI fans, Jesus’ audience was probably breathing a sigh of relief as well as smiling broadly and shaking their head in awe. How did Jesus do that? What a Messiah!
Unfortunately, there’s no nifty music to close the gospel scene. However, there is a coda….
After all the know-it-alls’ retreat with their tails between their legs, we’re told Jesus speaks privately to the accused woman. He says he neither judges nor condemns her and then tells her to “Go and sin no more.”
It would have been much clearer, imo, if Jesus had said, “Go and commit adultery no more.” That, with a little bit of self-growth, is a do-able project. But why in the world is he commanding her to go and sin no more? The fact that all of us are sinners! That fact was the lynchpin in Jesus’ argument to trap upon his opponents!
Oh that Jesus! He’s always giving us zingers at the end of just about every one of his teachings! Look at his crazy parables! They make us scratch our heads even more at the end than we did at the beginning!
He’s also, if we let him, causing us to smile and shake our head even more. We all have so much to learn about God’s ways, God’s love and God’s grace…..
With Jesus, no episode ends with “The End.” It’s always