Rediscovering Jesus Of Nazareth

I'm showing the kids Zeffirelli's Jesus this week. An experiment. It moved me deeply when I was 10 and it first played on tv, but Z's not to my taste, generally. Too romantic. And now that I fancy I have an adult prayer life and my own sense of the gospels, it's hard to watch someone else's interpretation. I expected to find it dated, and it is in many respects, but there are nonetheless moments of brilliance.

As for example the scene we closed with this evening, when Christ tells the parable of the Prodigal Son. In Z's imagining, the telling takes place as Christ is dining with harlots and tax collectors in Matthew's house and the Pharisees and disciples are watching from the threshold of the house in astonishment that Christ would defile himself by supping with sinners. Having been warned (and pleaded with) not to go in, Christ tells them he's come to call not the righteous, but sinners to repentance.

Asked what he wants to do first --teach or eat-- Jesus, his eye cast at the judgmental faces at the door, says he wants to tell them a story.

Robert Powell (Jesus) plays it perfectly: with gentle humor and passion (in my memory I only remembered him being too serious and spooky to be Jesus, but he's just right here). As he describes the degradation into which the prodigal son falls --so that even the husks he's feeding to pigs look good to him -- Zeffirelli pans to the painted ladies and dissolute men listening to the tale, and one by one you see it dawn on them that he's talking about them. This is the precise life they are leading, they are the ones living wretchedly and called to repent and go back to the Father's house. You see their hearts melt as Jesus describes the Father's welcome of the repentant son.

Having won all the sinners' hearts to himself, Jesus then tells of the older son and his jealousy and looking straight at Peter & the others in the doorway, he speaks the father's words: please, try to understand. You're always with me. Everything I have is yours. But it is right to celebrate. This son of mine was lost but now is found, was dead, but now lives.

When you're a kid, it's the repentance of the younger son you focus on, but as you age I think you start to see that Christ's challenge was more to the Pharisees --will you come in and join the feast or not? In Z's imagining, at this point Peter rushes in and makes peace with Matthew, who's been his enemy. It's profound --and you see Christ's attractiveness and his ability to draw all men to himself. Nicely done.