Redemption in the Desert

By Rev. Scott Summerville, Sunday, February 10, 2008
Matthew 4:1-11
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.
He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished.
The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God,
command these stones to become loaves of bread…..

I am a movie enthusiast. I watch hundreds of DVDs every year, films from Mongolia to Australia to Thailand to China and everywhere in between. This may surprise some of you, since I seldom mention films in my preaching. The reason I don’t talk much about films from the pulpit is that it seems a bit unfair to talk about a movie that most people have not seen. I am making an exception today; I am going to talk about a movie, because by a strange coincidence, I saw a film this week that involves a man driving another man out into the desert.

I say this is coincidental, because we have just heard the gospel story for this Sunday and we have just sung a song that deals with Jesus being driven into the wilderness for a time of hunger, thirst, and spiritual struggle.

So let me tell you about this film. It is entitled The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. It was made by Tommy Lee Jones in 2005; he produced, directed, and starred in it. It is set in modern day United States in the Southwest border region along the Rio Grande. Tommy Lee Jones plays the role of Pete, a guy with a small ranch, who hires an illegal Mexican guy named Melquiades Estrada who is handy with horses and livestock. The two of them strike up a deep friendship.

Melquiades is a gentle and quiet man. He has been away from home for a long time. He shows Pete a photograph of his wife and children; he has not seen them in years; they live somewhere back over the border in a small town in the mountains.

One day while they are tending the cattle Melquiades makes Pete promise that if he dies, Pete will see that he is buried in his hometown in Mexico, and he draws a rough map to show him the way. Pete is considerably older than Melquiades; he tells Melquiades that he will be the first to die, but Melquiades insists, so Pete makes the promise and takes the map.

A new border patrol agent named Mike moves into the town near the ranch. Mike is a young guy with a mean streak a mile long. He quickly gets a reputation for brutality. He does not see the humanity of the people he rounds up on patrol –– often he beats the Mexicans that he apprehends. One day while he is patrolling the border, he hears shots; he panics and begins firing his rifle without really knowing who or what he is shooting at. As it turns out, he has shot Melquiades Estrada in the chest. Melquiades had fired his rifle several times to scare a coyote away from the goats. Mike realizes he has killed an innocent man, so he buries Melquaides in the dry brush land, and he reports nothing.

A day or two later Melquiades’ body is dug up by a coyote and is soon identified. The authorities quickly bury Melquiades’ body in the public cemetery. The death is suspicious, to say the least, but who wants to investigate the mysterious death of a wet back? Neither the local police nor the border patrol will agree to open the case. Melquiades Estrada is dead and buried –– dead and buried a second time –– and that is that.

When Pete finds out that his friend has been killed, buried in the desert, and dug up and buried again with no ceremony or concern, and when he sees that the authorities have no interest in finding out who killed his friend, he is enraged.

Eventually Mike, the one who shot Melquiades, grows afraid that he may get blamed, so he comes forward with a story he concocts about a shoot-out he had with Melquiades, and how in self-defense he had shot him. The authorities accept his story and refuse to arrest him for the killing, and they refuse to investigate further.

Pete’s rage boils over. We see him get his gun. And we know what happens next in a typical Hollywood movie –– if you can’t get justice from the system, then grab your gun and get justice for yourself. Vigilantes are heroes in most popular movies. Pete bursts into Mike’s house, handcuffs him, and throws him into his truck. We think we know what is coming next, and part of us is saying, “Yes! Yes! There will be some justice now!”

But instead of taking the young man out to some desolate place and shooting him, Pete takes him to the cemetery where Melquiades is buried, hands him a shovel, and makes him dig up the body. He then drives Mike with the body back to the cabin where Melquiades had lived. He makes him sit in Melquiades’ chair and drink from his cup. He makes him put on some of Melquiades’ clothes. Then he forces Mike to mount a horse; on another horse he places Melquiades’ body, and he leads the three of them out into the desert toward the Mexican border. We see now that they are going to follow that rough hand-drawn map and bury Melquiades for the third and final time in his home town in Mexico. Furthermore, it appears that Pete wants more than simple revenge. He seems to want this young man to suffer exquisitely for what he has done. The terrain is brutal –– heat and biting ants; their supply horse falls off a cliff, and there is not enough to eat or drink along the way.

For Mike the days are worse than the nights, because at night Pete forces Mike to sleep alongside the body of Melquiades. The young man assumes –– and we who are watching the film assume –– that Pete is a man so possessed by grief and by rage that he intends to bury his friend in his native land and to humiliate and kill the man who took his life. We think that this is a movie about revenge. It is not until the very end of the movie, when they arrive at an abandoned village in the beautiful Mexican countryside, that we understand Pete’s true motives.

He forces Mike to bury the body of Melquiades in Mexican soil –– his third burial. The young man is now worn out, battered by the ordeal of the journey through the desert, broken in spirit, and he resigns himself to dying alongside the grave of Melquiades Estrada.

After he buries the body, Pete makes him beg for forgiveness –– but not for Pete’s forgiveness –– he makes him look at the photograph of Melquiades and beg for Melquiades’ forgiveness. At first he resists, until Pete encourages him with his revolver –– then he pours out with pitiful tears a prayer for forgiveness. When he is done begging for forgiveness, he turns to Pete and says, “So now, you shoot me.”

Pete says to him, “Son, you can take the horse.” Then Pete rides away.

Mike’s face –– that hard mean face, now softens; it becomes human in a way it had not been for the entire movie. He watches Pete ride away, and he calls after the older man, “You gonna be all right?”

It is not until the very end that we understand that this miserable trip, dragging a dead body through the heat of the desert, was not about revenge; it was about redemption.

In the end it also turns out that Melquiades Estrada was not who he said he was. No one knew him in the region. The town he named on the map did not exist. His friendship with Pete was real, but that was all that Pete would ever know about him.

We come to see that the point of the journey was not primarily to bury the body of the man who claimed to be Melquiades Estrada. The purpose of the journey was not to exact revenge upon the man who killed him. The purpose of the journey was to redeem the soul of the angry young man who had recklessly taken another human life.

Theologically speaking, Pete played the role of the Holy Spirit, pushing the young man into the desert and into the torments of deprivation and guilt, until at last something in him broke open, and he became human.

You see why it’s hard to weave movies into Sunday messages. It takes a while to tell the story. It is only because this story is so strangely parallel to the gospel story today that I have chosen to tell it.

I don’t know anything about Tommy Lee Jones –– about his religion or his intentions in making this movie –– so my interpretations are simply that –– they are my interpretations. (My telling of the story is also my recollection from seeing it once, but I believe it is reasonably accurate.) I could take my theological reflections a step further and say that this Mexican illegal alien, who was so good at shepherding animals, who was so gentle, who died in complete innocence, whose body was taken from a grave, and whose death proved to be the source of life –– a means of redemption for a terribly lost soul –– the man, Melquiades Estrada, represents Christ; he was the mysterious stranger who was truly human and whose death in a peculiar way became a source of new life for a lost soul. Movies can be over-interpreted; maybe you will see it for yourself and draw different conclusions.

In the movie everybody thinks Pete is crazy, digging up this body and carrying it though the desert. The police who were trying to track him down think he is crazy. The young man thinks he is crazy. The people he meets along the way think he is crazy. But he is not crazy. He is trying to work out his own grief and anger, and he believes in redemption.

In three of our four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the story is told of Jesus as a young man, hungry and thirsty in the desert, and not just in physical agony but tormented with temptation. It is a difficult story to explain theologically; after all, how could one who is possessed by the Holy Spirit and who is one with God at the same time be driven by the Spirit of God into that bleak place of temptation? There is a question for your next Ph.D. thesis in theology!

Whether or not we can make sense of this story theologically, it grabs us. In fact Jesus in temptation may be for many of us more accessible and real and comprehensible than at any other time. I mentioned during the Ash Wednesday services that there are very few times in the gospel narratives that we are taken into the inner life and being of Jesus. We know him almost entirely by his words and by his deeds –– the Gospels do not often take us into his heart.

But at the beginning of his ministry, which we remember each year at the beginning of the Lenten season, we are taken into his humanity, reminded of his struggle in the desert, and at the end of the Lenten journey in the Garden of Gethsemane where he was sorrowful and troubled, and on the cross where he cried out, we are again taken into his humanity.

When I was in seminary, I lived in a room in a grand old house in Brooklyn for a year. The house was owned by Mrs. Rauschenbach, one of the great characters I have known in my life. She could be at times quite severe and critical. She was particularly scornful of the young man, Harry, who rented her garage; she often complained to me about him –– “Dat Harry,” she would say, “No responsibility, dat one.”

One day when I was chatting with her in her kitchen, the phone rang, and she became instantly tender and solicitous of whoever it was that was calling. I heard her say, “Dat’s terrible, darling. I am so sorry. Don’t worry about the rent.” When she hung up, I said, “Who was that?” She said, “Dat vas Harry; somebody stole his vallet.” I said, “But I thought you were mad at Harry.”

It was then that she taught me a phrase I have never forgotten. She said, “Darling, it took me a long time to get human.”

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is a story of how really tough it is to become human. In the wilderness Satan tempts Jesus to be superhuman, to grasp at power and glory. But he does not give in to that temptation; he chooses instead to be among us as human and as one who serves. If it was a struggle even for him to be human, how much more is it for us? What a simple and difficult thing it is that God asks of us: to be human –– to be human with ourselves and human with one another.

So begins the ministry of Jesus and the journey to the cross.
Grace and peace be with you.

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