If you love a well written story about the powerful transformation that comes from following Jesus’ teachings, read the The Robe by Lloyd C. Douglas. There’s also a 1953 film version starring Richard Burton, but I haven’t seen it and don’t plan to. I don’t want the images in my own mind altered by someone else’s; plus, I must confess that I really don’t care for the melodramatic acting common in films of that era.
So, I recommend reading the novel. First published in 1942, it tells how Jesus’ crucifixion affected the fictional Marcellus Gallio*, a Roman tribune who was assigned by Pontius Pilate to carry out the execution, and Demetrius, Marcellus’ Greek slave. In trying to understand the strange but powerful feelings they experience in the aftermath of this event, they finally reject the paganism and atheism prevalent at that time and become followers of Christ, profoundly altering the course of the lives.
One historian’s blog provides a detailed explanation of the historical inaccuracies of the story and rightly criticizes its depiction of Christianity as nothing more than “a moral code in which people are just really nice to each other and practice a vaguely-defined ‘justice.’” Fundamental Christian doctrines are never mentioned, so the story fails to portray what the faith is truly about.
Despite the novel’s very watered-down presentation of Christianity, though, I still found it fascinating to be plunged into the world of 33 A.D., where the effects of an extraordinary event began rippling outward from Jerusalem and impacting the ordinary people who were alive at that time.
Also, I found Douglas’ idealistic portrait of Arpino, a community transformed by Jesus’ teachings about social justice, to be irresistible and deeply moving. Marcellus, a man who was raised in the luxurious Roman villa of his father, decides to escape from his life as a soldier and make his way as a common laborer. He seeks a job picking melons on a farm but ends up working as the farm owner’s secretary. It’s a business operation in which the farmworkers are surly and uncivil, and the wealthy owner, Kaeso, is arrogant and disrespectful. As Marcellus imparts to Kaeso and his family and employees what he has learned as one of Jesus’ newest disciples, and Kaeso begins to change the way he treats people, Marcellus reminds us that paying people a fair wage for their labor — thus lifting them up and out of an impoverished and undignified existence — and treating them with respect helps them to become the decent, industrious, caring people they were meant to be. This part of Douglas’ tale dramatizes how Christian values can elevate whole societies, not just individuals.
In contrast to the idyllic Arpino, Douglas describes ancient Rome as a city that has been totally polluted by greed, lust for power, and wickedness. I found it impossible not to compare it to our own modern society of Have’s who are determined to enrich themselves even at the expense of the Have Not’s.
When Marcellus recites The Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-10) to this community before he leaves to return to Rome, the true power of those words hit me, and I cried for a world that we could create but don’t. However, this story also reminds me of the power of the individual follower of Christ. Through our actions and influence, we can and should work toward creating the more fair, more just, more compassionate community that Jesus described.
*The soldiers who carried out the crucifixion are not named in the Bible, but Christian tradition holds that the centurion who drove the spear into Jesus’ side at the moment of his death was a Roman who became known as Longinus. According to the Gospel of Mark, Longinus instantly converted:
When the centurion who stood facing him saw how he breathed his last he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:39)
Longinus is now the patron saint of conversions.