A Lenten MacGuffin Served with Some Greeks

There’s a mysterious briefcase in Quentin Tarantino’s violent, vibrant Pulp Fiction (1994). Some characters wanted it. Some characters had it. Sometimes we (the viewer) observed the case was shut. Sometimes, it’s wide open, but the contents weren’t visible. In the film’s story, there was little doubt the briefcase mattered. People were killed. Lives threatened. When unlatched, the inside emitted an ethereal glow.

But then the viewer sees . . .

Wait!

There were more important scenes than the briefcase in Pulp Fiction. Even if you haven’t watched or can’t stand the movie, trust me, it’s rightly considered a classic. Tarantino manipulated chronology with the script (kairos vs. kronos time, anyone?), John Travolta’s career was resurrected, and the film’s impact gave noir cinema a modern twist and shout.

But the viewer . . . never saw inside that briefcase. What was there? In a sense, the briefcase contained a MacGuffin.

Huh?

Alfred Hitchcock, a filmmaker who makes Tarantino look like a chump, popularized the notion of the cinematic MacGuffin. Many of Hitchcock’s films (here’s a fun list) used this technique, this “plot device. Ye olde Wikipedia explains a MacGuffin this way:

The element that distinguishes a MacGuffin from other types of plot devices is that it is not important what the object specifically is. Anything that serves as a motivation will do. The MacGuffin might even be ambiguous. Its importance is accepted by the story’s characters, but it does not actually have any effect on the story. It can be generic or left open to interpretation.

Briefcase as MacGuffin. Whether you enjoyed or despised Pulp Fiction, you didn’t need to know the case’s contents. After all, it does not actually have any effect on the story. Okay, case closed.

And yet to this day, when I see, read, or talk about the film, I wonder about that briefcase. Likewise, in this week’s Gospel reading, I wonder about the simple two-word phrase: some Greeks. Let me refresh your memory of John 12:20-33’s opening line:

Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks.

Cinematically, let me reinterpret John 12:20 for you:

Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some MacGuffins.

Huh? I’ll (attempt to) explain in a moment.

What took place right before those Greeks/MacGuffins arrived? First there was an ominous threat to Lazarus’ life. Then, Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem now celebrated on Palm Sunday. What took place soon after the MacGuffin’s request to see Jesus? The Nazarene, in the tradition of John’s Gospel, shared an eloquent soliloquy about his impending death and that death’s transformative meaning. And not long after that speech, a humbling Christian ritual was first enacted: Jesus washed the disciples’ feet.

That’s the before and after.

But what happened to those MacGuffins, er Greeks? They arrived, desiring to “see” Jesus. They conveyed this out-of-the-blue request to the disciple Philip, who then hurried over to fellow disciple Andrew, and finally both disciples shared the Greek’s hopes with Jesus. Sort of a my-people-will-talk-to-your-people moment.

The Greeks never actually saw Jesus, did they? And, as best as I can tell, the MacGuffins (those Greeks) left the scene and the Gospels. Gone . . . poof! Were they merely a plot device, a trivial MacGuffin that allowed us—the listener or reader—to get on to the good stuff?

One answer would be yes.

However, I still wonder what was in Pulp Fiction’s briefcase. And each time I read this passage from John, I realize I’m a little like those vanished Greeks. No, I don’t see my life as a plot device! Rather, I’m aware that I often desire to see, hear, and understand many things about my faith that remain . . . unanswered.

For example, one of the frequent, easy arguments for supporting gay rights was that Jesus never mentioned homosexuality. Were there homosexuals in Jesus’ time? You betcha. Since there were, and Jesus never explicitly condemned homosexuality, then . . . well, what conclusions do you draw based on the unknown and unanswered? And we do keep drawing—whether for or against—conclusions about our gay neighbors. Late last year (December 2017), the Supreme Court heard arguments about the Colorado baker that refused to create a wedding cake for a gay couple’s ceremony. Sometime before summer, the Court will announce its decision. All questions on all sides of the issues will be solved and resolved, right? Well, maybe not . . .

How about this for another example: the so-called Prodigal Son parable. I sometimes secretly wish Jesus had condemned or praised the younger son, older son, or father. In the unfolding of that sublime story, all had bad moments. All had good moments. When I faithfully acknowledge how essential forgiveness is on my path as a Christian, I lean heavily—and hopefully—on that parable. But it’s also a stunningly open-ended tale. What happened with the older son’s anger? Did the younger son’s life change? For the better? Or the worse? Was the father a pushover or compassionate for welcoming his child back? I want more; I’m given less. As a believer, I’m left knowing I’m invited to provide my own ending. Or my beginning.

Were those Greeks mere MacGuffins, a plot device like a glowing briefcase? Probably. But I relish their entry into John’s Gospel. As I continue this year’s Lenten journey, some Greeks help me remember that I won’t get all of my questions answered.

But I’ll keep asking.

And I’ll try to remember—before, during, and after Lent—that I don’t have all the answers.

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