Jesus Didn’t Fight No Bums
How might Rocky illuminate Jesus’ atonement? In Rocky III, the beloved pugilist’s aging trainer, Mick, is terrified at the prospect of Balboa fighting Clubber Lang, played famously by Mr. T in his breakout role. Rocky doesn’t understand Mick’s fear, as he’s on a long win streak and feels quite confident. They have the following exchange, culminating in one of Mick’s most famous lines:
Rocky: He’s just another fighter.
Mickey: No, he ain’t just another fighter! This guy is a wrecking machine! And he’s hungry! Hell, you ain’t been hungry since you won that belt.
Rocky: What are you talkin’ about? I had ten title defenses.
Mickey: That was easy.
Rocky: What you mean, “easy”?
Mickey: They was hand-picked!
Mickey: Nah, they wasn’t setups. They was good fighters, but they wasn’t killers like this guy. He’ll knock you to tomorrow, Rock!
Rocky discovers, to his horror, that the win streak he’s so proud of is manufactured. To protect him, his trainer has been picking fights that amounted to the path of least resistance.
In his classic treatise On the Incarnation, Athanasius makes quite a similar point about Jesus, in a discussion about the nature of his death:
And as a noble wrestler, great in skill and courage, does not choose opponents for himself, lest he cause suspicion that he is fearful of some, but leaves it to the choice of the spectators, especially if they are hostile, so that when he has overthrown the one they have chosen, he may be believed to be superior to all, so also, the Life of all, our Lord and Savior Christ, did not contrive death for his own body, lest he should appear fearful of some other death, but he accepted and endured on the cross that inflicted by others, especially by enemies, which they reckoned fearful and ignominious and shameful, in order that this being destroyed, he might himself be believed to be Life, and the power of death might be completely annihilated. So something wonderful and marvelous happened: that ignominious death which they thought to inflict, this was the trophy of his victory over death. (On the Incarnation, [Yonkers: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2011], 75.)
In other words, because Jesus didn’t choose a cleaner, quicker, or less “ignominious” death, none of his opponents (or the disciples’ future opponents) could accuse him of seeking an easy way out. Because he submitted to such a vile death as torture and crucifixion, the very barbarity of this death became “the trophy of his victory.”
Jesus didn’t fight no bums. He didn’t hand pick his opponents. He faced the worst killers the world had yet invented – the Roman Empire – and the horrible, common death the endured became the means through which the power of sin was shattered. Our Lord didn’t pick an easy fight, and for that, we can all – with St. Athanasius – be thankful.