Jesus was a strange dude.
He wasn’t what anyone expected or even wanted at the time. He arrived in a turbulent time in history, when the Judean nation was under Roman occupation. The Jews expected a savior like King David, a sword in hand, to liberate them from their enemies. What they got instead was a peace-loving rabbi who said, “Turn the other cheek. Love one another more than you love yourself.” And, of course, forgive until you can forgive no more, until the last breath leaves your body. This Messiah meant every word. He lived it. He forgave the Romans for crucifying Him, with his dying breath.
The new Ben-Hur flick pulls no emotional punches in exploring this message. Since so many people’s eyeballs bleed at the thought of “remaking” the 1959 film, let’s call this a “new adaptation” of the novel. You know the story, right? Judah endures unjust imprisonment, and his mother and sister contract leprosy in prison, all because his “friend” Messala does nothing to protect them. Judah sets out for vengeance. In this version, what he finds instead is that revenge doesn’t taste sweet – it tastes like blood. Because he chose revenge, he will live a lifetime with horrific memories, forever responsible for the consequences of his decisions. But that isn’t the end of the story.
God has interesting timing. I’ve spent months contemplating the nature of God, the true messages of Christ, and the divine, broad implications of each thing Jesus told us to do, in setting Christians “apart” from the rest of the world. I’ve also been doing a tremendous amount of historical research into some truly dark times in our Church’s history. And then, a movie like this comes along, which underscores everything I’ve been concluding for weeks.
Recently, I e-mailed a friend and commented on how our perception of Christ’s urgings is often fundamentally flawed, because it has such a small scope. God/Christ is not bound by limited human perception; He is capable of seeing the entire image, where humans tend to single out a single element to focus on (in the process, engaging our pride in “not falling prey to that sin”). My example to her was sexual purity, and how we focus too much on the “moral” issue, when God sees a much broader perspective, aimed at simplifying our lives and reducing emotional, physiological, and physical turmoil.
The message Ben-Hur gets across includes vengeance, with the theme of forgiveness. Christ asks us to forgive because a lack of forgiveness burdens our mind, body, and soul. Judah’s journey exemplifies this, because if he had chosen forgiveness in the first place, his marriage with Esther might not have suffered, he wouldn’t have to live with the memories of seeing people and horses killed in the arena, in one case, running over two men himself, and Messala would be whole. Forgiveness liberates him from the darkness.
When the ship sinks, Judah nearly drowns because he’s connected to his dead companions by a chain. As he struggled, I thought, “That is the metaphor for our lives. Each emotional decision we make either frees us from bondage or enslaves us. The dead bodies are the sins that accompany us through life, until we let go of our anger.” He liberates himself from a literal chain, constructing a metaphorical one at the same time. Only at Calvary when he repents do the links fall away, leaving him free. His repentance breaks through Messala’s defenses, reuniting them in brotherhood.
It’s a metaphor for the Christian life. You must let go of the chains that bind you, let go of your former self, to become more, to become a better version of yourself, and in doing so, draw others to Him. Following Christ is not a burden, a punishment that forces us to be different from the world; it is total liberation.