“There are two loves, the love of God and the love of the world. If the love of the world takes possession of you, there is no way for the love of God to enter into you. Let the love of the world take the second place, and let the love of God dwell in you. Let the better love take over.” – St. Augustine
Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ is a novel by Lew Wallace published on November 12, 1880, and considered “the most influential Christian book of the nineteenth century”. It was brought to the movie screen in 1929, most notably in 1959, and again in the, soon to be released, 2016 modern remake. I recommend the 1959 version. It is most known for its history making filming of the great chariot race, and was released at a time when the subject of such films were revered by the public and not reviled.
The story centers around two brothers; Judah Ben-Hur and his adopted brother, Messala. Judah was born to a prominent family, whose father was a successful merchant. Messala, orphaned and of Roman birth, was adopted by Judah’s father. The two grew to be fast friends and brothers and were always at each other’s side. As time passed and each grew into manhood; Judah took his place as the head of the family business and a prominent leader of the Jewish community. Messala went off to Rome and quickly moved up the ranks in the Roman Empire.
After many years of separation Messala returns as a tribune under the rule in the region of Pontus Pilate. His happy reunion with his brother and boyhood friend and family is short- lived. The tension between Roman rule and the Jewish community under that rule would unavoidably taint their relationship. The innocence of youth had been jaded by the realities of a world wrought with tyranny and oppression under that Roman rule.
During a parade for the new governor of Judea, Valerius Gratus, loose tiles fall from the roof of Judah’s house. Gratus is thrown from his spooked horse and nearly killed. Although Messala knows this was an accident, he condemns Judah to the galleys and imprisons Judah’s mother and sister, Miriam and Tirzah. By punishing a known friend and prominent citizen, he hopes to intimidate the Jewish populace. Judah swears to take revenge.
After three years as a galley slave, Judah is assigned to the flagship of the Roman Consul Quintus Arrius who has been charged with destroying a fleet of Macedonean Pirates. Arrius admires Judah’s determination and self-discipline and offers to train him as a gladiator or charioteer. Judah declines the offer, declaring that God will aid him in his quest for vengeance. When the Roman fleet encounters the Macedonians, Arrius orders all the rowers except Judah to be chained to their oars. Arrius’ galley is rammed and sunk, but Judah unchains the other rowers, and rescues Arrius. In despair, Arrius wrongly believes the battle ended in defeat and attempts to atone in the Roman way by “falling on his sword”, but Judah stops him. They are rescued, and Arrius is credited with the Roman fleet’s victory. Arrius successfully petitions Emperor Tiberius to free Judah, and adopts him as his son. Another year passes. Wealthy again, Judah learns Roman ways and becomes a champion charioteer, but still longs for his family and homeland.
Judah returns to Judea. Along the way, he meets Balthasar and an Arab, Sheik Ildrerim. The sheik has heard of Judah’s prowess as a charioteer, and asks him to drive his quadriga in a race before the new Judean governor Pontius Pilate. Judah declines, even after he learns that Messala will also compete. Judah meets with Messala, as the son of Quintus. Messala is shocked to see Judah standing before him. Judah demands the release of his mother and sister before leaving. When found in the depths of the prison, both were infected with leprosy and banished to a leper colony. The women beg Esther – who was in love with Judah before his arrest – to conceal their condition from Judah so that he may remember them as they were before, so she tells him that they died. It is then that he changes his mind and decides to seek vengeance on Messala by competing against him in the chariot race. – Wikipedia
By these events the love that these brothers once shared in youth now has been transformed to a deep seeded hatred. The irreparable conflict was in place; Judah’s unwavering faith in God and responsibility to his people, and Messala’s immovable commitment to Rome. From this point on the twists and turns that life often will take, once, again, has brought the two together. However the reunion brings both tragedy and triumph in the chariot race. In the arena, where there are no rules, scores can be settled without retribution. Judah, here, would not leave vengeance to God. During the chariot race, Messala drives a Greek chariot with blades on the hubs to tear apart competing vehicles; he attempts to destroy Judah’s chariot but destroys his own instead. Messala is fatally injured, while Judah wins the race. Before dying, Messala tells Judah that “the race is not over” and that he can find his family “in the Valley of the Lepers, if you can recognize them.”
The story then does not end in the arena. Judah, having just won a great victory feels only loss. His friend that he loved died leaving both with resentment in their hearts. And now, Judah’s search for his mother and sister, once thought dead, has not come to a joyful end. There will not be rejoicing in their finding, because, although alive, leprosy, brought about by Roman injustice, has ravaged them.
Jesus’ role in this story seems limited to the viewer, yet His presence and role in the history of man will turn out to be life-changing for Judah, his loved ones, and for all tortured souls awaiting God’s promise of salvation.
Although the subtitle of the book is “A Story Of The Christ,” Jesus appears in but three scenes. Yet each is critical to the complete unfolding of the story and the direction of the lives of Judah and Messala.
The first appearance of Jesus: When Judah is being transferred to the galleys from prison, many of those among him sharing the same fate die from thirst and heat of the torturous travel along the way. At a small village called Nazareth, the roman guards stop to rest, water themselves, animals and lastly their prisoners before moving on. Judah, however, is denied his share. A man from the village breaks from his carpentry work, and upon seeing the neglected Judah, brings him water. The roman guard, with whip in hand, confronts the carpenter, commanding that he not be given water. When the guard locks eyes with the carpenter he stops in his tracks and diverts his eyes as though he was looking into the sun. The stern countenance of his face turned to meekness as he shied away. His own commands were turned in on himself. The carpenter was Christ. And all who possess hardened, dark and cruel hearts cannot look upon the face of the Light of the World without revulsion. Judah, drinks his full, is comforted and rejuvenated by the kindness received from Christ. As he moves on to his fate he continues to look back at the good stranger whose charity has restored his hope.
The second appearance of Jesus: In this scene, Ester, encourages Judah to come with her to hear the man called Jesus speak. He refuses because the bitterness that he still holds in his heart is a barrier to accepting any overtures of peace. Ester attends what is now known as the sermon on the mount, and is so moved that she tells Judah that what she heard; “truly were words from God.”
The third appearance of Jesus: Judah in bringing his mother and sister to Christ to hopefully find peace, instead, finds Christ carrying His cross on His way to crucifixion. Judah follows along with the crowd and when seeing Christ fall, out of compassion, brings Him water. When Christ looks up at Judah, Judah then realizes this is the man who brought life saving water to Him while on his way to the Roman galleys. The face of the kind man who once looked upon Judah’s pain and suffering with mercy, is now looked upon by Judah and administered to in like-kind. Judah when pushed aside by the Roman execution detail follows Jesus to the cross and witnesses the crucifixion. He is astonished to hear Christ speak these words as His life is near its end: “Father forgive them for they know not what they are doing.” And at that moment the hatred, that he has harbored in his heart for so long toward Rome for corrupting Messala and poisoning their relationship, left him. He would tell His family that he felt Christ’s words take the sword from his hand. And unbeknownst to Judah, the leprosy leaves his mother and sister as Christ commends His Spirit into the Hands of God.
Christ enters hearts in a variety of ways. But, the most dire circumstances requires the extreme; the likes of a St. Paul on the road to Damascus. For Judah the love that he no longer believed he would ever know again came flooding into his heart when the forgiveness granted to all mankind from the cross washed upon him. The mercy measured out from the cross, not measured to Christ Himself, forced out the hate that Judah harbored in his heart for so long. The mercy and love that follows all forgiveness had Divinely Invaded Judah Ben-Hur. The man who descended from that hill on Calvary that afternoon was not the same man who ascended it earlier. For that is the effect of Christ’s presence; He turned the world upside down, to turn it right-side up; and accomplishes the same by turning our hearts inside out.