I recently watched the film Ben-Hur. This is not a review, per se, but rather an examination of five truths I came away with. Before I go on, I have to mention there are spoilers ahead. Be warned.
The royal House of Hur exists like an island of peace and luxury amid a desert of oppression and strife. The one-time ruling family of Judea can afford to be generous with their friends and detached from their enemies. But it is not long before the clamoring voices of contention begin to slip through their doors and crowd around them in the streets.
Young Judah Ben-Hur tries to keep both Jewish zeal and Roman force at a distance from himself and his family, rebuking and fearing conflict. But as the story unfolds, he finds himself more and more caught up with hate and fear until he too is driven by it in a bloodthirsty race for revenge.
Love makes us slaves, too.
A chance encounter with a strange carpenter on the street beckons Judah to another way.
“Hate and fear make us slaves,” the man tells him – only love is strong enough to conquer it and bring peace.
“If love is so strong, then why are we still slaves?” Judah angrily demands.
The man only looks quietly to Judah’s wife, a one-time slave in his household: “Ask her,” he says, and Judah hurries away embarrassed.
Judah’s wife had a brief glimpse of freedom at one time, the opportunity to leave and become the wife of a rich Hebrew. But when Judah comes after her to claim her and keep her with him, she consents. She stays in a place of service and devotion, albeit in a new way, as his wife.
As it did for Judah’s wife, love enables us to give up everything: all freedom, all right to ourselves, and to choose willingly to stay in a place of service and sacrifice. It takes us out of the contest to grip the reigns of power. Love is greater, but not by might.
Someone has to take our place.
A young zealot causes no end of trouble for Judah and his family, but the culprit is shown mercy and allowed to get away scot-free; but only because Judah voluntarily acts as his substitute and takes the blame.
The lesson is simple – we might commit murder, and maybe not just in a figurative sense, and get away with it. But someone has to take our place in paying for the consequences. Whether in this life or the next, no sin goes unpunished. And if we are ever to be freed from the charge of guilt, atonement is going to have to be made by someone, somewhere.
Only one can make our redemption eternal.
That same zealot finds himself, years later, still guilty, and under the same punishment that he rightfully should have received all that time ago. Even though the innocent Judah once bore the punishment on his behalf, it is not enough to make the boy completely free. He is still as broken, as much of a lawbreaker, and as much in need of salvation as ever.
He finds himself, hanging on a cross, one of three, and there he finds the source of salvation he needs. He endures an earthly punishment, but his eternal punishment is taken from him, once again paid for by another. But this time, his salvation comes through the deed of the one who is able to give it for all time, for all men, for all crimes. There will be no further trial, no further punishment for that thief on the cross.
There is a cup we cannot drink.
Judah’s effort and all that he had done to try to accomplish justice, by life or death, was not enough. It only added injustice on top of injustice, and multiplied hate by more hate. Even death would not have done away with all that was wrong, only made it hopelessly over and irreconcilable.
When Judah is dragged captive through the streets by the Romans, only the carpenter is able to step forward and offer him a cup of water despite the Roman guards. When Judah tries to offer that man the same kindness, he is unable to do it. But the man grips his arm, with strength unexpected from one horribly beaten, and tells him, “I do it willingly.”
Judah is powerless to aid him in drinking from the cup, just as the Roman guards had been powerless to stop the carpenter from providing Judah a drink. But the man drinks from another cup, willingly, and it is one that Judah is too feeble to lift or taste.
We all go as men destined to die.
Judah is on a path toward death all along. He escapes death once, only to find himself in a living death as a galley slave. He survives that too, to wash up all but dead on the shore, and then he sets out on a course toward certain death in the madcap chariot race of the Roman circus, pitting himself against one determined to kill him even if the sport does not. By one way or another, he is certain to die—until another’s death allows him to live.
He witnesses a man he does not know, dying a death once meant for him. And is it that time and place, in a moment that would seem too sudden but for its profound symbolism, that he is freed from the curse of death that has trailed him and his own quest to deliver death. The demand of death, death that had to take place because it was the only fitting answer to all the brokenness of life, is taken from him, and he becomes free, not because his death sentence was done away with, but because another took it and fulfilled it.