The movie Ben-Hur, the last of the summer’s epic releases, cost $100,000,000 to produce but earned only $10,000,000 on its opening weekend. And the critics were no kinder. “Amateurish effort…,” “souless and empty…,” “digitalized eyesore…” were among the less than laudatory reviews. Unlike most current movie productions, Ben-Hur offered no cursing, no sex, and no drug use. Perhaps this is why it was ill received. There was, however, plenty of classical violence. Judah Ben-Hur was a Jewish prince falsely accused by his adopted pagan brother Messala, an officer in the Roman army, of an attempt on the life of Pontius Pilate. Stripped of his title, separated from his family, Judah is sentenced to life at sea as a galley slave. Freed when his ship is destroyed in battle, Judah returns to Palestine to seek revenge. Some brief encounters with Jesus Christ, including witnessing the crucifixion, leads Judah to a radical appreciation of forgiveness and mercy.
The movie features noted persons from the Apostolic era. An imperious Pontius Pilate is quite prominent. A comforting Mary Magdalene is briefly glimpsed. Calvary’s Good Thief appears as an assassin. A conniving Judas Iscariot even enters the scene. Scenes with Jesus Christ are obvious but brief. Jesus, tall and handsome, does random acts of kindness in Jerusalem’s streets, including offering a drink of water to a beaten Judah Ben-Hur being led off into slavery. Yet the presence of any formal religion is much muted. When a young Judah Ben-Hur is recovering from wounds, his pagan adopted brother places little statues of Roman household gods at the door of his sickroom, hoping for some Divine assistance. Judah Ben-Hur’s mother, a pious Jew, gently removes these graven images from the scene. But organized paganism, Judaism, or Christianity do not enter into the tale at all.
The lack of any formal religion in this saga was probably how this movie could portray the transformation of a Jew from a pious family into a soul-changing admirer of Jesus Christ without stepping on any religious toes. Judah Ben-Hur does not experience any formal conversion from Judaism to Christianity like the conversion that began for St. Paul on the road to Damascus or for Edith Stein in Hitler’s Germany. Judah Ben-Hur’s experience might be better described as an enlightenment or an insight or a discernment. Ben-Hur is impressed with the kindness and compassion of the man Jesus rather than with the Divinity of the godly Christ. Jesus, who previously had been viewed doing good deeds in the streets of Jerusalem, is finally witnessed forgiving those who are inflicting upon him a cruel death on a cross, promising eternal happiness to the good thief alongside him, and accepting his horrid fate without bitterness or acrimony. It is Jesus the model of good example rather than Jesus the source of eternal life that impresses and persuades Judah Ben-Hur. If Jesus, a promising young man from the streets of Jerusalem, can forgive his torturers and his tormenters, then certainly Judah Ben-Hur can forgive his pagan adopted brother for the treacheries of the past.
Jesus Christ as an example of compassion and forgiveness is still an effective witness even after two thousand years. Meal sites, homeless shelters, problem pregnancy centers, services to the elderly and so many other charitable agencies exist, inspired by the example of the kindly Jesus Christ. Yet Jesus is not merely a first century version of the recently canonized Mother Theresa or the legendary St. Vincent dePaul. Jesus’ ministry went beyond benevolence into beatitude. Jesus won for the human race a share in the Divine nature. Jesus offered not just healing but eternal life. Jesus opened for mankind the gates of heaven. As St. Paul writes in this Sunday’s first reading, “For there is one God. There is also one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as ransom for all.” So Jesus is not simply a model; Jesus is a mediator, a connection to the next world, to heavenly life, to eternal fulfillment.
Movies may not but the Church must present the believer with this fuller appreciation of the true nature and mission of Jesus Christ. As the Sunday reading continues, “This was the testimony at the proper time.” And the testimony is this: Jesus is the Christ, the Lord, the Son of God, the Word of God, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, the mediator between heaven and earth, and Emmanuel “God with us.”