When General Lew Wallace published Ben Hur in 1880, he had no idea that his tale of a wrongfully condemned Jewish prince would have such an impact on modern audiences. It is a tale of redemption, being the product of Wallace’s own investigation into the validity of the Christian faith. The epic scale of the story lends itself to the big screen, but Hollywood’s first effort at bringing Wallace’s characters to life in 1925 fell short of the mark. It took another generation of filmmakers, capitalizing on improved technology and cinematic techniques, to do justice to the tale. The result was William Wyler’s 1959 production of Ben Hur, a film that surpassed the achievements of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, released just three years previously. Wyler and DeMille both worked with the same leading man: Charlton Heston, a handsome actor known for his portrayals of tough men of action. Heston’s depiction of Moses remains the standard for cinematic portrayals of Israel’s Lawgiver, but it was his role as Judah Ben Hur which won him an Oscar as Best Actor.
The story follows Judah in his quest for revenge after his family is unjustly accused and sentenced for allegedly attempting to kill the new Roman governor of Judea. His mother and sister are taken to prison, but Judah is condemned to a hellish existence rowing the galleys of Rome’s navy. After three years his ship receives a new commander, Consul Quintus Arrius (played by Jack Hawkins), who leads the fleet against pirates who have menaced the sea lanes. On inspecting the rowers, Arrius takes notice of Judah as a man full of hate, but able to control it, a trait the Consul finds useful. Upon concluding his inspection Arrius offers this advice:
Now listen to me, all of you. You are all condemned men. We keep you alive to serve this ship. So row well, and live.
Judah finds opportunity to do more than that. In battle his ship is rammed and sinks, but he is able to escape and save the life of Consul Arrius. Later they learn the Roman fleet has won the day and Arrius is a hero. He returns to Rome, bringing Judah with him in hope of repaying the debt of his life. Judah becomes a famous chariot racer, trusted with some of his master’s most prized possessions. In time, Arrius rewards Judah with the greatest gift he can bestow: adoption as his son and heir.
Eventually Judah returns home, finds his mother and sister, and avenges the wrong done to his house. Yet it is not until he encounters Yeshua (Jesus) of Nazareth that he finds true peace. Lew Wallace’s story is, after all, a tale of the Christ, and would be incomplete without the redemption the Messiah offers. The roots of the story, however, go back to the time of Moses, when he spoke these words to the people of Israel:
The Lord has today declared you to be His people, a treasured possession, as He promised you, and that you should keep all His commandments; and that He will set you high above all nations which He has made, for praise, fame, and honor; and that you shall be a consecrated people to the Lord your God, as He has spoken. (Deuteronomy 26:18-19 NASB)
אַחֲרֵי מוֹת / קְדֹשִׁים
How do we love the unlovely? That is one of the questions Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise explore in Rain Man. Hoffman earned an Oscar as Best Actor for his portrayal of Raymond Babbitt, a man with autism whose family had chosen to place him in an institution after he had accidentally harmed Charlie, his younger brother. Because of that, Charlie (played by Cruise) never learns of his brother’s existence until after his father’s death. Charlie is surprised to learn that his father had left most of his fortune to a trust fund that paid for Raymond’s expenses. Determined to obtain a share of the money, Charlie entices Raymond out of the mental institution and takes him on a road trip to his home in California, where he intends to file a lawsuit for custody of his brother. The rest of the movie is a journey on many levels as Charlie begins to see Raymond not as an easily exploitable asset, but as a remarkable human being, and as the loving and lovable brother he has missed all his life.
The audience shares that journey thanks to Hoffman’s masterful performance. By the end of the movie we are still a bit awkward and uncomfortable around Raymond, but we no longer think of him as something less than ourselves. He is brilliant in his own way, far more capable with computations and connections than most of us could ever be. In an odd way he is charming, affectionate, and even adorable. Once we look beyond his peculiar mannerisms and grow accustomed to his unique forms of expression, we begin to see a person of great value. Indeed he has special needs that prevent him from functioning on his own, but we learn from Rain Man that Raymond Babbitt and others like him do have a place in society. One example of this was reported recently in The Times of Israel, in an article explaining how the Israel Defense Forces have recognized the special gift of persons with autism, and have found a way for them to make a valuable contribution to the defense of their nation. Yet even those who are not able to make such a contribution have value. They teach us about ourselves – what it means to be human. We are enriched when we get to know them.
Indeed, they are our neighbors, the very people we are to love as ourselves.