The classic tale of Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur has been retold in several film adaptations over the past century, and after seeing the Charlton Heston-led version, I became interested in reading the source material. What I found was a meticulously researched tale of a Jewish boy caught in the wrong place at the wrong time sent into slavery and gaining freedom with vengeance on his mind. Along the way, he encounters the Christ and is torn between two ways of thinking: Is the Messiah’s kingdom political or spiritual?
From the opening pages of Wallace’s work we get the deep sense of national pride the different peoples have. The three wise men come from Egypt, Greece, and India and each politely asserts his country as the source of wisdom. We soon see the less-polite rivalry between the pride of Rome and Judah. As the book continues, nationalistic loyalties are strong until halfway through during the pivotal chariot race where all peoples not Roman side against the Roman Empire. Political tensions run high throughout the novel.
Into this atmosphere walks Jesus. The lone surviving wise man, the Egyptian Balthasar, tells Ben-Hur of the Messiah’s birth and heralds His imminent revelation. Balthasar argues that the Christ’s kingdom would be a spiritual one, bringing freedom to souls. But Ben-Hur, with all his hate for Rome, doesn’t want to hear this and leans toward the arguments of his friends who note that the coming Christ must be “King of the Jews”, thus having a political kingdom.
As Ben-Hur secretly preps legions of soldiers to follow Jesus into a rebellion against Rome, his plans fall apart on the eve of the crucifixion as it becomes apparent that Jesus isn’t looking for an army but a cross. As the events of Good Friday unfold, Ben-Hur slowly realizes that his actions against Rome in various forms were not God’s will but his own. The light dawns on him that the Christ’s kingdom is not of this world, that politics and nationality were not what ruled in this kingdom.
While the book itself can be plodding at times, the theme it explores is appropo even today. What kind of kingdom did Jesus come to establish? Any Christian would immediately say “spiritual”, without hesitation. But does that come across in our lives and rhetoric? Our culture is politically charged right now, to say the least, and many Christians seem to be getting caught up in the fervor. While Christians should be involved with the cultural conversation, we should be wary of placing our hope in that alone. If our hope lies in a political kingdom, we will be disappointed. But if we hope in a spiritual kingdom established by Christ, where there is neither Jew nor Gentile, then we will find a rich joy no matter what happens in the world.