Sunday, May 26, 2024

Romans, Ben Hur, and Adoption: A Homily for Trinity Sunday


For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.”  (Romans 8.

Those of you who are film fans of a certain vintage will remember how Hollywood in the 1950s was fascinated by the ancient world.   These Techniclour epics, these so-called “sword and sandals” films, included The Ten Commandments, Cleopatra, Spartacus, The Robe, and of course, Ben Hur.  When I was a child, I think I learned more from these films than I did from Sunday School, even though I had the idea that that everyone in the Bible looked like Charlton Heston.

Of all these films, i think the most beloved is Ben Hur, the story of a young Jewish nobleman in the time of Christ.   The film starts with Ben Hur becomes a Roman slave while his mother and sister are imprisoned.   Paul’s words in our second reading abut a spirit of slavery and a spirit of adoption reminded me of Ben Hur, so bear with me while this homily becomes a bit of a Sunday matinee.

When Ben Hur becomes a slave, he’s sent to a Roman galley, a ship where the rowers are chained to their oars.   He comes to the attention of the commander, a Roman nobleman named Arius (played  by the great Jack Hawkins).    There’s a big sea battle, the ship sinks, and Ben Hur saves Arius’ life.   They are rescued and returned to Rome, where  in a show of love and gratitude Arius rewards Ben Hur by adopting him as his son.

In the film, Arius gives a party where he proclaims Ben Hur as “the legal bearer of my name and the heir to my property”.   The film does get the history right in that legal adoption was often practiced in the Roman world, usually to preserve a noble family’s name and prestige.   The adoptee was usually a close relative or the child of a family friend.  It was very rare for a slave to be adopted, and the movie sort of gets around that by Arius saying that he has come to love Ben Hur like the son he lost.

Paul’s letter to the Romans was written in the world that the film Ben Hur fictionalizes, and Paul’s language about slavery, adoption and inheritance would have been entirely familiar to his readers.   The difference is that most early Christians were of low birth, servants and slaves, who would never have dreamed of being adopted into a great Roman family.  But Paul offered them  far more wonderful, far greater prospect than what Ben Hur enjoyed.   Paul tells us that we can be “children of God, and of children, then heirs of God and joint heirs of Christ” (Rom 8    ).

I think we can pause and let that sink in for a moment.  God wishes to adopt us.   God, who has a son, wishes to make us heirs and joint heirs with Christ.   God, who would not give his name to Moses except to say “I am”, now allows us to call him Father in its intimate form, Abba, or daddy.  God, unlike Arius in the film Ben Hur is under no debt of gratitude, who owes us nothing, will do this for us out of love.  And finally, as if this wasn’t enough wonder for a Sunday morning, the God who will do this for us out of love is the same God who shakes the earth in the Psalm, the same God barely glimpsed by Isaiah, wreathed in smoke and glory, the same who’s temple shakes with awe.  

So why would this wonderful God do all this for us?   Let’s take a few moments to think about what Paul means to be adopted.   In films and literature, orphans dream of being adopted because it means rescue from poverty and loneliness.   Dickens’ novels are full of orphans, and they weren’t far off real life.  My wife’s grandparents were poor Barnardo orphans who found new lives in Canada that they could scarcely imagine.  

Now we may not be in some ghastly Victorian orphanage, but God does want to rescue us all the same.    Paul says that we are rescued from “debt to the flesh” and adopted by the “Spirit of God”, and this kind of flesh/spirit opposition is very typical of Paul but hard for us to understand because it plays into the idea that Christianity is opposed to the body and to the physical.     I think, rather, that it means something much more profound and deeper.

Let’s go back to out seat at the movies and watch Ben Hur some more.  After Ben Hur is adopted by Arius, you would think the film is over.   The hero has status and power.   But he hasn’t been healed.   He’s been driven by the desire for revenge over the Roman friend who put him and his family in slavery and prison, and even though he got his revenge ion his enemy in the famous chariot race scene, he’s still wounded.   He goes back to Judea and frees his mother and sister, only to find that they have leprosy.    The world and the power of Rome can’t restore these injuries.    

But, then we remember that when he was on his way to the galleys, a man gave him a drink of water.   Now, at the end of the film, Ben Hur and his family huddle at the foot of the hill where the same man who gave him  drink now hangs on a Roman cross, and as the rain washes the blood down the hill of Calvary, Ben Hur and his family are healed.     It’s then that we realize that being adopted by Arius was never going to save Ben Hur.  it was only being healed by Jesus, only by being named and claimed by as God’s child, that he would be saved. 

As of said before, the church’s language and thinking about salvation and being saved is in some disrepair, so let me finish with some thoughts about salvation and adoption from our friend C.S. Lewis.   Some of us have been working our way through his book For the last month some of us have been reading C.S. Lewis’ book The Screwtape Letters,  which imagines Screwtape, a senior devil, advising a junior devil on the best way to tempt a human soul away from God.    Screwtape advises his young charge, Wormwood, to aim at the centre of the human being, at what he calls the Will, the very centre of the self.   

The will is where all the virtues live, those practices and habits that orient us towards God and which allow us to love our fellow humans.  Push those virtues and habits out of the Will, says Screwtape, and you can replace them with all those impulses - greed, vanity, etc - which make the self become selfish and which drive out all love of others.   In Lewis’ language, the will or the self become a lot like Paul’s idea of the flesh, something that pulls us away from God.

The cleverness of C.S. Lewis is that he helps us understand what it means to be God’s adopted children from the devils’ point of view.   Screwtape is horrified that God, who he calls “the Enemy”, loves humans and wants them to become “replicas of Himself - creatures whose life, on its miniature scale, will be qualitatively like His own … because their wills freely conform to His”.   As Screwtape says with disgust, whereas the devils want souls who will be their food, God wants “servants who can finally become [children].   

So dear saints, if we can learn anything on Trinity Sunday, maybe it is simply this, that if God as Holy Trinity is a loving family, then we are adopted into that family.    One of the great blessings of our faith is that we who follow Jesus as his students and servants can also call him friend and brother.     

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Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


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