If the Gospel of “turn the other cheek” ever feels like it demands too much… When bitterness and anger seep into our hearts, love is the answer to the attack. Forgiveness disarms anger; just look at the Bishop in Les Mis by Victor Hugo, which is now a hugely popular musical turned film.
In in a time of great turmoil, between the French Revolution and the lesser known revolution in 1842, life was hard, people lived in poverty, corrupt law officers abounded. Released after 19 years in prison, hardened convict Jean Valjean attempts to make his way in the world.
He first meets a bishop who takes him in and allows him to stay despite being a convict.
That is striking love! Imagine today if a ex-con knocked on your door. Would you feed him or let him stay the night? Well the bishop does. Score one for charity (aka agape).
Despite the compassion shown to him, Valjean wakes up in the night, steals the silverware (it’s really silver) of the household and makes off. In the morning, the police find him and bring him back to the Bishop. Valjean lies and tells the police that the Bishop gave him the silverware.
When the police bring Valjean back, he stares at the ground in shame before the Bishop. Does the Bishop get angry? Or thank the police? No. The bishop looks at them sternly and says (paraphrase), “Release this man. I indeed gave him the silverware. Valjean, why did you not take the candlesticks also.” He hands the convict the silver candlesticks to take on his way as well. The police leave, and Valjean stands dumbfounded before the Bishop’s unmerited act of mercy.
Showing undeserved mercy? Score two for following Christ.
“Why?” asks Valjean. The Bishop responds (to quote the musical): “By the witness of the martyrs. By the Passion and the Blood: God has raised you out of darkness. I have bought your soul for God.” And Valjean acknowledges the gift and the takes the opportunity to turn his life around (which leads to the rest of the plot).
To the Bishop: Giving away all the silver you own: costs a fortune.
Giving a broken man a second chance and a new take on life: priceless.
Grand-slam for love.
As often as I think about this story, it amazes me more and more. With selfless disregard for himself, the Bishop plumbs the bottomless depth of forgiveness and love for the sake of Valjean. As he says in the musical, “By the witness of the martyrs, by the Passion and the Blood” (the suffering and death of Jesus Christ), God has raised man out of darkness. Good cleanses the hate from Valjean’s heart. Good gives life.
It is this impetus that inspires Jean Valjean to turn his life around and thus the basis for the rest of the plot.
And is the Bishop miserable without his silver? Far from it! He knows that by God working in him, he has helped show grace to Valjean, who then has the chance to respond, and thankfully he does. Living by example is the best form of evangelism.
This is a lesson for all of us. With anger and coming so easily into our hearts when we are hurt, it’s hard to respond with love. But the Bishop doesn’t get angry. Rather, when asked for his jacket, he gives the thief his shirt as well. And all are better for it.
Abundant love is amazing in that the more we give away, the more we get.
Do you think it’s possible to live as the bishop does in the story? Has anyone (besides God) ever given you an amazing second chance? What other examples are there of Christ’s redeeming love shining through people’s lives?