Jean Valjean and the Face of God

tn-500_14.01_mir_les_mis_colm3949At the end of Les Misérables, as Jean Valjean lies dying before his beloved daughter Cosette and her husband-to-be Marius, the musical swells to a beautiful arrangement of different musical themes sung by Valjean, a vision of Fantine, and reprising his earlier role, the Bishop of Digne. In this stirring scene, Valjean commends Marius and Cosette to marry and reveals his long-held secret that he, in fact, is prisoner #24601, tired from a life of running from the law. As Valjean sings his last confession, Fantine appears to welcome him into heaven, accompanying his reflection on the grace he has been shown and his attempt to live a life worthy of it. At last, Valjean sees the Bishop, the noble priest who initiated the entirety of Valjean’s redemption by welcoming him to his home, forgiving his crime, and graciously setting him free, transforming him into a new man whose soul has been “bought for God”. Notice the kindness and sacrificial love of the priest as he gives Valjean the candlesticks at the beginning of the musical:

“But my friend you left so early / Surely something slipped your mind / You forgot I gave these also / Would you leave the best behind?”

Here, in Valjean’s final hour, he experiences an almost beatific vision of the priest, surrounded gloriously in candlelight in the 2012 film adaptation, as they sing one of the show’s most gorgeous lines:

“To love another person is to see the face of God”

maxresdefaultNo statement better captures the spiritual center of the story as Valjean fully takes the measure of how strong grace truly is. One simple act of kindness, unmerited yet fully proffered, has the power to transform a filthy sinner into a forgiven saint. Even in his humble and lowly position, the priest became a vessel for Valjean and, by extension, the audience to see the very face of God through his indefinable love for an embittered thief.

For such wild forgiveness and abundant grace effuses from our Father, the Almighty God who turns slaves into sons and frees us all from the burdens of our many years in prison. Like the Bishop, God offers rest for the weary, comfort for the resentful, love for the unloving and unlovely. Like the Bishop, God transforms the nameless prisoner (24601) into a new man, restored to life, saved not by good works but to them, called to let the grace with which he’s been filled spill over to another. When Valjean is forgiven, he is free to shed his old life and commit himself to a life of service, redeeming little Cosette from her equally dismal life.

In I John 3:16, the apostle describes this love of the Father: “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers” This selflessness characterizes love and, as God is love, draws us closer to His nature. Since we are called to imitate God (Eph. 5:1), learning to love others as He is love is the way forward.

In Romans, “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” Incidentally, this truth explains Javert’s ultimate self-destruction. No man so bound to the duties of the law can function, for the law is fulfilled in love; the only way Christ could fulfill the law is in his final breath dying for His friends. As Javert’s inability to cope with such love and grace becomes his undoing, Valjean’s embrace of it in giving his life to Cosette, Marius, and the dozens of young boys at the barricades becomes his way to salvation.

“Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. Show hospitality to one another without grumbling . As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace” (I Peter 4:8-10).

Honey, That’s What Takers Do

In the tail end of Ephesians 4, Paul shifts his thoughts from what are, as my dad calls them, the redwoods of theology and doctrine that constitute Ephesians 1-3 (you know, the veritable grab bag of predestination, depravity, progressive sanctification, and a side of nachos) toward the stuff of practical living. He begins in 4:25 with the exhortation to “put away falsehood” and to “not let the sun go down on your anger,” clear encouragement that is forthright and incisive.

But what seems to be fairly easy-going in the first few pieces – speak the truth, be angry and do not sin – becomes quite complicated as the list continues. By the end, we are told only to speak what is good for building up and to let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, slander, and malice be put away from us. Sheesh. It’s safe to say this collection of living wisdom requires the work of the Holy Spirit in us to bring it about, a truth which is more than likely Paul’s entire point.

Yet, as we rely on the Spirit of the Living God to be at work in us (Phil. 2:13), we are not given the allowance to drift slowly to sleep as Paul’s list reveals itself. Though it is God at work in us, we are still commanded to put our whole being to the task of sanctification with “fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12).

With this sort of focus and examination in mind, I’d like to hone in on one of Paul’s commands in particular:

“Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.”  -Eph. 4:28

Though there is much to be gleaned from this verse on the virtue of work, the value of sharing, and the necessity of compassion in capitalism (for a separate post, I’m sure), I’d like to offer three observations regarding theft in the life of a Christian.

#1 – Taking what isn’t yours and not taking what is yours are both sins.

While the knee-jerk reading of this verse tends to lean toward a “Thou-shalt-not-steal” cautioning, we must not neglect the possibility of a more ubiquitous form of theft: robbing oneself. It is true that we must not steal what is not ours, but it is also true that we must not steal what has been freely given us by not allowing ourselves to enjoy it. This form of theft is quite familiar to many of us. How often have we refused the gift of forgiveness Christ offers? How many of us live under the condemnation and guilt of gracelessness when the grace of Christ has been extended to us? How many of us decline the gift the Giver has lavished on us in the name of self-reliance? For too many of us, we admit Christ broke the chains that bound us but rather than leave them at the foot of the cross, we pick them up and flagellate away. The chasm between penance and penitence is vast.

We must believe God when He says, “I give you grace, forgiveness, justification, joy.” To say no to these is to say no to Christ. We steal from ourselves when we acknowledge Christ with our mouths but decline the gift of salvation, the whole gift with all its bells and whistles.

#2 – Thieves steal more than treasure.

Stealing a car is bad. Stealing money from your neighbor is bad. Stealing time your children deserve is…well…

Though many American Christians balk at the notion they must be told not to steal (“Please, I wear a tie to work. I’m no thief.”), far too many of us steal regularly when it comes to the passing of our time. When Paul tells us we must no longer steal, we ought to look at the time we steal from our spouse by overcommitting to hobbies, time we steal from our children by lying on the couch, time we steal from our pastor by staying home. It would seem we do not need ski masks to be thieves.

#3 – Taking what must not be taken and not giving what must be given are both sins.

Similar to observation #1, this truth tends to glisten when you tilt the verse at an angle. Paul ends his verse with the overall purpose of the command: “…so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.” Paul gives us the why. We must no longer steal but work heartily so that we may have something to share with anyone in need. This means that it is not enough to simply stop stealing and start earning. Hoarding is theft. When we fill our own barrels for the sake of grinning at their fullness, we rob those in need of what God has called us to share. As the sage once said, humans have two hands and one mouth. We ought to contribute twice as much as we consume.

Most importantly, we must remember that “honest work and just reward” (to quote Javert) existed pre-Fall, thus they are a design feature built in to God’s original plan for mankind. Adam was employed in the garden before he was evicted from the garden (Gen. 2:15). We must enjoy our work as a part of God’s design which means we must both give of our plenty and receive of God’s plenty with the widest of smiles.