by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
Cathedral of Hope – OKC
23 October 2005
I first encountered the story of Les Miserables through the musical, which was a huge hit when I was in high school. While in Chicago for the National Forensic League National Speech Tournament, Donna Webster, my speech coach, and I went to see the musical one evening. Some friends of ours had extra tickets and invited us at the last moment. We got around and drove “hurriedly” into Chicago – it wasn’t so much “hurriedly” as it was a slow crawl due to the traffic. We got to the theatre late, missing the opening scenes. We walked in just in time to see Javert perform the song “Stars,” which has been a favourite song of mine ever since. Immediately, I fell in love with this musical and with the story it is based on.
Javert is the police inspector who spends his life hunting Jean Valjean. Javert is a law and order person, who feels that he is on a divinely ordered quest to enforce God’s laws. For Javert, right and wrong; duty and obedience, are clear-cut categories easily illuminated by divine reason. What is true and right are easily discernible, and Javert follows his convictions with absolute certainty.
In Victor Hugo’s story, Javert is the villain. The musical does a good job of making you pity him, because Javert’s certainty is a trap. He’s trapped within his worldview. Right and truth are clearly illuminated, but it is like a blinding light that obscures Javert’s vision to see the real world around him. Because he cannot see or grasp the complexities and ambiguities of real life, he lacks compassion and mercy. He cannot relate to real people in an authentic way because all he sees are objects governed by strict laws.
Finally, the trap springs shut on Javert. The second act of the musical is set during the attempted revolution of 1848. Javert disguises himself as one of the revolutionaries and attempts to undermine and betray them. When he is exposed as Inspector Javert, he ends up receiving mercy and compassion from Jean Valjean, the man he has hunted over many years. The trap springs at this moment of grace; Javert cannot handle it and, so, he kills himself.
In Javert’s worldview, suicide must have been an ultimate wrong. However, he feels forced to this great sacrilege because of the realization that his life’s work – all he has thought and believed and dedicated himself to – , this system of law and order, crumbles in response to genuine grace.
Javert dies when Valjean, the hunted man, shows compassion and mercy and allows Javert to live. This is because Valjean’s life has taken a different path. At the beginning of the story, Valjean is let out of prison after many years. He had been convicted of stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s children and spent a long time in prison suffering for his crime. When he is released, however, he still isn’t free. Forever Valjean is tarred as a felon and will not be able to re-enter society. It is a clear picture of injustice.
Just out of prison, Valjean is desperate and poor. He has been pushed to extremes. He is a broken man who is struggling to figure out how to make in an unjust world where all the forces appear to be allied against him.
While traveling, he stays at the home of a kind bishop. This bishop feeds him and provides him shelter. I think that Valjean’s brokenness blinds him. Because of his experience of suffering and injustice, he cannot imagine true compassion anymore. I think he feels that he must resort to anything, even extreme measures, to ensure his own survival. So, Valjean steals the bishop’s silver and escapes into the night.
Valjean’s unlucky life continues. His is caught by constables. Valjean lies to them and tells them that the bishop gave the silver to him. The constables take Valjean back to the bishop’s home. They mockingly ask the bishop if he has given the silver to Valjean out of “Christian goodness.”
In the musical the bishop responds with these amazing words:
That is right
But my friend, you left so early
Surely something slipped your mind
You forgot I gave these also
Would you leave the best behind?
So, Messieurs, you may release him
For this man has spoken true.
I commend you for your duty
And God’s blessing go with you.
But remember this, my brother
See in this some higher plan.
You must use this precious silver
To become an honest man.
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!
This moment is the turning point in Valjean’s life. He repents of having stolen from the bishop and goes on to build a new life during which he increasingly learns to care for others. Then, in the crucial moment, the climax of the story, he is able to show compassion to Javert who has hunted him all his life. Les Miserables is the story of a conflict between genuine grace and those who pervert faith into legalism.
Most of the time, when I hear the bishop’s song, I cry. Why? Because I can’t get away from the fact that the way the bishop responds is the Christian response. The bishop demonstrates those very qualities we have been discussing the last few months. The bishop embodies the virtues necessary to live the Christian journey. In this character we see the sort of humility, generosity, forgiveness, hope, and love that shock us.
And this way of life is so directly contrasted with that of Inspector Javert. Javert may be a religious person, dedicated to his vision of Christianity. Yet, he is unforgiving, legalistic, lacking in compassion and mercy, incapable of seeing the real world. What is the difference between the faith of the bishop and the faith of the inspector? One upholds a faith based on rules, while the other upholds a faith based upon people.
This, I believe, is the essence of tonight’s Gospel.
The Pharisees come to Jesus, as they so often do, intending to trap him with their questions. They are sorta like Javert. They believe in these strict codes of discipline. Some of the Pharisees, especially as they are portrayed in Matthew’s Gospel, have lost the spirit of the Hebrew law. The great themes of the Hebrew story include blessing, liberation, sacrifice for others, covenant, justice, righteousness, etc. These are the themes we find in the ancient Genesis stories where generations struggle to understand blessing until they finally learn that one can only be blessed if one is willing to give of oneself in blessing other. Or in the great Exodus narrative where the oppressed are set free by a God who considers the least of these, the outcasts. A God who then sets out to create a different kind of community that can be a witness of redemption to all the world. These are the themes the prophets repeatedly return us to. It is there in the words of Micah and Isaiah who condemn the empty rituals of a people who have forgotten to show compassion to the poor and needy. Or in the great sermon of Amos who cries out for a time when “justice shall roll down like rivers, and righteousness like a ever-flowing stream.”
Some of these Pharisees have forgotten that the spiritual practices of the people are intended to open them to God and God’s working. The point of the law is to bring blessing upon this oppressed people and thereby enact God’s plan of redemption for all of creation. Instead many of these Pharisees have lowered the practices to such a legalistic understanding that life has become more about following the rules than the reality that the rules point toward. It is there in Jesus’ words of rebuke at one point that the Sabbath was created for humankind and not humankind for the Sabbath. God’s work in this world is about people, not about a set a rules.
It is this reality, these grand themes of the Hebrew tradition, that Jesus reminds them of in this interchange. The Pharisees, these lovers of rules, come asking Jesus, what is the greatest rule? What commandment deserves our greatest obedience?
And Jesus answers in a way that upends a worldview based upon legalism. The most important rule is to love. To love God and to love one another as oneself. “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
See, these are the fundamentals. If you’re going to be a genuine fundamentalist, then love ought to become your most important rule.
And isn’t this the basic truth that we learn early in life? For most of us growing up in church, going to Sunday school, learning from those saints who taught us the Christian faith, the first thing we learned is love. God is love. Love your neighbor. Love your parents. All the first stories you learn are stories of love and acceptance.
But something happens along the way. The church began to teach us to exclude people, to look on them differently. People of a different religion or even a different denomination. Maybe for some of you the churches of your youth taught you to look differently at people of another race. And some of the people we were taught to treat differently we finally realized that we were a part of that group. What then should we make of this love idea? We struggled to understand how we were to love ourselves, when for years we had been taught that maybe God’s love didn’t include people like us. The way that was most natural for us to love another person was said to be “unnatural;” our form of love was a perversion. And how could we love a God who we were told didn’t love us?
That we are here is a testimony that in some fashion we overcame these messages of hate. Maybe the fundamentals had taken deep root in us. Maybe we finally realized that the lessons we first learned were the right ones and that the church was wrong about all that other stuff it added on that obscured the basic teachings. Probably we finally came to the realization that our relationship with God, our faith, wasn’t about following a bunch of rules, but was about being an authentic person and being in authentic relationships with other people.
Because the funny thing is that the greatest rule, isn’t even a rule at all. It is a relationship. Love, we are told. Be in genuine, authentic relationships. With yourself, with others, and with God. And give it everything you are – heart, soul, mind, and body. Become a person who overflows with love. Give abundantly of yourself.
The great truth here is that all these loves come together. You cannot authentically and genuinely love yourself unless you giving of yourself to others. Because when we share ourselves with others, we are drawn outside of the narrow confines of self-interest and invited to see a wider world teeming with the abundance of God’s creation. This is the life lived with overwhelming generosity and it is the path to true blessing.
And you can’t authentically and genuinely love others unless you love yourself. Only when you can accept yourself for who you are, be honest with yourself, forgive yourself, allow yourself to be fully free – only then are you a person truly able to love other people. Only then can you give of your whole self, because only then is your whole self free to give.
This, my friends, is how we love God. We love God by loving ourselves and other people and the totality of God’s creation. Jesus himself said it, “when you have done it unto the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you have done it unto me.”
In this Gospel text Jesus is declaring the wisdom of the ages. It summarizes the entire Hebrew story. It exemplifies the greatest of the Christian tradition. And it is even present in every major faith around the world that the basic principle is love. What Jesus is saying to these Pharisees and the Pharisees in every place and time is “it is not in the strict observance of the rules.” It is found in love, authentic genuine relationships, that freedom of sharing ourselves completely with one another.
We are travelers on a journey together. A journey of boldly proclaiming God’s good news to a world in need. A journey that requires us here and now to live God’s way. A journey that can only be faithfully completed if we learn how to interact with other people and live a life of extravagant generosity and grace. The journey of a community whose basic rule is that we are united in our diversity. A journey that despite whatever difficulties can be filled with joy and peace. A journey that begins and ends and is overwhelmed by one basic idea – this is a journey of love.