You might know the scene early in Victor Hugo’s masterpiece, Les Misérables, when the protagonist, Jean Valjean, just released from 19 years in prison, and is turned away from everyone because of his status as a convict. He is finally welcomed into the home of a local bishop, Monseigneur Bienvenu (which literally means welcome). Rising early, Jean Valjean, steals the bishop’s silverware and slips away. He is stopped on the road by gendarmes because he looked guilty. He is searched, and ultimately brought back to the bishop’s house to face judgement for his crime. When the bishop sees Jean Valjean returning in the custody of police, dejected and ashamed, he exclaims, “Here you are! I gave you the candlesticks too, why didn’t you carry them away with your forks and spoons?” Though Jean Valjean is obviously guilty, the bishop extends mercy to him, pretending as if he had given him the silver from the very beginning. After Valjean is released the bishop insists he take the valuable silver candlesticks as well. Here’s the end of the scene from the novel:
Jean Valjean was like a man on the point of fainting. The Bishop drew near to him, and said in a low voice:
“Do not forget, never forget, that you have promised to use this money in becoming an honest man.”
Jean Valjean, who had no recollection of ever having promised anything, remained speechless. The Bishop had emphasized the words when he uttered them. He resumed with solemnity:
“Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I buy from you; I withdraw it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God.”
The rest of Jean Valjean’s life, and indeed the rest of the novel, proceeds from this one foundational act of mercy that changes the course of a person’s life. This work of fiction points us to a profound truth: when all is done and said and a final accounting is made for all the deeds that have ever been done, it will be seen that mercy, undeserved grace, and forgiveness have far more power over the destinies of humanity than the strongest weapon, and far more value than the most desired item or property.
Our bishop reminded me of that story when I called him earlier this week distraught over something that happened at church. Last Sunday, I was given 34 Giant gift cards which represented the generosity of many, many parishioners toward those in need who will be served by the Ardmore Food Pantry this Thanksgiving. The cards were wrapped with a rubber band and slip of paper. I put them in a filing cabinet in the church office, along with others that had been collected. Four days later I returned for them to find that 20 out of the 34 were gone. The remaining 14 were exactly where I put them, still wrapped with a rubber band and the slip of paper. I looked frantically throughout the filing cabinet and the office, but they were gone. Theft seems to be the only explanation. I was upset at myself for not taking the time to lock them in the safe. I was angry that someone would steal from the needy and the poor. I thought about filing a police report. I thought about casting accusations on possible suspects. But then I called the bishop, instead. He encouraged me to remember the story of Jean Valjean and to consider why anyone would steal gift cards from a church, or why they would only take some and not the others. Most likely this person needed these gift cards for one reason or another. As one member of the church reminded me, no property was damaged, no one was hurt. The gift cards were destined to go to someone in need.
This doesn’t change the fact that stealing is morally wrong, not to mention illegal. And yet, we serve a God whose property it is to always have mercy. I am reminded that, just like Jean Valjean, we all need mercy. We all need grace. We all need a second or a third or a fourth chance. That is exactly the business that God is in, mercy for those who miss the mark. Like a handful of dirt compared to the mighty sea, so is all of human sin compared to the ocean of God’s mercy.
This tired, unforgiving world desperately needs reminders that mercy and grace are real, and available through faith, and are more powerful than revenge, or even than imperfect systems of human justice. To be a bastion and beacon of mercy and love in a harsh world is the entire reason why this church exists. So, I will not be filing a police report. A couple of donors (including the bishop) will replace the stolen cards. If the thief ever reads this, let them know they are forgiven and loved. I’d love to talk to them, to offer them more financial support if they need it, to proclaim to them that they no longer belong to evil, but to good.
None of this is meant to diminish or downplay the value or the effectiveness of your generosity to this or to other outreach initiatives. To those who gave money for gift cards remember, your gift was in thanksgiving to God, first and foremost. God knows your motivation and your heart, and God blesses those who are generous, even—especially—when generosity is shown to the seemingly undeserving. For that is the form of generosity that most closely mirrors God’s own.
Nevertheless, I will ask the vestry to reevaluate our practices for handling and storing cash and gift cards, and in the future, I will be more careful with where I put things. We are all stewards of the gifts that God has given us, after all. In the final analysis, when the dust settles, love covers a multitude of sins. God’s mercies are new every morning, and they are free and available to us all. There is no better news than that.
Les Mis- I love the whole spirituality of the story. If the bishop scene didn’t exist, there would be pretty much no story