One of my favorite novels is Les Misérables written by Victor Hugo. Hopefully, you are familiar enough with the story that I can just jump right in – but in case you aren’t – let me give you a quick summary. The novel is about a whole lot of people – actually – but it follows the life of a man named Jean Valjean. The story is set in France – thus the name Jean Valjean – and it takes place in the 1830’s – ish. But – Jean Valjean spent 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread. When he is released, he is sent away from prison with his parole papers by a man named Javert – who basically haunts Jean Valjean throughout the novel. Javert is all law – no grace – sort of character.
Jean Valjean tries to move his life forward but because he’s a convict – he can’t get anything going in his life at all. That is until he meets the Bishop of Digne – a man the people called Bienvenu (which means welcome in French). When Jean Valjean meets Bishop Bienvenu – the bishop opens his home to him, feeds him, and gives him a place to sleep and to rest. He treats him with dignity and kindness.
Jean Valjean returns that kindness by stealing the bishop’s silver cutlery in the middle of the night. Jean Valjean flees from the bishop’s house with a sack full of silver.
The next morning, however, the local police bring Jean Valjean back to the bishop’s house. They had arrested him because he looked as if he was running after having committed a crime – which he had of course. When they caught Jean Valjean, he told the police the bishop had given him the silver. So they take him to the Bishop.
The Bishop makes a bee-line when he sees Jean Valjean and the police. And the bishop says, “Ah, there you are! Am I glad to see you! But, heavens! I gave you the candlesticks, too, you know; they are made of silver like the rest and you can get two hundred francs for them, easily. Why didn’t you take them with the cutlery?”
Of course, Jean Valjean is speechless. He was expecting to be condemned. He was after all a convict – a bad man by some accounts and he was guilty – but here is the bishop rescuing him and keeping him from going back to prison. Jean Valjean. The bishop then tells the police to let Jean Valjean go – and they do.
Then the bishop says something to Jean Valjean that changes the man’s life forever – in fact – the entirety of the novel – in my view – hinges on this moment. The bishop says, “Don’t forget don’t ever forget, that you promised me to use this silver to make an honest man of yourself.”
Now Jean Valjean – has no memory of ever making such a promise – he is just stunned with what’s happening – and then the Bishop says – one of the best lines in all of literature, “Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to the evil but to good. It is your soul that I am buying for you; I am taking it away from black thoughts and from the spirit of perdition, and I am giving it to God.”
What’s amazing is just how stunned Jean Valjean is. In fact, in the next scene, Valjean leaves the Bishop and the city and just runs as if he is still on the run. For the first time in Jean Valjean’s life- he’s encountered grace – and he’s rocked by that – he’s stunned.
But the reader isn’t shocked. Victor Hugo dedicates the first part of the novel to the Bishop. By the time the reader gets to this encounter between the Bishop and Jean Valjean – the reader is ready for the Bishop to do what he did – and they know why the bishop did what he did; he did it because that’s what Christians do.
In fact, in the first part of the novel, Hugo’s Bishop takes the bulk of his salary and uses it to provide for the needs of others, using very little of it for himself. He takes his own money and makes sure that people have food, medicine, and able to pay their bills. Hugo’s bishop uses his means to help orphans and widows. He gave up his large house provided for him by the church so that the hospital could use it. Over and over, the Bishop of Digne did things for the people of his community. He sacrificed and took risks. After showing all of the ways the Bishop served his community, Hugo said of the Bishop, “As you can see, he has a strange, idiosyncratic way of looking at things. I suspect he got it from the Gospel.”
I love that line so much because I’d like for it to be true of me (okay granted I’m a little peculiar on my own but humor me for a bit longer). I think there is something to be said about the way Hugo’s Bishop saw the world and the people around him. It seems to me that his perspective on this was deeply Christian in a way that I haven’t quite mastered yet. I mean, he wasn’t overly concerned with himself and recognized that he could live on very little so that others could have what they needed. And, he took in someone that no one else would – because he saw it as something that Jesus called him to do. Now that sort of thing is exactly why Hugo said the Bishop had a “strange, idiosyncratic way of looking at things” and that he got it from the Gospel.
And that’s true, you know? The Gospel gives a strange shape a Christian worldview because it calls us to love God and love neighbor in specific sorts of ways. For instance, the gospel calls Christians to think of others as more significant than themselves. Well, how does that play out in a pandemic? The gospel also calls Christians to pray without ceasing and to actually believe that God hears us when we pray and answers our prayers. The gospel calls Christians to trust God in all our circumstances which means that we are able to take risks to make sure that the needs of others are being met – even if we have to sacrifice to do it. The gospel also calls us to lament over the broken things of the world and yet to do so not as people without hope – because our hope is built on Jesus – and thus we acknowledge our mortality but we also hold out for eternal life through Christ. And the gospel calls us to offer grace to others.
I’ve been at this Christian thing for a while now – working on three decades and so I’d like to say that I’m pretty good at all those things listed above – but I’d be lying if I did. That’s why I wish that line about Hugo’s Bishop was true of me. Because the truth is, they’ve been true about a lot of Christian folks throughout the ages. In fact, I think about the number of pastors like André Trocmé and other Christians who helped to hide Jews during World War II. I think of Christians who helped during the Civil Rights movement. Those folks had the right sort of strange – idiosyncratic view of the world that was linked to the gospel. Granted, I know this pandemic is nothing like those events but it does afford a unique opportunity to live out the Gospel.
And, and before you think that I’ve based all of this on some imaginative character made up by Hugo, there is something that you need to know about Victor Hugo’s Bishop in Les Misérables. Hugo developed the character of the Bishop of Digne from the life of a man named Charles-Francois-Melchior-Bienvenu de Miollis who was the actual Bishop of Digne. He was known for his simple lifestyle and his attention to the poorest members of his community – his devotion to Jesus; and, the real-life Bishop actually welcomed and helped a convict who had been imprisoned for 5 years for stealing a loaf of bread (Rose 1195). I suppose folks may have said that he had a strange, idiosyncratic way of looking at things and I suppose he may have gotten it from the Gospel.