After decades of loving the musical, Les Miserables, I am finally reading Victor Hugo’s novel. I found this passage describing Bishop Myriel especially inviting. (He is the bishop who later forgives Jean Valjean and sets him on a path of compassion):
He was indulgent towards women, and towards the poor, upon whom the weight of society falls most heavily; and said: “The faults of women, children, and servants, of the feeble, the indigent and the ignorant, are the faults of their husbands, fathers, and masters, of the strong, the rich, and the wise.” At other times, he said, “Teach the ignorant as much as you can; society is culpable in not providing a free education for all and it must answer for the night which it produces. If the soul is left in darkness, sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but he who causes the darkness.”
As we see, he had a strange and peculiar way of judging things. I suspect that he acquired it from the Gospel.
I want to emphasize Hugo’s summation of Myriel’s outlook. What a wonderful and haunting thought. May our encounter with the gospel of Jesus Christ change us in such a way that the world around us would consider our way of judging things, “strange and peculiar.” Gaining respectability and social power are temptations we always face, but we have to admit there are simply some things about the gospel that will never make sense in our world.
For example, the Christian practices of forgiving one’s enemies, turning the other cheek, and radical generosity and hospitality are all peculiar and nearly unintelligible in our world. Forgiveness seems unwise or even dangerous in our culture that keeps long accounts. Turning the other cheek makes no sense. Retaliation in the form of a punch, social snub, lawsuit, or drone strike, is seen as far more reasonable. Giving of one’s money, time, and abilities for the sake of others on occasion is admired in our culture. But to make a habit of it at the expense of one’s career advancement or lifestyle is foolish.
During Lent, we take an inventory of our lives. We peer into our darkness and seek to repent of sinning against God and others “by what we have done and by what we have left undone.” We seek the grace of God to change how we think and act. These are peculiar acts for they are intentional practices to align ourselves with God’s mission in the world, and not a part of a self-improvement program. The great fast of Lent reveals our disordered desires and willingness to place our trust in that which cannot save us. We are once again invited to a deeper conversion to God’s kingdom. The strange gospel of Jesus Christ takes our focus off ourselves and puts it onto God and our neighbors.
Bishop Myriel says later in the novel:
Have no fear of robbers and murderers. Such dangers are without, and are but petty. We should fear ourselves. Prejudices are the real robbers; vices the real murderers. The great dangers are within us. What matters it what threatens our heads and our purses? Let us think only of what threatens our souls.
This is a fantastic exhortation for us during this holy season. In the remaining weeks of Lent, have the courage to confront what threatens your soul. And may God bless you with an encounter with the gospel—that inviting, challenging, comforting, perplexing, strange, and peculiar good news.