(Originally written just prior to the 4th of July)
Jean Valjean was “a very dangerous man.”
That was the description written about him on the yellow passport he carried. After nineteen years of horrible imprisonment for the small crime of stealing a loaf of bread, he was set free. But, although now outside the prison walls, he knew he was still a prisoner, and the paper he carried proved that to all he encountered.
Upon his arrival at a certain French village, he stopped at an inn and was rejected–the innkeeper was alerted that he was an ex-convict. He left the inn, and children followed, throwing stones at him. Even the local jailer rejected him, saying he’d need to be arrested again to find any lodging there. Finally, to his astonishment, he was received by the local Bishop, the Monseigneur Bienvenu. The Bishop gave him hot food on silver plates and a warm place to sleep.
But, even after this kindness Valjean was no less hardened. His long imprisonment had sealed his hatred for this society, this world, and he trusted no one. So, in the middle of the night, he left, after stealing the Bishop’s precious silver plates.
In the morning, the Bishop answered a knock at his door to find Valjean, bound in chains, in the custody of the local police who had caught him with the stolen silver. Breaking his parole, he would certainly be taken back to prison. This time, for life.
“Ah, there you are!” said the Bishop, looking toward Jean Valjean. “I am glad to see you. But I gave you the candlesticks also, which are silver like the rest, and would bring two hundred francs. Why did you not take them along with your plates?”
Jean Valjean opened his eyes and looked at the Bishop with an expression which no human tongue could describe. As the police released him and left, he felt like a man who is just about to faint.
The Bishop approached him, and said, in a low voice, “Forget not, never forget that you have promised me to use this silver to become an honest man.” Jean Valjean, who had no recollection of this promise stood confounded. The Bishop had laid much stress upon these words as he uttered them. He continued solemnly:
“Jean Valjean, my brother, you belong no longer to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I am buying for you. I withdraw it from dark thoughts and from the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God!” *
The story of Jean Valjean is about human bondage and freedom, which those of us in the United States are reminded of as we celebrate our Independence Day. But, this story goes beyond the important ideas of the civil freedoms we enjoy in our Constitution. We are right to celebrate our civil freedoms. We are indeed privileged to live in a society where we are generally free from the tyranny of Kim Jong-il’s North Korea, Stalin’s U.S.S.R., or Hitler’s Germany.
We are free to worship, we have freedom to speak our minds, to live where we like, etc. But, there are other tyrannies that can imprison us, aren’t there?–prejudice, hatred, selfishness, guilt, depression, recklessness, etc. To the eyes of others, we may seem to be perfectly free human beings, but still, like Valjean, we may walk in hopeless bondage.
But, if we are free to do what we like, why do we still walk in chains? Well, sometimes these chains are placed on us by others. A young child might be unmercifully teased in the school yard, a woman may spend years verbally and physically abused by her husband, an accomplished man may be passed over time and time again for a promotion because of the color of his skin. Our world can be most cruel, and often, due to circumstances beyond our control, we find ourselves trapped in prisons from which we cannot escape.
Sometimes our bondage is of our own making. Jean Valjean certainly understood that his initial imprisonment was of his own doing. And, originally, his sentence was only 5 years. It was only after multiple escape attempts that it was lengthened to 19 years. In these cases we understand that freedom isn’t just about what we choose to do, it is also about what consequences result from our actions. A man may be free to drink as much alcohol as he desires, but if his drinking leads to addiction, divorce, a lost and lonely life and perhaps even death, is he really free in his freedom?
We are only free when our choices lead to a freedom that transcends human choice. I think this goes back to the premise I mentioned in a previous blog, that Life is Relationship. If life is relationship, then the ultimate freedom we could ever hope for is to be found when our choices move beyond our right to our own autonomy, to a life bound by the mandates of true relationship. To a life of freedom that comes from divine grace.
Jean Valjean was a hard man, rejected and forgotten by most of society. This Bishop not only welcomed him with food and rest, but purchased his soul for God with the gift of reprieve from a return to prison, and with the wealth of silver to start his life anew. With this kindness, Valjean was now compelled to live his life for others, not out of harsh condemnation, but because of a freedom received that he in no way deserved.
As a follower of Jesus Christ, I find myself compelled to live according to this same freedom. It is said that “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.” **
Did you know that, in a nutshell, freedom was the main thrust of Jesus’ mission here on Earth? He came to “proclaim freedom for the prisoners…to release the oppressed.” He provided a release for people from the bondage of their own circumstances, self-inflicted or otherwise–he restored relationships, he fed the hungry, he healed the sick. He taught people how to live a life beyond their own selfish choices so they could enjoy life to the full.
This is the freedom God wants for us all. Yes, he wants us to be free from all that binds us. But, he ultimately wants us to be free for one another. So, like the moment you commit yourself to your spouse in marriage, forsaking all others, only to find the freedom that comes from love and family, God wants us to bind ourselves up in his love, and commit our lives to following him.
Some have said that none of us are truly free unless we have been liberated. The Bishop had been liberated by Christ’s example and therefore liberated Valjean, and Valjean liberated many in return. Valjean left the Bishop that morning and devoted his life to seeking all that was good and to helping his fellow man. He was still pursued by those who would condemn and imprison him, but he lived for the sake of the poor and the oppressed, and was forever free of his slavery to hopelessness and hatred by that one small act of grace. Freely he received. Freely he gave.
Have you been liberated by grace? What will you choose to do with it?
Is this not the fast which I choose, to loosen the bonds of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, And to let the oppressed go free and break every yoke? Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into the house; When you see the naked, to cover him; And not to hide yourself from your own flesh?…If you remove the yoke from your midst, the pointing of the finger and speaking wickedness–then your light will rise in darkness and your gloom will become like midday. And the LORD will continually guide you, and satisfy your desire in scorched places, and give strength to your bones; You will be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water whose waters do not fail. ***
On this Independence Day, I am proud to be an American. But, most of all, I am humbled to be free to live for God…and for you.
* This combination of paraphrase and direct quotation is taken from the novel, “Les Miserables” by Victor Hugo.
** Romans 8:1-2
*** Isaiah 58:6-7,9b,10b-11