If you don’t know who Jean Valjean is, don’t worry–Keep reading. There’s still something here for you that will be worthy of your time….
There is a split in this country, and there is a split in the Church, and I come to believe that the foundation of both of these growing divisions has mainly to do with how a person feels about Mercy and Grace. Now, those concepts are often confused with each other, but they are different: Mercy is when you don’t get what you deserve (like a punishment), and Grace is getting something you don’t deserve (like a blessing). They are similar in that they both have to do with people “getting what they deserve.” In other words, they both have to do with Justice. Both Mercy and Grace are examples of times when people don’t get what they deserve, and for many of us, that can be…. Offensive. Very offensive.
How offensive? We HATE Mercy. Oh, don’t get me wrong–we love Mercy when it is being shown to us, but it better not be shown to someone else. If I was speeding and got pulled over, but I got let go with a warning…. Fantastic! If the jackass that just sped past me doesn’t get a ticket…. “What is wrong with the freakin’ world!?!” We love to be forgiven, but if someone else’s crime goes unpunished, a thief gets put on probation, or a prisoner is set free, all of a sudden we are all “I DEMAND JUSTICE!”
But as much as we hate Mercy, in this country I think we hate Grace even more. With Mercy, we can sometimes at least empathize a little by remembering a time when WE didn’t deserve the punishment that was heading our way…. But for many it’s truly hard for many of us to think of a time that we didn’t genuinely DESERVE the good things we received. Grace is so offensive that we don’t even like it for ourselves–If we get a bonus at the end of the year, we figure it’s because we deserve it–“It’s about time they noticed.” In fact, if we receive Grace once, that’s usually all it takes to transform that bit of Grace into something we’d be pissed off if we didn’t receive the next time. Even as humiliating as it is when we receive something good we didn’t deserve (sometimes “humbling” feels like “humiliation”), there are few things that make us as angry as when someone else receives Grace. This is why the sight of a woman paying for groceries with a SNAP card (Food Stamps) while talking on an iPhone gets people so riled up. Or a person on welfare with a TV we feel is too big. Or a person who receives healthcare who didn’t pay for it….
We don’t celebrate Mercy and Grace. We despise it. We like to believe that we live in a merit-based society–One where people get ahead because they deserve it (and conversely, one where those who are left with little or nothing deserve it too). It’s a fun little make-believe Darwinist dystopian paradise–A place where everyone gets what they deserve. And in this world where everyone gets what they deserve, it’s easier to deal with the poor–The rich are rich because they earned it, and the poor are that way because they got what was coming to them. But this worldview is very hard for followers of Jesus to stomach…. Or, at least it should be. It should be VERY hard to stomach–with Jesus telling parables about a king forgiving the giant debts of a man, and then that man con’t bring himself to forgive the relatively tiny debts that are owed to him. WE’VE received Mercy! WE’VE received Grace! What is that messed up thing inside of us that is so offended when others receive the same thing???
And that dissonance grows inside of us–a dissonance between the world around us and the words of Jesus. We attempt to calm that dissonance by separating the words of Jesus from what we believe is “the real world.” The real world says that it’s okay to kill people who our government says are enemies, so Jesus couldn’t have really meant it when he told us to love our enemies. The real world tells us that the “better” a person is, the more money that person will have, so Jesus couldn’t have been serious with all that “first shall be last/last shall be first” stuff. The real world tells us “kill them before they kill you,” so Jesus couldn’t have meant it when he said, “Do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” We tell ourselves “That stuff could never work in the REAL world….” This is the separation of “the real world” from what Jesus referred to as The Kingdom of God.
And this Kingdom of God was really important to Jesus. He talked about it a lot. One of those times, he said that The Kingdom of God is like a landowner who hires workers for his vineyard–some who work all day, some who work half a day, and some who work just a little bit–but then, at the end of the day, the landowner pays them all the same day’s wage. And, of course, the ones who were there all day are a little ticked about this. They said, “you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.” And the landowner is like, “Get over it. I’m not being unfair to you by extending Grace to someone else.” But this is what The Kingdom is like! A common characteristic of “The Kingdom of God” that Jesus talks about (and came to establish) is that things are NOT the way they are in “the real world.”
Micah 6:8 is a verse that is a lot of people’s favorite Bible verse. It says, “He has shown you, O man (and woman), what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Notice that justice is something that you DO. We don’t LOVE Justice–We DO Justice…. What we LOVE is Mercy. We love it with the humility that is aware that Mercy has been shown to us.
Which is where Jean Valjean comes in. If you have read Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables or seen the musical, you already know this, but Jean Valjean is a man who spent 20 years in prison for a small crime, and then during his parole he steals some silver (in hopeless desperation) from a Bishop who had showed him kindness and hospitality. He is caught with the church’s silver and is brought back to the priest to confirm his guilt and bring him to Justice. Instead, the Bishop lies and tells the officers that not only was the silver given to him (Mercy), but says that Jean Valjean mistakenly left the best silver behind and gives him even more (Grace). Here is the clip from the musical:
The rest of the story (you really need to watch it if you haven’t) is a battle between Justice/Law (Javert) and Mercy/Grace (Jean Valjean), and *spoiler alert* everything human in us roots for Mercy and Grace to win. This is why I have a hard time understanding “the other side”–whether that other side is political or ecclesiastical in nature (though both of these “other sides” are usually embodied by the same folks). I have more in common with a person who knows nothing about Jesus and loves Mercy than I have in common with a person who claims to be a Christian and is pissed off when someone else receives Mercy. I think maybe we just forget…. We forget how forgiven we are–How undeservedly blessed we are. I find that the times I am most forgetful about the Mercy and Grace that I’ve received seem to be the times that I am most offended by other people receiving Mercy and Grace. But I don’t want to live that way. I want to live like Jean Valjean. There is far more redeeming power in celebrating Mercy and Grace than there ever could ever be in crying out for someone to “get what he deserves.” Let us not forget when that precious silver was given to us.