Sunday, January 6, 2013

Ridiculous Mercy

First published in 1862, Victor Hugo’s literary masterpiece, Les Miserables is a story still resonating with audiences 150 years later. Hugo’s story has been adapted to television, stages from Broadway to your local high school, as well as musicals and large budget movies. The latest movie/musical was released world-wide in theatres this past December featuring some of Hollywood’s biggest stars: Huge Jackman, Russell Crowe, and Anne Hathaway. It’s getting wonderful reviews, but I still love the 1998 version that featured Liam Neeson. That’s when I first encountered this powerful story of grace.

The story centers around a British ex-convict in the early 1800s named Jean Valjean. Jean has been released from prison where he’s spent 19 years of hard labor for stealing a piece for bread to feed his starving sister. Upon his release, a priest takes him in. Jean’s evil ways continue as he chooses to steal silver from Bishop Myriel. Authorities catch up with Jean Valjean and bring him back to Bishop Myriel with the stolen goods. In one of the most compelling moments of the movie, Bishop Myriel convinces the police that the items were not stolen, rather he gave them to Jean. As the police stand in bewilderment, Myriel directs his wife to get their silver candlesticks to add to Jean’s bag. After the police leave, Bishop Myriel and Jean Valjean have this very powerful exchange:

Bishop Myriel: “Now don't forget, don't ever forget, you've promised to become a new man.”
Jean Valjean: “Promise? Wha, Why are you doing this?”
Bishop Myriel: “Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil. With this silver, I have bought your soul. I've ransomed you from fear and hatred, and now I give you back to God.”
I have to admit that when I watch that scene in the movie, I have mixed emotions. Viewing it through the eyes of Bishop Myriel, my heart responds to his actions with, “Dude, that’s ridiculous! Why would you open your home to him? Then he steals from you and you don’t have him hanged? What? You gave him more stuff? No mercy, Bishop. Give him justice!” But something shifts when I view the story from the eyes of Jean Valjean. My heart melts for Jean. Grace and mercy seem to have this freeing power as unconditional love is expressed to him.

I think that’s the nature of grace and mercy. It’s both ridiculous and powerful. When God gives his people grace or mercy, it makes no sense yet it seems to have the capacity to make a dynamic impact on them.
Each year, the Israelites celebrated the most holy of days on their calendar. It was the Day of Atonement, known today as Yom Kippur. This day came ten days after their New Year and followed nine days of reflection, confession, and repentance. The Day of Atonement was to be a day of judgment on sin, a day when wrath would be exercised on what was unforgiven. But God placed two goats between the people and the impeding judgment on their rebellious sin. One goat would be slaughtered on the altar and the sins of the people would be placed on the head of that goat. The second goat would be driven into the wilderness as a symbol of God banishing their sin from the people. This and many other things were done year after year to atone for the sins of the people. But, when Jesus entered the process, “every year” turned to “once and for all.”

But now, once for all time, he has appeared at the end of the age to remove sin by his own death as a sacrifice. And just as each person is destined to die once and after that comes judgment, so also Christ died once for all time as a sacrifice to take away the sins of many people. He will come again, not to deal with our sins, but to bring salvation to all who are eagerly waiting for him. Hebrews 9.26-28 NLT

The truth of the matter is that we all have stood—caught with our bag of stolen silver—deserving judgment and punishment. But Mercy has come in the person of Jesus Christ. He has stepped between us and punishment. We can enter the Day of Atonement with joy and thanksgiving. Perhaps Jesus would rewrite Bishop Myriel’s powerful line this way:

My brothers and sisters, you no longer belong to evil. With my blood, I have bought your soul. I've ransomed you from fear and hatred, and now you belong to God.

Spend some time this week reading Psalm 103. This is a beautiful, worshipful response to God’s ridiculous mercy given to us.