- Life Lessons From Les Mis, The Book (Part 1)
- Life Lessons from Les Mis, The Book (Part 2)
As mentioned in Part 1 of this article, my former pastor and mentor has inspired me to read Les Misérables. Aside from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, I have never read an 850-page book in my life. And that book is relatively easy to read. For this beast of literature, the discipline and focus it takes to do so is good for my soul. Especially in the modern internet era of “fast” everything and short attention spans.
Yet the content is causing me to write about something different. This book convicts me about how I live. Even as a pastor for 20 years and a guy whose parents taught and showed him the Bible from birth, I realize from this book how desperately I need to change some things in how I treat people.
Here is one big one, that will take several passages to explain. All of these are from the first five chapters of Book Second after a stranger has wandered into town:
The man bent his steps toward this inn…He entered the kitchen…
The host, hearing the door open and seeing a newcomer enter, said, without raising his eyes: ‘What do you wish, sir?’
‘Food and lodging,’ said the man.Page 40
And then, after discovering through an exchange who this stranger is:
‘I cannot receive you,’ said he.Page 40
He wouldn’t even let him sleep in the stable. Next, the stranger tries another inn. After a similar welcome as the previous one, this exchange happens:
‘You are going to get out of here.”
The stranger turned round and replied gently, ‘Ah! You know?—‘
‘They sent me away from the other inn.’
‘And you will be turned out of this one.’
‘Where would you have me go?’
The stranger even tried the prison:
‘The prison is not an inn. Get yourself arrested and you will be admitted.’Page 42
He tried friendly-looking houses, but also no luck. They even chased him out of a bed of straw and a dog’s kennel. The man’s need for shelter and a roof is desperate and he has no options.
Finally, he makes his way to the church, to sleep on a bench. He has had a bed of wood, he observes, and now he has a bed of stone. A woman comes out and inquires of his situation. After relaying, not entirely honestly, his plight of that evening, she advises him to go to the Bishop’s house and “knock there”.
If you have read my first article or have read Book One of Les Mis, you know this priest. He is a man of God and a transcendent character. And if there is anyone in town who would welcome a man everyone else has thrown out, it is he. And of course, as no surprise, when the stranger knocks, the Bishop bid him, “Come in”.
The stranger introduces himself as Jean Valjean and a former convict of 19 years, liberated just days ago. This makes no difference to the Bishop. Jean is incredulous as a result:
Really? What! You will keep me? You do not drive me forth? A convict! You call me sir! You do not address me as thou? ‘Get out of here, you dog!” is what people always say to me. I felt sure you would expel me, so I told you at once who I am.Page 49
If Jean knew what we knew from Book One, he likely would not have said any of this. The priest refuses payment for the lodging even though the ex-con has it. He invites him to sit at his table to eat. The Bishop treats him like family. He shows trust in this stranger, far beyond what is normal for humans to show. Jean continues to be incredulous:
‘Ah really! You lodge me in your house, close to yourself, like this?’
He broke off, and added with a laugh in which there lurked something monstrous:
‘Have you reflected well? How do you know that I have not been an assassin?’
The Bishop replied, ‘That is the concern of the good God.’Page 53
Again, this is completely normal for the Bishop.
And just as with his behavior and character from Book One, I confess I am convicted. I will go ahead and anticipate from many Christian readers that we have to be harmless as doves but as wise as serpents. And that we cannot trust everyone all the time. It’s a recipe for disaster. With a wife and a child, I cannot nor should not live exactly like Monseigneur Myriel.
However, he is a just man, and I can learn from him. My fear is that I and a lot of Christians take our caution to the other extreme. We are so worried about being cheated or robbed or hurt that we never take risks in loving people. And I do not think that is right either.
I think about Paul in 1 Corinthians 6 admonishing Christians to not sue each other. His reasoning? “Why not just be wronged?” And I think of Christ’s teaching to “if someone wants to take your shirt, give him your expensive coat as well.” How can we put these things into practice if we are always guarded and always on defense against the world that wants to take advantage of us?
I don’t have any easy answers. But I do want to start treating people, even ex-cons and similarly disenfranchised members of society, as people made in the image of God. I confess I often don’t.
I expect that will look different for different people, but I challenge us all in some manner to follow the Bishop’s example. When everyone else turns the dregs of society way we as the church should in some way be saying, “Come in.”
Comments and feedback, even in disagreement, are welcomed below.