The Bishop’s Gift

By Doug Samples

Introduction

Someone has said, “Mercy is when you’ve really got the goods on someone, and you let them off the hook.”  Can you remember a time when someone “had the goods” on you and they let you off the hook?

My friend B.J. Keeter told me about the time he threw a rock through his neighbor’s window.  Since B.J. was a repeat rock-throwing offender, he figured he was really in trouble this time.  But when his neighbor, Mrs. Donna, brought cookies over and said “It’s ok, don’t worry about it” he was dramatically changed.  “She never told on me, and I never threw another rock. It was her mercy that made the difference; her mercy changed my life.”

The opening song and story of this series will set the stage for all the stories to follow.  The journey of Les Misérables begins with a simple, but powerful gift of grace and will conclude with an invitation for all of us to join in a “Revolution of Grace” that tears down barriers and makes our world a better place to live!

Background

The character of the Bishop of Digne in the musical, Les Misérables, is but a brief appearance here in the opening “Prologue.”  His exchange with Valjean is limited to these few lines of song.  However, it is my conviction that this magnificent book may never have been written if not for the Bishop’s gift here at the outset.  There would have been no story to write if not for the transformed character of Jean Valjean.  And his transformation would not have happened if it were not for the lavish grace of the Bishop who “bought his soul for God!”

When Valjean came out of prison after 19 years of hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread to help feed his sister’s little boy, he was given a “yellow card” which he had to present to everyone he met to announce his sinful past to everyone.  So, even though he was technically out of prison, the yellow card made sure that he carried his guilt and his prison with him wherever he went!

This imprisoned freedom drove Valjean to depression and despair.  Even earlier on this particular evening of his encounter with the Bishop, he has already been thrown out of numerous establishments who don’t want “his kind” around.  He is already coming to the conclusion that his future is as lost and broken and hopeless as his past.  “I went to an inn and was sent packing.  I went to another inn and they said to me, ‘Get lost!’ I went to the jail, and the doorkeeper wouldn’t open.  I was in a dog kennel and the dog bit me.  I went into the fields to sleep under the stars… and there were no stars… I am very tired.  I am very hungry.” (p. 64)

But on this fateful, life-changing night, Jean Valjean has the wonderful good fortune to meet this dear, gracious Bishop of Digne.  After taking Valjean into his humble home and serving him his first taste of freedom, the Bishop offers a warm house and a soft bed to Valjean for the night.  Battling his demons, Valjean gets up in the middle of the night, sneaks past the Bishop’s room, quietly slips the valuable silverware into his bag and jump starts the rest of his life as the hardened criminal that prison had taught him to be.

When he is caught later that night, he tells the police that the Bishop had given him the silverware.  So, he is brought back to stand “trial” where he is sure to be judged and condemned and sent back to prison for the rest of his life.  He must have been asking himself, “If you get 19 years for a loaf of bread, what do you get for stealing such valuable silverware?”

That’s when Valjean is surprised by the Bishop’s gift of grace.  Both Valjean and the police are dumbfounded when the Bishop confirms Valjean’s story and then goes overboard by asking how he could have forgotten about the candlesticks!  The silverware and candlesticks that the Bishop gives away so effortlessly here are actually the Bishop’s only remaining link to the life of luxury that he enjoyed years ago before he gave away his status and position to become a priest.  Obviously, that deep surrender so long ago must have included (at least, in theory) the sacrifice of these precious treasures on this eventful night.

Allow me to pause here for a minute to make the point that when you reduce a 1400 page book to a three hour theatrical play and then reduce that play down to the selection of a few songs, there will naturally be many of Victor Hugo’s fascinating details that do not receive the full attention they deserve.  For instance, there is no way to learn from the brief lines of this song that this gift of grace to Valjean was nothing at all unusual for the Bishop.  It is only when you read the first 50 pages of the book that you discover that this gracious act is not an “act” at all, but a lifestyle of kindness that radiated out from the Bishop to anyone who dared to enter his area of influence.

I would surely bore you if I recounted all of Victor Hugo’s rich and intricate details that literally stumble over each other to depict the utterly heroic, yet humble life of this Bishop.  I will beg your permission to tell only my favorite story about the time the Bishop went on a pastoral visit to a small village in a mountainous region controlled by a vicious gang of bandits.  Everyone tried to convince him that it was too dangerous to make the trip.  Listen to his conversation with the mayor:

“What happens if you run into the bandits!”
“They, too, surely need someone to tell them about the good Lord.”
“But they’re a pack of wolves.”
“My dear mayor, perhaps it’s precisely this flock that Jesus has made me pastor of.”
“Monseigneur, they will take everything you’ve got.”
“I have nothing.”
“They’ll kill you.”
“A little old priest like me?  Go on!  Why would they bother?”
“Just imagine if you run into them!”
“I’ll ask them for money for my poor.”
“Monseigneur, don’t go, for Christ’s sake!  You’re taking your life in your hands.”
“My dear mayor, isn’t that just the point?  I’m not in this world to take care of my life.  I’m here to take care of souls.”  (p. 24)

And so, off he goes!  After staying a fortnight with his mountain friends, he prepares to celebrate a good bye mass, but discovers that the village is so poor, they don’t have adequate episcopal props to do the mass.  Nevertheless, the Bishop begins the service, only to be interrupted by two horsemen from the bandit gang who present him with a chest full of treasures that had recently been stolen from a neighboring church!  With a warm smile, the Bishop announced, “I told you things would work out!”

Suffice it to say that Hugo could have written 100s of books if he would have traced the lives of all the people who had been touched by the life and grace of the Bishop of Digne!  The story of Jean Valjean that has amazed millions of readers and theater goers throughout the years across the globe is simply one story that we are privileged to follow.  I am fully convinced that his story could have been repeated 100 times over.

The meeting of Criminal and Bishop is a collision of two drastically different worlds!
One a Taker… the other a Giver.
One pessimistic and hopeless… the other, optimistically hope-giving.
One always fears the worst… the other always believes the best.
One hard… the other, soft.
One with an attitude of “took my silver, took my flight”… the other with the attitude of “what we have, we have to share.”
One full of hatred… the other, full of love.
One broken by the harshness of life… the other, broken for the harshness of life.

The life of Jean Valjean is forever changed by the Bishop’s gift of grace!  As we turn the pages of the book and watch the scenes of the play, one of the most captivating elements of this wonderful story is to notice how often Valjean passes this grace gift on to other “miserable” people who need it as much as he did.  He does not dam this grace up in his own little reservoir, but allows it to flow freely to those around him. To Fantine… To Fauchelevent… To Cossette… To Marius… And even to Javert!

And when you come to the “Finale” of the musical, you hear words that call out across the centuries and around the globe…  words that invite all peoples of all generations of all nations to join Jean Valjean in this “Revolution of Grace.”
“Will you join in our crusade?
Who will be strong and stand with me?
Somewhere beyond the barricade
Is there a world you long to see?
Do you hear the people sing?
Say, do you hear the distant drums?
It is the future that they bring
When tomorrow comes…”

Life Application

It would be easy to quote dozens of Scriptures that give heart-warming descriptions of the church and the church’s purpose and place in our world.  However, there may be no words that better describe the church that I love so much anymore than the opening lines of this song.
“Come in, Sir, for you are weary,
And the night is cold out there.
Though our lives are very humble
What we have, we have to share.
There is wine here to revive you.
There is bread to make you strong,
There’s a bed to rest till morning,
Rest from pain, and rest from wrong.”

I know that these words were penned by secular songwriter Herbert Kretzmer for a secular musical play that is not meant in any way to be a treatise on the purpose of the church.  But listen to these words again!  See if they don’t capture the very best of who the church should be!
“Come in, Sir, for you are weary,
And the night is cold out there.
Though our lives are very humble
What we have, we have to share.
There is wine here to revive you.
There is bread to make you strong,
There’s a bed to rest till morning,
Rest from pain, and rest from wrong.”

Is this not the message that the church needs most to give to our weary, restless world?  And is this not the message that our weary, restless world needs most to hear from the church?

It is sad when the church is so boring and irrelevant and repetitious that it adds to our weariness instead of providing life and hope.

It is sad when the church becomes so inward focused that you aren’t really welcomed into the inner circle until you have paid your tithe for 12 years and learned the three secret handshakes.

It is sad when the church gets so caught up with the Sunday to Sunday business of doing church that it forgets about those outside who are lost and broken and weary and cold.

It is sad when the church is more content to be a country club for Christians rather than a hospital for sinners.

It is sad when the church passes out judgment instead of grace!

My very best dream for the church would be reflected in the words of this song and in the life of the Bishop of Digne!

My dream is for the church to be a safe place for tired, weary travelers who need a place where they are loved and accepted.

My dream is for the church to be a centerpoint for people who are lost and can’t make sense of life.

My dream is for the church to be a place of welcoming Sabbath for folks who are worn out by the daily crush of life.

My dream is for the church to not only offer the wine and bread of communion but to also look for new friends to invite out to Chilies after the service.

My dream is for the church to understand that “what we have”… “we have to share”… NOT to keep and horde for ourselves!

I dream these dreams for all churches everywhere!  And, of course, I dream them for the local congregation where I serve.

For these lofty dreams to come true, I am very aware that you and I as individuals will have to intentionally and repeatedly choose to adopt the warmth and graciousness of the dear Bishop of Digne.  But to be honest, it is much easier for us to have the attitude of the Bishop’s sister and the housekeeper who lived with him and warned him not to open the door to the stranger who was knocking!

So, whether we are the church gathered in our local congregations on Sunday mornings or the church scattered across our city and our neighborhoods throughout the week, our paths will come across people whose broken past has caused them to carry around a “yellow card” of guilt and bitterness and hardness.  These serendipitous meetings give us the wonderful privilege to be a Christ-like, transforming presence in their lives.

Conclusion

If we are captivated by the life-changing gift of grace given so generously by the Bishop, may it also challenge us to find opportunities to do the same.

If we marvel at how this one act of grace-giving changed the life of Jean Valjean so dramatically, may we also find this practice to be the rule and guide of our lives.

And if we have ever been so fortunate to have had a “Bishop” in our life who demonstrated God’s grace to us, may we adopt that same attitude and keep an eye out (even this week) for someone in need of “rest from pain, rest from wrong.”

May God raise up a great host of Bishops among us!

May we change someone’s life for the better because of some small act of kindness given out of a heart of love!

May we pass along to others the grace that we ourselves have received!

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5 thoughts on “The Bishop’s Gift

  1. I do a lot of Christian mediations and this scene from Les Miserables is one that I have used to illustrate grace to parties in conflict. Breathing grace to each other as it has been breathed to us in Christ is at the heart of the Gospel. Good blog, Doug! Keep up the good work! Rick Stein

  2. My dear, many year, friend Doug…

    Great book! My wife, Lamia, read Les Misérables in her native language of French many years ago and still names it as one of the best books she has ever read.

    Your quick run-down of the book quickly reminded me of another fellow (myself) that crashed and burned, lost his church, family and many friends due to his own bad decisions many years back.

    As per Les Misérables, this cast-down fellow wondered for quite some time in his “Dark Night of the Soul” to be taken in by an Orthodox Anglican Bishop who looked through all his past and offered full forgiveness and full restoration.

    Hope all is well with you and family!!!!!!!!!! Your kindness and friendship are still important to me!

    Pax Christi, Art

    PS: The Wesley hymn that has stirred my heart and soul over the past few years is as follows:
    ___________________________

    The Wesley Hymn: Depth of Mercy!

    (“Depth of Mercy” first appeared in the Wesley hymnal,
    Hymns and Sacred Poems, in 1741.
    It had thirteen stanzas and was titled “After a Relapse Into Sin”)

    Depth of mercy! can there be
    Mercy still reserved for me?
    Can my God His wrath forbear –
    Me, the chief of sinners, spare?

    I have long withstood His grace,
    Long provoked Him to His face,
    Would not hearken to His calls,
    Grieved Him by a thousand falls.

    I have spilt His precious blood,
    Trampled on the Son of God,
    Filled with pangs unspeakable,
    I, who yet am not in hell!

    I my Master have denied,
    I afresh have crucified,
    And profaned His hallowed Name,
    Put Him to an open shame.

    Now inlcine me to repent;
    Let me now my sins lament;
    Now my foul revolt deplore,
    Weep, believe, and sin no more.

    There for me the Saviour stands,
    Holding forth His wounded hands;
    God is love! I know, I feel,
    Jesus weeps and loves me still.

    What shall I say Thy grace to move?
    Lord, I am sin, but Thou art love:
    I give up every plea beside –
    Lord, I am lost, but Thou hast died.

    -Charles Wesley-

  3. I was talking with my father about our blog and series and he had a great idea. As the sermon series progresses, we could add a prop to a display that would correspond with each sermon. For this first sermon, it could be two silver candlesticks. Just a thought for us.

  4. Again, Doug, great work on this song! As I am working on it some more, I find myself thinking about the woman caught in the act of adultery. The Bishop acts very much like Jesus! I know this passage has also been one we have tied to “I Dreamed a Dream”, but I might use it here, or carry it over for both songs/sermons.

  5. This is one of my absolute favorite scenes in all of Les Miz. I often can not survive it without bawling. As you point out, even despite its secular origin, it remains an extremely powerful example of LIVING OUT the grace of God. The Bishop wasn’t just a hearer of the Word, in this case, he LIVED IT. And look at the effect it had on the life of Valjean. It convicts me to my very core! Especially by the time of Valjean’s prayer / death scene. You can tell (within the realm of the fictional setting…) that Valjean “gets it”; he understands grace, while it’s a completely foreign concept to Javert, until Valjean DEMONSTRATES IT to Javert…and since Javert is all about the law, and can not fathom grace, he can not figuratively exist. (Hence his suicide…) What a GORGEOUS triumph of grace over justice!! And to those looking for it, an even more vivid testimony of the Gospel of Christ! Good work on this series, to all of you!!!

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