Lessons in Forgiveness
Last week my wife and had tickets to see the Broadway musical Les Miserables downtown. I have always been a huge fan of Victor Hugo, especially of Les Miserables. What strikes me most about Les Miserables, the book rather then the musical, is the comparison and contrast Hugo makes between the two main characters in the story, Jean Valjean and Javert.
Valjean is a convicted thief who spent 19 years in prison. Upon his release, and, as he is searching for work, he stumbles across a priest named Myriel, who offers Valjean food and lodging for the night. During the night while, Myriel is sleeping, Valjean steals the silverware and other valuable items from his home. Hours later when the police catch Valjean and bring him to Myriel, he tells the police that the silverware was a gift he gave to Valjean. After the authorities have left, the old priest tells Valjean, “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.”
Because of someone else’s kindness, selflessness, generosity, and compassion, Valjean becomes a new man. No longer filled with rage, fear, and hatred, but love, forgiveness, and compassion. The remainder of the book we see Valjean living a life of total selflessness and compassion for others. This once convict has now become the shining example of forgiveness and compassion towards one’s enemies. All the while, we see Javert who has a squeaky clean record and lived life by the exact letter of the law, always making sure to dot his I’s and cross his T’s. Yet, Javert’s life is one of a miserable existence, constantly filled with revenge and hatred. It is almost as if the two characters grow more opposite of each other. Valjean becoming more and more forgiving and compassionate, while Javert becoming more and more filled with revenge and hatred.
In the Bible, Jesus gives a similar story in Matthew 18:21-35. After Peter asks Jesus how many times he sould forgive, Jesus answers with a story about a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. As the king was settling the accounts a man was brought to him who owed him ten thousand dollars. And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” Out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt, but when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii. Seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, “Pay what you owe.” His fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. Then his master summoned him and said to him, “You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
Like the old saying, unforgiveness is like drinking poison and hoping the other person dies. Unfortunately, too many people live on a diet of nothing but the poison of unforgiveness. We must understand, forgiveness is for you, not the other person. This is the lesson Valjean learned after stealing from an old priest upon his release from prison and ultimately changed his life completely impacting those around him for the good. Valjean’s life was one of compassion and forgiveness. All-the-while Javert could never forgive and lived in constant torment, filled with revenge and hatred.
It is my hope and prayer that if there is someone who you have not forgiven please do not wait, forgive them right now in this moment so that you may be like Jean Valjean and not that of Javert. The ultimate forgiveness is what Jesus has done for us by forgiving our sins.