“Blessed are the merciful; for they shall obtain mercy” (Matt. 5:7).
In the MacDougall house we are waiting with bated breath for tickets to go on sale. No, we’re not Twihards. We’re talking Les Miserables. The new movie/musical comes out Christmas Day. We might spend the whole day in the theater and what better way to celebrate Christmas humility of “Love come down”?
Les Miserables is, of course, one of the finest literary works of all time, the greatest musical of all time (my opinion, also held by most rational people), and an extraordinary illustration of law and grace, not to mention the miraculous mercy of God.
Mercy is “…compassionate or kindly forbearance shown toward an offender, an enemy, or other person in one’s power; compassion, pity, or benevolence … something that gives evidence of divine favor; blessing…” The epic story hinges on the mercy of the Bishop Myriel. (Interesting fact: Colm Wilkinson, who played Valjean on the London stage portrays the Bishop in the film- he who received mercy now offers it!) After Jean Valjean’s release from prison, the Bishop gives him food and drink and shelter. Valjean steals his silver, sneaks out and is caught by the police. He lies that the Bishop had given him the silver as a gift. When the police drag Valjean back, Myriel validates the deception and chastises the thief for not accepting the candlesticks as well. Jean Valjean is confounded. He has never been seen as a human but simply, by Javert (the Law) as “24601.” His identity has been thief, prisoner, number, sinner. Now he has been “seen” as human and shown a mercy. Because God motivates the mercy it is a sacrificial act.
As written by Hugo, the Bishop tells Valjean:
“Forget not, never forget that you have promised me to use this silver to become an honest man…. Jean Valjean, my brother: you belong no longer to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I am buying for you. I withdraw it from dark thoughts and from the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God!”
Or, a parallel quote from the musical, the Bishop sings:
“But remember this, my brother / See in this some higher plan / You must use this precious silver / To become an honest man / By the witness of the martyrs / By the Passion and the Blood / God has raised you out of darkness / I have bought your soul for God!”
Those of us who have encountered mercy know how deep it cuts. When we are guilty of something minor, mercy is pleasureful and sweet. But when we have done something truly wicked, caused excruciating grief and pain to someone we love, mercy shown to us is breathtaking and devastating – almost too much to bear.
True mercy can assuredly only be from God. Even if we give mercy, it has to come from beyond self or it will be opportunistic and expect return or payment – therefore, not mercy. True mercy sacrifices self absolutely and perfectly. If it is not self-centered, it must be centered on something/someone else. It is difficult to understand or explain other than through a personal experience I think.
I remember such a time: Our family was ending a year of hell. Our year old daughter had recently been diagnosed with a form of muscular dystrophy. My husband was coming out of an excruciating depression. Our marriage was in shambles. The (Severe) Mercy was via an accident with a lawnmower that nearly sheared off my husband Gregg’s right arm. That, in itself, was mercy enough: in spite of Gregg swearing at and swearing off God the past year, his first cry as the blade sliced was “God help me!” And help, He did—in too many ways to list.
One of the greatest evidences of mercy during this was the throng of people who crowded the waiting room during surgery. Twenty-plus friends at midnight on a Monday evening, waiting to see if his arm could be saved. Here’s the mercy part: Gregg had worked overtime alienating many of these folks in his hate and rage at God. He absolutely did not deserve one visit from one of these people and he knew it. When he woke from the morphine-induced stupor he wept—not because his arm had been saved, but because of mercy from friends and mercy from God.
Where was I when I heard the news of my husband’s near miss? In the basement of our suffocating, tiny apartment, riding a stationary bike while my daughter napped. As always, I was listening to the Les Mis soundtrack, sobbing my eyes out about the death of the life I thought I had wanted. Over and over I listened to these words from the Epilogue – Valjean’s last moments as Fantine beckons him “Come with me, where chains will never bind you, all your grief at last, at last, behind you. Lord, in heaven, look down on him in mercy.” Valjean’s response: “Forgive me all my trespasses and take me to your glory.” We were longing for the purest and truest mercy – the only flawless and uncontaminated benevolence that never fades or perishes. It is as Shakespeare writes:
The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown.
His scepter shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings.
But mercy is above this sceptered sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings;
It is an attribute of God himself;
And earthly power doth then show like God’s
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That in the course of justice none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy.
(The Merchant of Venice, IV, i).