The main protagonist of Victor Hugo’s famous novel, Les Misérables, is a man named Jean Valjean. Valjean is a poor man who ends up spending 19 long years in prison just for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his hungry family. At the beginning of the novel, he has just been released from prison. The authorities have sent him off with a yellow passport, which signals to everyone he meets that he is an ex-convict.
At first, Valjean is turned away at every single place he comes to. But finally he meets a kind clergyman – Bishop Myriel – who invites him in. The bishop treats Jean Valjean with respect; he invites him into his home and feeds him supper and gives him a place to sleep for the night. But Valjean is distrustful and he repays the bishop’s kindness with theft; he steals a bunch of the bishop’s silverware and runs off in the night.
Before he gets very far, the police catch up with him, and they drag him back to the bishop’s house. When the bishop sees Jean Valjean in custody, he says to him: Oh, I’m so glad you’ve come back! You took the silver forks and spoons with you, but you forgot to take the candlesticks I gave you.
The apostle Paul would have immediately recognized this story for exactly what it is: grace. Jean Valjean was saved and set free by grace. Bishop Myriel showed him the kind of love that God showed humanity in the cross of Christ. He spared Valjean from the punishment he deserved and instead chose to set him free.
Paul writes about grace and freedom in our second reading for today, from his letter to the Romans. And what he writes in this passage particularly makes me think of what happens next in Jean Valjean’s story. Bishop Myriel hands him the two silver candlesticks and tells the police that all is well, that they don’t need to stick around. Once Valjean and the bishop are alone, the bishop tells him that he has purchased his soul for God:
“Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I buy from you; I withdraw it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God.”Victor Hugo, Les Misérables
And Bishop Myriel doesn’t stop there. He makes Valjean promise that he will use the money to become an honest man, and to help others. And throughout the rest of the book, we see that Valjean does exactly that. He starts a new life in another city, becoming a factory owner and the mayor of the town and a wealthy man – and he uses his wealth to help others. He funds hospitals, orphanages, and schools; he stands up for workers, he helps the poor, he saves lives. Eventually he even ends up adopting a young orphan girl who is abused by her caretakers.
Valjean’s story is an illustration of what Paul is talking about here in this reading from Romans. Valjean is set free from punishment – he is set free from bondage to sin – theoretically, he is now free to do whatever he wants. Yet the bishop’s act of grace creates a kind of holy obligation. Rather than being beholden to sinfulness, Valjean is now beholden to God. He has been freed from sin – saved by the free gift of grace – and now he is a slave of righteousness, a slave of God.
We tend to talk a lot about the first part of this idea: salvation by grace. Grace is at the very heart of what we believe as Lutheran Christians. And it’s great stuff: we are saved, freed from sin, by the free gift of God’s grace in Christ. Woo hoo! But in the whole Protestant tradition at large, there is a tendency to stop there. There is a persistent sense that since we are free and clear through Jesus Christ that nothing more is asked of us.
But Luther himself actually pushed back against this idea. In his treatise On the Freedom of a Christian, Luther penned one of his best known quotes: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” Luther admits that this sounds like a paradox, but he leans heavily on Paul in order to explain it – especially on Paul’s letter to the Romans. We have been freed from the power of sin and death, freed from the powers of this world, but now we have been made servants, slaves, beholden to God. Put plainly, we have exchanged one kind of servitude for another: the service of sin for the service of God. But as Paul points out here, the pay is much better. He writes that “the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
And our gospel reading from Matthew shines more light on what it looks like for us to be in service to God. Jesus says to his disciples, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me,” and “whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones… none of these will lose their reward.” This has echoes of Jesus’ teachings elsewhere in Matthew – especially his famous teaching that, “Just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.”
Freedom through Christ – the freedom through grace – means that we are beholden not just to God; we are also beholden to one another. We are each to be the “servant of all,” as Luther writes. The freedom of grace carries with it the responsibility to love and care for each other, to fight for justice for our neighbor, to treat all people with respect and kindness and dignity. At first glance, this can start to sound like another version of the law. But the good news in it is that we were not meant to be solitary creatures, just lone-wolfing it through life. We are one body. We are one people. And we need each other. Our struggle is our neighbor’s struggle, just as their struggle is ours – whether we realize it or not. We belong to each other – all of us – just as we belong to God. That is the true freedom in Christ.
This is not the way that we usually hear freedom spoken about in our society. Instead, it’s more common for people to say, “well, it’s a free country; I can do what I want!” Freedom is often understood as the absence of obligation: we don’t owe each other anything. The whole idea of the “social contract” has fallen out of favor – and it has been replaced by an increasing emphasis on individualism and on personal liberty. And these things are not necessarily bad in and of themselves. But if “freedom” means “I can do whatever I want and it doesn’t really matter how it affects other people,” then it’s not the freedom in Christ that Paul is talking about.
And honestly, I am troubled by some of the examples of this kind of “freedom” that I see these days – and I know that many of you are too. For instance, even though most public health and infectious disease experts agree that wearing masks and physical distancing are effective at preventing the spread of Covid, there are still a number of people who refuse to even consider it. Likewise, health officials have listed in-person, indoor worship as one of the highest risk activities possible, but many of my clergy colleagues are still facing a lot of pressure to reopen their doors. And I do get it – all of this is uncomfortable and inconvenient and unfamiliar. And on top of that, there are also folks who are simply not worried about the risk the virus poses to them personally. But our belonging to God and our belonging to each other reminds us that it’s not just about us.
This is one reason I am so thankful for all of you, thankful that I get to be your pastor. I see the efforts you are making to keep our community safe and healthy. I am grateful for your patience and perseverance in this new way of being church together. I’m grateful that we can uphold the social contract by keeping this church from becoming a place where people risk getting sick. I know how frustrating it can be trying to do the right thing when you see other people choosing not to do so, but your efforts are not in vain. You are living out your faith, living out your servitude to God, living out your love for your neighbor. And that makes a difference.
Going back to Les Mis, Jean Valjean’s life is completely changed by the bishop’s one small act of compassion and grace, and his faithful response to that act changes the lives of many more people. By the end of the story, Jean Valjean truly knows what it means to be free in God’s grace, and he dies surrounded by the people he loves, his chosen family, with the bishop’s candlesticks glowing by his bedside.
I pray that we may all know God’s grace like this. May we all come to know the true freedom that is in Christ.