When local police stop Valjean on the road the next day, they find him in possession of the candlesticks and immediately realize that he has stolen the items from the Bishop. Valjean claims that the candlesticks were a gift, but the police know he's lying and drag him back to the Bishop's house. When the Bishop answers the door, the police relate to him the lies Valjean has given them, but to everyone's surprise – including Jean Valjean, the Bishop scolds the police and tells them that Valjean's story is true. The Bishop then scolds Valjean for forgetting another bag of silver, and sends the ex-convict on his way with not only the bag of silver previously stolen, but a second bag of silver as well. You can imagine how Valjean felt. One minute, he was on his way back to prison. The next, he was free with more money in his pocket than he ever dreamed possible. In the story, the Bishop's act of kindness had such a profound effect on Valjean that he made a dramatic change in his life and dedicated it to the service of God.
Now, you might be sitting there thinking, "That's a good plot for a novel, but stuff like that never happens in real life." But I take exception to that notion. It happened in this evening's Scripture passage when Christ healed the nine undeserving lepers who couldn't be bothered to say thanks for being cured. It also happens to each and every one of us, every day of our lives.
We're not deserving of His love – but God loves us anyway. We're not deserving of God's grace, but He showers us with it in spite of ourselves. We don't deserve the rich and abundant life we enjoy in this Country, but God has certainly blessed America…and He wants us to take and use those gifts as instruments of His good will. The critical question is – will we?
As I look back on my life, and how I arrived at the place I find myself today, much of the credit goes to people I never thanked. Some have died. Some I've just lost touch with. It's not that I didn't have good manners; I just didn't always appreciate the gifts they were giving me, or recognize at the time how powerfully their actions would affect my life. And the times when actions of others affected me the most, were the times when I was the least deserving.
I've done and said things to people in my life that were mean and cruel, and a few people forgave me anyway. I lived my life in a selfish pursuit of my own pleasures, oftentimes at the expense of others, and when it all came crashing down around me, there were a few people who didn't stand around and jeer, "Boy, you had that coming", but instead, offered me a hand and helped pull me up. I am not proud to admit I once ruined a marriage. I broke the trust of friends and relatives. I trashed a decent career and got about as low as one can be in life without giving up and committing suicide, but there were a few spectators to the tragedy that was my life, like God and a few others, who recognized that I didn't deserve their mercy or kindness, but they gave it anyway. And they changed my life because they did.
I have to admit that I struggled for a time with guilt over not having said "thank you"…or not having let those people know that their generosity and kindness to me (when I was least deserving) had a huge impact on my life, but over the years I've come to appreciate the fact that in their own way, each and every one of them made a choice to act as Jesus would act, to show kindness, mercy and compassion, when none of it was deserved…to be forgiving of me, even though I wasn't really being remorseful. They were people who saw value in me, even when I didn't recognize it in myself, and they went out of their way to help me, even though they never got a "thanks" in return or saw that their actions made a difference in my life.
At first blush, you might think, "That's a real shame", but I don't think so. Those people weren't kind and generous and forgiving of me because they wanted a pat on the back or a medal or public recognition of their good deeds. They did what they did because they made a conscious choice to act like Christ. They decided to be an instrument of change in the life of another human being without the immediate reward of seeing the fruits of their deeds.
My Grandma Zorbaugh use to say, "God's work is hard work and slow work". I understood at the time why it was hard. It took me a lot longer to figure out what she meant by it being slow.
In Victor Hugo's novel, when Jean Valjean left the Bishop's home for the second time, that's the last time the Bishop was discussed at length in the novel. The Bishop didn't get to see the fruits of his charity. He didn't get to appreciate the fact that his single act of mercy ultimately changed the lives of hundreds of people for the better. All he had was the knowledge that he had done God's will.
That's one of the difficulties with being a follower of Christ. We're asked to do things that make absolutely no sense whatsoever - to love our enemies, to be kind and generous to those who don't deserve it, to forgive when forgiveness isn't warranted…and not seek anything in return except the knowledge that we have done God's will. That's because God's work is slow work and things don't always turn out as fast as we hope it would.
These days, people are falling all over themselves in this country to be called Christian, but with what it takes to be a true follower of Christ, sometimes you have to wonder whether they're nuts or delusional, or just ignorant about what Christ really asks his followers to do. It's a tough row to hoe!
For me, being a follower of Christ boils down to one simple question: How will I respond when Christ asks me to be an instrument of change in the life of another human being? I ask that question because I don't know when that time will be. I don't know who that person will be and I have no clue as to where I'll be or what circumstances I'll be facing. I might be in a good mood or grumpy and irritable. I could be feeling on top of the world or totally bummed-out. I could be feeling generous that day. I might be feeling like a selfish grunt. All I know is that God is going to ask me to be an instrument of change…maybe once, maybe twice…maybe a thousand times. And if I'm going to call myself a true follower of Christ, I have to be ready, willing and able to respond each and every time…but let's face it – I'm human. I'm going to fail sometimes – probably more than I care to admit. I'm going to choose the easy path…the path that make me feel good now…and that's often not the path God will want me to follow. I just hope I realize my failure and strive to do better the next time.
The best and most practical piece of advice I can give is to get into the habit of doing God's will, because it certainly doesn't come naturally. I pick up a newspaper and read an article about a person who's killed a child and my gut instinct is to be first in line to tie a hangman's noose around the killer's neck. When I read about a bullying incident, I want to go and beat the tar out of the bully to teach that person a lesson. When I think of the millions of people that Bernie Madoff's Ponzi scheme affected and how thousands of elderly folks lost their entire life's savings because of his fraud and his personal greed, there are times when I'd like to see his prison guards deprive him of all food and water and let him slowly starve to death – give him a taste of what it feels like to be deprived of life's essentials. But then I think of Christ; bent down on his hunches; drawing in the dirt; unwilling to cast the first stone; seizing the opportunity to answer His father's call to be an instrument of change in the life of another human being…and that's when I remember what Christ is calling me to do…and then it's time for me to decide whether I want to follow Christ or not.
As I said before, being a follower of Christ doesn't come naturally. You have to work to make God's will part of your life and part of your nature. Once it’s part of your nature, you'll be changed, and so will the lives of many people you meet along the way. Unfortunately, like the Bishop in Victor Hugo's novel, you may never see it. That's because God's work is slow work and you may not be around to see the harvest the seeds of your good deeds helped produce. All you'll have is the knowledge that you've done God's will, but in the end, that's all that really matters. Thanks be to God, Amen!
Friend of Emmanuel