Saturday, February 12, 2011

Les Miserables

I have been thinking about this for some time now, but just haven’t had the time to sit down and write about it. I have often wondered about Jesus’ statement to the woman caught in adultery in John 8:11, “Neither do I condemn thee. Go and sin no more” (KJV). I wonder what effect those words had on her. As I have mentioned many times before, I am not a scholar, so my analysis here is not authoritative, but here is what I think.
Often in my years as a minister I would hear teaching on this passage. Either the emphasis was on the grace of God (a qualifed grace, to be sure--trying to get sinners to the altar), or it was on what Jesus was writing on the ground. Seldom did anyone ever explain anything about Jesus final words to this woman, except to emphasize that this meant that salvation may begin by grace, but it is up to us to live sin free (or make sure we repent often) in order to “stay saved.” But I think there was something much more significant going on with this statement. I have not tried to interpret the Greek here, but it seems to me that there is more to the statement than a simple command to quit being so naughty.
It is difficult to understand Jesus’ words separate from the event leading up to them. And rather than repeating trite clich├ęs that we have all heard over the years—and that have little impact on us—I was trying to think of what must have been going on in that woman’s mind and heart at the climax of this grace event. It is difficult to imagine, not ever having been in that situation. And we are given few details in this narrative. Thankfully, we have other literature that may help us to understand what was taking place here.
Victor Hugo’s work Les Miserables is one of the greatest depictions of the effect of grace in a person’s life that has ever been written. Most of you have read the book (or have seen the movie, or have heard the radio theater version), so I won’t go into a lot of detail. I want to focus on the event that changed the life of Jean Valjean forever. He had been imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread for his hungry family. The prison sentence was extended for many years, turning Valjean into a truly hardened criminal by the time he was released from prison. All released prisoners were forever labeled as convicts because they had to carry papers with them revealing this to all who would inquire. Upon his release, he had little success in finding shelter from the cold until he came upon the residence of a priest. The priest welcomed Valjean warmly, fed him and gave him a warm bed to sleep in. Rather than be thankful, Valjean robbed the priest. The next morning it was discovered that the gold and silver had been stolen. Not too long after this discovery, Valjean, caught "red handed," was escorted back to the residence by the authorities. They needed the priest to confirm that Valjean had indeed stolen the items. To their surprise, and more to the surprise of Jean Valjean, the priest said the items were a gift, and added to the “booty” that he had stolen. The authorities were forced to release Valjean, and Valjean was “forced” to make a decision. I say he was “forced” because he didn’t want the gift. He was an angry, embittered man, and he only wanted to vent that anger in any way possible—including stealing from the only person who would give him food and shelter on that cold night. The priest gave him a new reason to be angry. His act of grace changed him. But Valjean didn’t want to change. He wanted to stew in his anger. He wanted to nurse it (ever been there?). This kindness made it so he could not nurse his rage with the spoils of his thievery. They were not spoils anymore. They were a gift. He had a decision to make. Accept the grace and be forever changed, or throw it back in the face of the one who had given it to him—and continue in his downward spiral into darkness. When he finally yielded to the realization of what this priest had done for him, he could not help but be changed—thoroughly, completely, permanently.
This is what I see in the story of the woman caught in adultery. She is an angry woman—embittered by the events and circumstances of life. She is caught and brought to the place of judgment—of justice. But the “priest” asked to officiate at her execution (which was surely coming) gives her a gift—grace. She looks up from the spot that should be running with her blood by now, and all of her accusers are gone. The only one left is the grace giver. He breaks the news to her, “You are no longer condemned. You are free. You don’t have to live this way anymore.” That is the effect that I see in Jesus’ words. More than a command—the forgiven woman doesn’t need to be told that she should not sin anymore, just as Valjean didn’t need to be instructed to “go and live a good life now”—Jesus was stating what is true for all who experience true grace. Sin doesn’t rule your life now. You are free. “There is now no condemntation. Go. Live a life free from sin.” This woman had been changed forever by grace—just as Valjean had. The years of anger, bitterness and sin did not rule her life anymore. In one act of grace everything had changed—thoroughly, completely, permanently.
That is what happens when we meet Jesus on His terms—terms of grace. We are changed—forever.