Summary: This is a ridiculous story about forgiveness, ridiculus but true, ridiculous but filled with grace.
17 Pentecost A Matthew 18:21-35 September 15, 2002
Rev. Roger Haugen
The story of Jean Valjean, written by Victor Hugo, is powerful. It is the story of a man driven by hunger and poverty to steal bread to feed his family. He is imprisoned and the anger at the injustice results in his striking out with his jail term being extended over and over again. He is finally released but is forced to carry a yellow passport that he must show to the officials of any town he enters. This passport ensures that he is always turned away. Finally, seeking help from a bishop he bursts through the bishop’s door saying loudly:
See here! My name is Jean Valjean. I am a convict; I have been 19 years in the galleys. Four days ago I was set free, and started for Pontarlier; during those four days I have walked twelve leagues. When I reached this place this evening I went to an inn, and they sent me away on account of my yellow passport; which I had shown at the mayor’s office, as was necessary. I went to another inn; they said, “Get out!” It was the same with one as with another, no one would have me. I went to the prison and the turnkey would not let me in. I crept into a dog kennel, the dog bit me, and drove me away as if he had been a man; you would have said that he knew who I was. I went into the fields to sleep beneath the stars. . . ; I thought it would rain, and there was no God to stop the drops, so I came back to town to get the shelter of some doorway. There in the square I lay down upon a stone; a good woman showed me your house, and said, “Knock there!” I have knocked. What is this place? Are you an inn?
The bishop welcomed him and set before him a splendid meal served on silver platters. Also on the table were two silver candlesticks. Jean Valjean addressed the bishop:
“You are good; you don’t despise me. You take me into your house; you light your candles for me, and I haven’t hid from you where I come from and how miserable I am.”
The bishop who was sitting near him, touched his hand gently and said:
“You need not tell me who you are. This is not my house; it is the house of Christ. It does not ask any comer whether he has a name, but whether he has an affliction. You are suffering; you are hungry and thirsty; be welcome. And do not thank me; do not tell me that I take you into my house. This is the home of no man, except him who needs asylum. I tell you, who are a traveler, that you are more at home here than I; whatever is here is yours. What need have I to know your name? Besides, before you told me I knew it”. . .
“Really, you knew my name?”
“Yes,” answered the bishop, “your name is my brother.”
Jean Valjean was unable to sleep being unaccustomed to sleeping in a bed. During the night the temptation was too strong so he rose, put the silver under his coat and left. Stopped by the police they soon discovered the silver and brought him back to the bishop. The Bishop said, “I gave him the silver, he has more need of it than I.” Jean Valjean broke down at such love and forgiveness.
The bishop said, “You are my brother.” The bishop knew what it was to be forgiven, how could he not forgive Jean Valjean for such a small thing as some silver?
It is possible for me to become quite theoretical about grace and forgiveness. I have never lived on the seamier side of life. Subconsciously I might feel that I’m not in need of as much forgiveness as some other people. I might even be tempted to thank God for being such a good person. Today’s text reminds me that in the sight of God, we are all sinners. If I were to hope to convince God of my goodness, I am lost before I start.
Yet in my theoretical, calculating world of degrees of sin I can convince myself that there is someone more sinful than me. Peter asks a question, “How often do I need to forgive?” And Jesus tells him a ridiculous story. A king discovers a debt owed to him larger than the national debt. It is ridiculous to imagine how it got so large, ridiculous to imagine it being paid back, and even more ridiculous to listen to the plea of the person that he would pay it all back. The story becomes even more ridiculous when the king forgives the debt.