Lectionary Readings: AM Psalm 2, 26; Isaiah 49:13-23; Matthew 18:1-14 ; PM Psalm 19, 126; Isaiah 54:1-13; Mark 10:13-16
The story of Jean Valjean has not left me since yesterday’s pauses in the readings that recalled Les Miserables.
Amongst all the things Valjean wrestles with, it is his internal angst over the secrets he holds – thinks he holds – about himself, his past, about who he really is and what he has done in opposition to who he is now and how he is known to others. Well, all others but Javert – the Law. The relationship between secrets, the law and God’s grace all intersect in Valjean.
Today’s readings from Scripture speak to such a relationship. Our past. Secrets. How we understand God. Law and Grace. It erupts in the gospel passage wherein Jesus is teaching the disciples, all of whom were born into the Law, that God’s realm is way bigger than they have begun to imagine. Their God is just too small, I hear him saying.
The disciples had a ‘goodly heritage’ as steadfast believers in the one and only God. The psalms today testify to the self-confidence (arrogance?) each must have had relative to the question they pose to Jesus,
Matthew 18:1 At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’
Presuming their presence in the kingdom of heaven, all they really want to know is where in the lineup? Their heritage had taught them about their God in black and white, God was known to them – revealed to them – as an either-or God, a good-bad God, an angry or loving God, an ignoring or forgiving God, an us-them God. The believers in the one-and-only God were righteous. Everyone else was ‘the other’ as described here in Psalm 26:
4 I do not sit with the worthless,
nor do I consort with hypocrites;
5 I hate the company of evildoers,
and will not sit with the wicked.
God is way way bigger than this. And in order to teach the disciples, to help them move into the broad place, to break through the barrier to entry that each of them appears to have had because of their attachment to the Law, Jesus uses metaphors and examples that seem to insult their intelligence:
Matthew 18:8 ‘If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than to have two hands or two feet and to be thrown into the eternal fire. 9And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into the hell* of fire.
Really? Jesus uses such absolutes in other teachings. Recall the ‘hate your family’, ‘leave the dead to the dead’, and others. When Jesus uses this method to teach I like to remember to whom he is targeting the message at that time. And in most instances wherein he uses such abrupt, absolute, seemingly unachievable commands, he is speaking to the believer, to the disciples and often, to the leaders of the church, the Pharisees.
And by using such extreme examples (and not just words, but actions, too) Jesus is able to break through the law-abiding mind and heart – to help that steadfast believer see and know that the realm of God is open to all believers – to them, and to the other.
So back to Valjean. And his secret. And Javert’s apparent hold on him because the he knew the secret of who he was – a criminal, not a man of God.
Javert’s (the Law) God was so small that he, like the arrogant Pharisees and the humble but often blind, disciples, could not begin to imagine that Valjean the criminal, the ‘other’, the evildoer, the unrighteous, would reside anywhere but prison and hell (separated from God). The song Javert sings, entitled Stars, from the Les Miserables musical captures the essence of such a view of God.
A stumbling block. That is what Javert holds before Valjean. A stumbling block the Law intentionally put before Valjean to keep him out of the realm of God, the world of the righteous. Jesus says no – never put something intentionally before a child of God.
And as long as Valjean kept his secret and took steps to avoid capture by the Law, he would struggle internally, living inauthentically, not in the light, not in God’s light, encumbered and unable to fully embrace joy and love and life.
Once Valjean held up his secret to the light and not the Law, he was released to live as God willed from the start.
If we are believers and we hold within secrets of our selves that we hold up to the Law and not to Grace, are we not keeping before ourselves the biggest of all stumbling blocks?
Matthew 18:7 Woe to the world because of stumbling-blocks! Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling-block comes!
Secrets. Law. Grace. Boundaries. Too small of a God. Us-Them. Stumbling blocks. Accountability. Authentic living as believers. The Moon. The Stars.
The Spirit has my head spinning this morning.
I guess I end up with the thought that Valjean dared to dream big with the encouragement and love and forgiveness offered him by a priest – a man of God, a proclaimer. Valjean dared to dream big. And in doing so, met and came to know a very, very BIG God.