Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Bishop of Digne

This is a somewhat formalized version of my sacrament talk notes from this last Sunday:

In the April Conference, Elder D. Todd Christofferson taught how we should "seek to participate in and further [Christ's] redemptive work": 

This kind of redemptive work means helping people with their problems. It means befriending the poor and the weak, alleviating suffering, righting wrongs, defending truth, strengthening the rising generation, and achieving security and happiness at home. Much of our redemptive work on earth is to help others grow and achieve their just hopes and aspirations.[1]

The example he used to make his point was the famous meeting between the Bishop of Digne and Jean Valjean in Victor Hugo's Les Miserables. I hope to expand on his example and draw three main points about "redemptive work" from this portion of Les Miserables.

  1. Outlook: How We View Others

Jean Valjean, readers learn, is a convict who is on parole after serving 19 years hard labor for stealing bread to feed his sister's starving child. As Javert sings in the musical version, "Five years for what you did/The rest because you tried to run."

After being rejected from multiple inns in the town of Digne, Valjean is advised to knock at the home of the local Bishop. After explaining his background, Valjean asks for some food and a place to sleep. Surely feeling that he would not be welcome inside, he asks, "Have you a stable?" In response, the Bishop turns to his housekeeper and tells her to "put white sheets on the bed in the alcove."[2] The Oscar-nominated film version has the Bishop (portrayed by Broadway's original Valjean, Colm Wilkinson) refer to Hugh Jackman's Valjean as "our honored guest" in the blessing.

Jesus was often criticized for dining with tax collectors and sinners. Matthew was a tax collector or, even more likely, a customs officer. He was employed by the Romans, but probably directly under Herod. Jewish tax collectors were despised by their own people who saw them as traitors; traitors intimately linked to a Gentile government and enriching it with the earnings of God's people. "Jews were very careful about personal associations and contact as a matter of ritual cleanliness. Their question borders on an accusation that Jesus is ritually unclean."[3] The Greek uses the term "recline," which "indicates that this was no ordinary meal (Palestinian Jews normally sat on chairs) but a banquet (when people reclined), probably in the teacher's honor."[4] While Jewish writings placed "heavy emphasis on repentance and divine mercy...Jesus' act of actively pursuing sinners as a human teacher was unheard of."[5] Christ's entire ministry overthrew the social norms of the Jewish elite.

In 1836, when asked what the difference between Mormonism and the rest of Christianity was, Joseph Smith answered, "We believe the Bible and they do not."[6] A few years later, when Mormonism's doctrines became even more radical compared to traditional Christianity, the answer changed: "In reality and essence we do not differ so far in our religious views but that we should all drink into one principle of love."[7] Other sects were now seen as fellow brothers and sisters in Christ and "friendship" was declared by the Prophet as "the grand fundamental principles of Mormonism."[8] Such an ecumenical view of Christianity led him to say, "Have the Presbyterians any truth? Embrace that. Have the Baptists, Methodists, and so forth? Embrace that. Get all the good in the world, and you will come a pure Mormon."[9] In other words, drop the labels and recognize that we are all children of God. Although Mormons do well when it comes to charitable work (i.e. "pro-social behavior"), we must always seek to expand beyond the comforts of our own ward. Joseph Smith taught, "A man filled with the love of God is not content with blessing his family alone, but ranges through the whole world, anxious to bless the whole human race."[10] 

     2. Temporal Needs: The Here and Now

Prior to the encounter with Valjean, the Bishop had moved into the cramped local hospital and allowed the patients to move into the episcopal palace provided for him. He gave away the majority of his salary. His constant contact with the poor and needy convinced him that most thieves stole to survive, not for material gain. 

The book's narrator sums up the Bishop's philosophy:

The universe appeared to him like an immense malady; everywhere he felt fever, everywhere he heard the sound of suffering, and...he strove to dress the wound. The terrible spectacle of created things developed tenderness in him...There are men who toil at extracting gold; he toiled at the extraction of pity. Universal misery was his mine. The sadness which reigned everywhere was but an excuse for unfailing kindness. Love each other; he declared this to be complete, desired nothing further, and that was the whole of his doctrine.[11]

Outlook renders service and service develops our outlook. 

New Testament scholar and Anglican bishop N.T. Wright has pointed out that Jesus' ministry was showing what the world is like when God is in charge: the poor are relieved, the oppressed are alleviated, the sick are healed, etc.[12] Declaring that someone else is in charge under an oppressive empire is dangerous talk. The cross in the first century, as noted by one pair of bible scholars, "represented execution by the empire; only the empire crucified, and then for only one crime: denial of imperial authority...It meant risking imperial retribution."[13] By the time Mark's gospel was written, first-century Christians saw the cross as "the 'way'...the path of personal transformation."[14] Though talk of redemption and the Atonement often start at Gethsemane and end (sometimes) after the resurrection, we cannot and should not separate these things from the life of Jesus.

     3. The Eternal: Coming to Christ

Elder Christofferson concludes,

As disciples of Jesus Christ, we ought to do all we can to redeem others from suffering and burdens. Even so, our greatest redemptive service will be to lead them to Christ. Without His Redemption from death and from sin, we have only a gospel of social justice. That may provide some help and reconciliation in the present, but it has no power to draw down from heaven perfect justice and infinite mercy. Ultimate redemption is in Jesus Christ and in Him alone.[15]

Now we come to the familiar story: Jean Valjean demonstrates his gratitude toward the Bishop by making off with his silver in the middle of the night. Valjean is arrested by the authorities and brought back to face the Bishop. Instead of turning Valjean in, the Bishop lies and states that he had given him the silver. Furthermore, he claims that Valjean had forgotten the silver candlesticks. A puzzled Valjean is released and then informed by the Bishop that he has made a promise: "Do not forget, never forget, that you have promised to use this money in becoming an honest man...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."[16] It was this act of grace (one that the Bishop surely passed on from his own encounter with the Lord's grace) that changed Valjean. Years later, when faced with the moral dilemma of allowing another to mistakenly take his place in jail, we find Valjean reflecting on this transformation. This is captured in the lyrics of the song "Who Am I?":

My soul belongs to God, I know
I made that bargain long ago
He gave me hope when hope was gone
He gave me strength to journey on

Our acts of service should be rooted in the love and atonement of Christ. By doing so, we not only provide temporal relief, but together can "see the face of God."

Take my hand
And lead me to salvation
Take my love
For love is everlasting
And remember
The truth that once was spoken:
To love another person is to see the face of God

1. Christofferson, "Redemption," General Conference, April 2013.

2. Les Miserables (Feedbooks edition), 99.

3. NET Bible Commentary, Matthew 9:11, footnote 26.

4. Craig Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 296.

5. Ibid., 296-297.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.: 33.

9. Ibid.: 36.

10. Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, ed. Joseph Fielding Smith (Provo: Deseret Book, 1938), 174.

11. Les Miserables (Feedbooks edition), 79.

12. See N.T. Wright, Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters (New York: HarperCollins, 2011).

13. Marcus J. Borg, John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week: The Day-by-Day Account of Jesus's Final Week in Jerusalem (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), 28.

14. Ibid.

15. Christofferson, 2013.

16. Les Miserables (Feedbooks edition), 140. 

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