It is hard to believe that the film Les Miserables was released 11 years ago. I never saw the film but had seen the original Broadway production that it was based on I think twice when I was in high school and college which was over 25 years ago, which is even harder to believe. The movie, and musical are based on the classic Victor Hugo book first published in 1862, and all these decades later the story remains incredibly popular. When the movie premiered, I remember a group of students having gone to see it and talking about it at a weekly forum we had on our University campus at the time that was called “Conversations on Faith and Spirituality.”
Thanks so much for stopping by to read my homily for the the SIXTH SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME – February 12, 2023, for sharing it on your social media posts and your feedback and comments… I’m also grateful for all those who’ve asked for the audio version and share them as well at SOUNDCLOUD click HERE or from ITUNES as a podcast HERE. May the Lord be glorified in your reading and sharing- Father Jim
This epic tale deals with so many stories that it can be hard to remember all the ins and outs of it. I think the Broadway show was almost 3 hours, and google tells me that the movie was 2 and a half so there’s a lot to digest. But just to refresh your memories one of the central stories and characters is Jean Valjean who is freed from prison after being sentenced to 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his poor family. A kindly bishop takes the freed Valjean into his residence providing him with food and shelter. In the middle of the night, Valjean steals silverware from the bishop and leaves. He is caught by the police who bring him back to the Bishop to confirm this expensive silver couldn’t have belonged to this recently paroled criminal. The Bishop shocks everyone telling the police that he gave the silver to Valjean and then grabs silver candlesticks and says “you left so quick, you forgot I wanted you to have these too.”
For most of the students in that discussion group, this was their first time hearing the story – they might have known songs from the musical but had never read the book or seen the show. So it was interesting to hear their critiques and takes on things. What was most interesting or rather, most memorable to me and left the biggest impression was hearing students describing Valjean as this heroic figure but skipping the redemption part. What do I mean? They felt his stealing the bread was justified; as was his stealing the silverware from the bishop. Because it was not right that he had been sentenced to 19 years in prison for stealing the bread in the first place. I remember saying “well we can agree on that… but, what about the stealing from the Bishop?” And they were convinced it wasn’t an issue – you see, Valjean deserved to steal that after what was happened to him. And, Why does the Church have expensive stuff like that anyway? Even the Bishop agreed which is why he covered for him.
That whole episode came to mind praying with these scriptures. Because there’s a growing tendency whether you look in the public space or even in the Church sometimes to minimize sin, to think one’s bad behavior is not a big deal. There are a lot of reasons for that. We can all think of plenty of examples where those in leadership, whether elected or ordained, who even when caught doing things that are illegal or immoral dismiss it saying it’s their critics who are just using this to make some attack on them as if the thing they did wrong is excusable or is none of anyone else’s business. That they’re public people who deserve privacy – ignoring the illegal, immoral behavior. That filters down to those not in the public eye, but in our families, neighborhoods, and workplaces: We know people who lie, cheat, steal, commit other immoral acts and blame it on stress, times are tough, or arguing everyone else does it… We might have even found ourselves having some of those thoughts, thinking they were convincing as well, and doing things we never imagined we would before.
In his podcast for the Catechism in a Year the other day, Fr. Mike Schmitz talked about a survey that was done some years ago focusing particularly on younger people and their spiritual lives. What they found, whether they were Catholic, Protestant, or Jews, was that their image of God kind of was reduced to what was described as a – Moralistic – Therapeutic- Deity. Meaning, they believe God is good; He wants everyone to be nice; everyone goes to heaven when they die; God is there to help you when you want Him to; but otherwise He kind of stays out of your life. I think that mentality has grown for a lot of people in all age groups in recent years.
We as Catholic Christians have allowed too much of our secular culture to seep in and for us to accept that. Because that theory is not based on anything from Scripture. And that completely undermines who Jesus is, what He has said, and what He does for us. Today’s scriptures make that point especially clear. The first reading from Sirach is so simple, powerful, and direct. The sacred author says very frankly: “If you choose, you can keep the commandments, they will save you.” Talk about a mic drop. That one sentence obliterates all the excuses, all the justifications, all the loopholes and double speak we encounter. I have this image of my father who when my older brothers and I had been messing around just gave us the look and said “cut it out.” That’s kind of what Sirach is saying – we can choose not to sin. We can make better choices. We know how often we’re encountering the “fork in the road” where we have to decide whether to do one thing or the other. We have to be honest with ourselves about that. I have a choice. And that choice has ramifications in this world and the next. That’s the second part of that sentence. Following God’s commandments will “save you.” Save you from what? From punishment, from Hell, from extra time in purgatory… Yes, we still believe in those things. Jesus’ mission is to save us from sin, to save us from Hell. We can’t ever forget that.
That being said, that’s not to get people overly obsessed to the point that they believe the second they commit a sin, they are in danger of going to hell. That was the impression my parents and grandparents had. It’s probably why Pa Chern’s “cut it out” was so effective. I remember hearing my parents saying that they used to be so anxious about missing Sunday Mass convinced that if they died that week they were going to Hell that they made sure they were at confession as soon as possible. That’s going to the extreme where people hyperventilate over the most venial of sins or where they can become overly self-righteous and critical.
Following God’s law saves us not just from those eternal realities. God’s law saves us now – saves us from ourselves… saves us from mediocrity and lukewarmness…. saves us from living less than joyful, fulfilled lives here and now… saves us from bigger sins… The over-emphasis that characterized previous generations over sin and hell and the fear, guilt, and shame was one of the reasons many in the Church were concerned that people were becoming too much like the Pharisees. Who seemed maniacally focused on the law, the rules, and the externals. But in trying to be a bit more mature and understanding in the matters of faith, some took that to mean that everything was negotiable and nothing was a sin… This is just as incorrect as that other extreme and is one reason so many are lost and confused, disengaged from God.
That is why today’s Gospel is so important. In truth, the notion that Jesus doesn’t care about all those laws that the Pharisees were so obsessed over couldn’t be further from the truth. What Jesus does is actually make things harder than the Pharisees had been advocating. As Jesus goes through these examples, think about what He just said. He doesn’t say, for example, the commandment “you shall not kill” doesn’t matter. That it is open to interpretation like we see in our day and age, in our country, in our state where the most innocent in the womb, the most vulnerable who are sick and scared are threatened by abortion and assisted suicide. Jesus doesn’t dismiss God’s commandment at all or say that it is open to loopholes or justifications. Instead, He goes deeper – to the root of all destruction of life… He says that when we are angry when we hold onto that anger when we refuse to even try to consider forgiveness, reconciliation that’s the breeding ground for murder. We’re not just to prevent the killing of human beings and condemn those who commit such atrocities. We have to look into our own hearts and prevent the very seeds that give life to those actions from ever taking root.
Jesus is not dismissing anything, but calling us higher. He’s basically saying that the externals are important but even more important are the internal transformations. And when we as Christians believe that and act that way, it not only transforms us but helps transform the world and make us more like Christ Himself and participate in His mission. Cardinal George Pell, who recently passed away once said “the mission of the Church is to bring God’s mercy to the world.” That can only happen when we are serious about sin and those evil choices that every one of us is tempted to commit and do fail and fall. And have experienced that Mercy in our lives.
That was what I was trying to share with those students about Les Miserables. The fact that the bishop not only forgave Valjean’s criminality in response to his kindness but then goes above and beyond and then goes and gives him more silver. That’s not because the bishop was nice. Not because Valjean deserved it, despite whatever awful things had happened in his life up till then. The point of that was that the bishop knew what it meant to be saved. Where he could remember when he was loved in his failures, embraced in his brokenness, and not just forgiven, but experienced God’s mercy. Where the bishop experienced reconciliation with God which was undeserved. That is a love that is extravagant, and overwhelming. That is a love that has to change us and then inspire us to change the world. Where we recognize the urgency of Jesus’ greatest commandment – “to love one another as I have loved you.” When we realize that Jesus’ love isn’t Him being nice, and telling us to be nice – but is His Passion, Death, and Resurrection, that can help put everything into proper perspective. Because we realize that’s far harder than so many of the externals that so often occupy much discussion and focus. But He walks with us in our attempts to follow Him. He gifts us with His very presence in this His word and in His Body and Blood, we receive in the Eucharist to nourish us on our journey. He pours the Holy Spirit upon us to continue to gift us with the gifts and graces to navigate all those forks in the road. He still offers us His mercy when we humbly acknowledge our failures, and our sins in our lives when we go to Confession and receive absolution. When we recognize these realities, we can attest: “If you choose, you can keep the commandments, they will save you.”