Law Bends to Love

Luke 13:10-17 

Les Miserables 10th Anniversary Clip to Watch…

Les Miserables, the 10th Anniversary performance of the musical adapted from the novel of the same name by Victor Hugo. Jean Valjean, a person from a poor family who gets arrested for stealing a loaf of bread. He spends the next 19 years in prison doing hard labor and becoming a bitter and hardened man. Finally, he is given parole, but is reminded by his arch nemesis [and representation of the law] Inspector Javert, that he will never be free. Valjean will always be a convict, and never free.

So Valjean wanders the country of France with no family or friends. He stumbles across a rectory where the Bishop Charles-François-Bienvenu Myriel lives. In the book, this bishop is referred to as Bishop Myriel or Monseigneur Bienvenu. Bishop Myriel offers Valjean a bed and a hearty meal. For the first time in 19 years, Valjean falls asleep content. But in the middle of the night, Valjean’s horrific past takes hold of him. He gets up from his bed and steals the good silver plates from the bishop’s cabinet. He runs.

The next morning, the French authorities find Valjean and bring him back to bishop Myriel’s house. They are prepared to arrest Valjean for stealing. But when they ask the bishop what they should do with Valjean, something strange happens. Bishop Myriel says to Valjean, “Ah, there you are! I am glad to see you. But I gave you the candlesticks also, which are silver like the rest. Why did you not take them along with your plates?” Valjean, befuddled and frozen, takes the plates from the bishop. Then, as the authorities release their grip of Valjean’s arms, the bishop says one last thing:

Forget not; never forget that you have promised me to use this silver to become an honest man…. Jean Valjean, my brother: you belong no longer to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I am buying for you. I withdraw it from dark thoughts and from the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God![1]

Valjean’s life changes radically after the bishop shows him this mercy. Valjean becomes mayor of a city in France. He is a well-respected individual in the community. He runs a factory that provides jobs for poor women. He raises a girl, Cosette, to adulthood, one who has lost her mother Fantine to disease. It seems that Valjean is indeed free of this spirit of perdition [punishment]. And yet, even after the passing of so many years, Valjean’s arch nemesis, Inspector Javert, still hunts him all over France. Javert is convinced that Valjean did not deserve to be mayor or to even live as a free man. The law was everything and the law said that Valjean must be punished for violating his parole. All the greater good that Valjean was bringing about with his new life and all the people he was blessing—this did not matter to Javert.

Law over mercy.  

It is a great story, Les Miserables. Timeless. Why? Because even though we like to identify with such heroic characters like Jean Valjean—even though we like to think that mercy will triumph over judgment and law—often it does not. And even you and I struggle with showing mercy to certain people. We can act like Javert.

We can be Javert.

We are capable of holding on to law and forgetting mercy.

And that is just what this Luke Gospel story is all about:
Law vs. mercy; judgment vs. love.

It was a Sabbath day—Saturday as we know it.

A woman appears “with a spirit” that “bent her over” for 18 years.

What did she have? Perhaps some kind of spinal disorder? The story does not tell us specifically, but that isn’t really the point, is it? The point is that on the Sabbath day, there are certain procedures to follow, traditions and rules to observe, and so this woman entering the synagogue all “bent over” doesn’t fit into the way things have always been.

The woman doesn’t cause trouble or even ask for help. After 18 years it seems that she has accepted that this is going to be her life. But Jesus sees her. And he calls her over.

You are set free.

He touches her with his own hands. She stands straight up and begins thanking God.

Of course, this kind of incident cannot go unnoticed. It is the Sabbath, remember.

So a leader of the synagogue is ticked off, says Luke’s author. Jesus [or anyone else, for that matter] was not supposed to touch an unclean person and heal on the Sabbath. Six days are reserved for work. Why couldn’t this woman wait one more day and then come to the temple to be cured? Seemingly not a bad question, if we are just thinking about the letter of the law. After 18 years, what difference would one more day make?

Couldn’t she be straightened out tomorrow?

No, says Jesus. You Hypocrites is how he refers to the religious elites of the temple. And then he uses simple examples to remind everyone that try as they might, everybody still does some kind of work on the Sabbath. It is unavoidable. No Sabbath can be completely work-free. So why in the world would they not choose to heal this woman who happened to wander into the temple on the Sabbath?

Now before we criticize the leaders in the temple just as we would criticize Javere from Les Miserables, we must remember to put ourselves in their shoes. The concept of Sabbath was not at all a bad thing. In fact, Sabbath was a time of renewal. Sabbath was a peaceful rest from the grind of life. My colleague who is an Orthodox Jew observes her Sabbath faithfully each week. She will not answer her phone; she will not do any type of work, use the computer, watch television, etc. But Sabbath is not a restriction for her. It is FREEDOM. For the ancient Israelites, they were moving from a time of being slaves in Egypt. They were forced to work constantly; no time off. This idea of Sabbath was a blessing. And for those who still practice Sabbath [Jews, Christians, Muslims—anyone], this day of rest is refreshing and wonderful.

Maybe that’s what we need to keep in mind about the leaders of the temple. They were protecting Sabbath because of its great worth. I honestly think, though, that like any religious tradition, law or practice—something really wonderful and refreshing can become awfully rigid and harmful. Why? Because we can become obsessed with the “rule” of the law and forget about the “spirit” of the law.

This word spirit appears in this story. The bent-over woman had a spirit in her that was causing this ailment. I think we all can have this type of “spirit” when we obsess over rules and forget mercy. We can all become bent over, limited, trapped, and judgmental. It is indeed a sickness.

But the woman was freed of this spirit of ailment when Jesus chose to “break” Sabbath rules and touch her with his own two hands.

So can we be freed of our obsession over laws and rules.

We can all be freed if we remember and live by the mercy rule.

You see, I would argue that the spirit of the law of Sabbath is indeed rest, but rest for everyone.

So if someone cannot rest because she is bent over, ignored, forgotten, shunned, untouchable—then you and I have a responsibility to pay attention, recognize his/her humanity, and to reach out with our own two hands–to heal. The spirit of the law is based on God’s love and mercy.

The moment any of our religious practice becomes more rule and less love, we have lost our entire purpose for being.

Friends, in all religious traditions, we find wonderful and refreshing ways of living that can benefit our body, mind, and soul. But like with any religious tradition, we must be very careful so as to not forget the spirit of these traditions. Any time our religious practices are more about rules and law and less about mercy and love, we have completely lost our way. For the way of Jesus is this:

Law always bends to love.

The spirit of the law is always more important than the ritual.

Mercy sets ALL people free!

In your own spiritual practice, keep this in mind always. Don’t be obsessed with law. Instead, let love bend the rules. Focus on the spirit of your religious practice more than the rituals themselves. And in your interactions with other people, no matter which day it is or who they are, be merciful.

This will set you and all who you touch…free.

Amen.


[1] Les Misérables, Victor Hugo, 1862.1992 Modern Library Edition copyright Random House Inc.

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Josh grew up in Indiana and Iowa before completing a Masters of Divinity [M.Div.] at Princeton Theological Seminary [NJ]. He has worked in a variety of settings, including the Presbyterian Church (USA) and United Church of Christ (UCC) in Philadelphia, Hawai’i, Mexico, and Michigan. Currently, he serves as pastor of Love in Action United Church of Christ, a progressive, Christian, LGBTQIA+ affirming and interfaith community in Hatboro, a suburb of Philadelphia. He also holds a Bachelor of Arts in Theatre/Speech from Northwestern College (IA). Josh has worked with youth and young adult programs for 25 years regionally, nationally, and in Latin America. He is also a trained actor and performs regularly with the dinner theatre company, Without a Cue Productions, LLC. He has developed theatre arts curriculum for use in worship, youth groups, education, and group-building. Josh is also committed to promoting religious pluralism and partnering with people of all faiths and those who identify as atheist or agnostic to build bridges of shared values and cooperation. He is honored to work with the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia as a Fellow and a Consultant. Focus areas include: University alternative spring break and summer programs that incorporate faith encounters and service-learning for students; workplace diversity programs that promote understanding in organizations, corporations, schools, and hospital settings. Josh also enjoys playing basketball, strumming on the guitar, traveling, learning language, or making strange and funny faces. He lives in Center City Philadelphia and thinks vegan cheesesteaks are amazingly good.

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