“The quality of mercy is not strained…
It is twice blessed: it blesseth him that gives and him that takes.”
- William Shakespeare, “Merchant of Venice,” Act IV, Scene I
I was privileged to view a PBS presentation of the musical “Les Miserables” recently. In addition to much memorable music, it retains the appeal of the derivative masterwork of Victor Hugo with its rich tale of transgression, redemption, revolution, love (both romantic and other) and its interweaving of the threads of justice and mercy.
Of the large cast, one of the persons I most pitied was Inspector Javert. Ostensibly doing what he thought was right, he pursued protagonist Jean Valjean, prisoner 24601 (incarcerated 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s family, he subsequently broke parole) without relent. Perhaps some of us are like him.
But life is rarely simple. To complicate matters, Javert was witness to the transformation of Valjean, who followed the admonition of the bishop of Digne, from whom (in repayment for kindness and a hot meal), Valjean had stolen silverware.
Valjean was apprehended by the gendarmes, and returned to the bishop’s dwelling with the silver items the gendarmes thought he stole. The bishop, rather than accusing Valjean of theft (which he could have easily and with justification done, but which would have resulted in Valjean’s return to prison, likely for the rest of his life) told the gendarmes he had given Valjean the pieces of silver, and, as if to prove a point, added candlesticks to Valjean’s collection.
Here is an instance wherein the bishop’s prevarication was superseded by the magnanimity of his action.
His intention was virtuous. Although the road to hell may be paved with good intentions, motives do matter. Love covereth a multitude of sins.
Valjean went on to became a wealthy factory owner in Montreuil-sur-Mer and mayor of that city.
In freeing a man trapped beneath a horsedrawn coach/wagon, he exhibited strength that Javert had seen only once before — in Valjean, as a prisoner in a rock quarry.
Valjean also rescued Fantine, an erstwhile worker in his factory, and refused to allow another man be falsely accused of being him, in another town.
All these things Javert observed.
On a more personal level, after the capture of Javert at the barricades, instead of executing him, as intended, Valjean pretended to do so but, instead, let him go.
Javert ultimately could not reconcile his concept of justice, which required that he arrest Valjean, with his recognition that mercy required tempering what he should do with this man who, despite his past, was a man of virtue. What was the solution to his moral dilemma? Agonized, he cast himself into the river Seine and went down for the third time.
Compare him with another dealer in silver: Judas Iscariot.
Purportedly initially upright, he had become a disciple, one of the chosen, and witnessed, up close and personal, the greatest Life ever lived. Virtue personified. Sermons preached. Miracles wrought. But then Judas began to steal, violating the trust with which he had been bestowed as the group’s treasurer, and allowed darkness to enter. The seeds of his destruction were planted. For 30 pieces of silver (rather than silverware), he sold out his Master.
When he came to realize the enormity of his action, unable to undo it (in his case there was no opportunity for redemption), he ended his anguish by hanging himself.
No man can serve two masters.
As conflicted as both these men were, at least they seem to have had some conscience.
Contrast them with Jewish leaders responsible for what transpired on Golgotha on a Friday afternoon a long time ago. My understanding is that most never showed remorse for (in the vernacular of ‘1984,’ by British writer George Orwell) their role in ‘vaporizing’ divinity.
Even when it became apparent that something uncanny was transpiring (with events at the Resurrection), they tried to cover their culpability by bribing the Roman guards at the tomb to keep silent.
I will not hazard to guess the ultimate destiny of some of the above, except to reiterate what Someone who knew much more of these matters once said: “Broad is the way that leads to destruction.” Its breadth accommodates a wide variety of transgressors.
What others do to us pales in comparison to what we can and often do to ourselves. Much as acorns carry future oaks within, we also carry seeds. For some of us, they may be seeds of self-destruction.
Did it have to end this way for these individuals?
Few if any dine with Hume’s fork (named for David Hume, 18thcentury Scottish philosopher), which presumably absolves humans of responsibility thusly: Either we are predestined (as in Calvinism), in which event we are not accountable, or we are subject to random events in the universe, in which case we are not accountable.
Most of us subscribe to the notion that we have choices, which have consequences, sometimes dire. If we choose one branch as opposed to another of the figurative decision tree, we will end up in a different part of the tree.
But what of the narrow, straight path, that some hope to travel to a brighter future?
That path may be likewise potentially treacherous.
Like Inspector Javert, we may be presented with opportunities for justice — and for mercy. How to reconcile the two?
If, at the Judgment, we expect mercy, it is reasonable that we show mercy here and now. To whom? To our fellow man.
As the words in one song in “Les Miserables” say, when we show love to our fellow man, we see the face of God.
Russian author Leo Tolstoy, considered one of our finest writers, became a Christian in his later years. He penned a charming short story: “Where Love is, God is.”
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Vengeance (read justice) is the province of the Almighty.
We may see it dimly, but, if we are of the right mind, with grace, we may still be able to catch a glimpse of the face of God.