One of my favorite movie scenes of all time is Liam Neeson’s portrayal of the forgiveness of Jean Valjean in the movie rendition of Les Mis. The scene goes like this.
(Um, spoiler alert? The book is more than a century old. And the movie came out before most of the people in my church were born. So this isn’t exactly new. But hey, I’m generous, so … spoilers ahead.)
Jean Valjean, a convict, was released from a French prison, but no one would hire him. One day, an old priest finds him sleeping on the street, and out of pity, takes him in for the evening. At dinner, Jean Valjean notices all the silver in the house, so he wakes up in the middle of the night to rob the priest. After hearing a racket, the priest makes his way to the kitchen to see what’s going on. Jean Valjean hits him and runs away with his newfound treasure.
Early the next morning, the police find Jean Valjean and drag him back to the priest’s house. They say to the priest, “We caught this man with all your silver, and he has the audacity to say that you gave it to him! Just say the word, and we’ll take him back to prison.” All the priest had to do was nod to confirm the robbery, sending Jean Valjean back to prison for the rest of his life. Case closed.
But that’s not how the priest responds. He walks over, eye black and blue from Jean Valjean’s assault. But as he stands in front of Jean Valjean, he looks him in the eye, and says, “I’m very angry with you, Jean Valjean …” [long, uncomfortable pause] “I’m angry because you forgot to take the silver candlesticks I gave to you. They are the most valuable things in the house. You don’t want to forget those.”
The police, dumbfounded, release Jean Valjean from his chains and leave the scene.
Once they’re alone again, Valjean asks the priest, “Why are you doing this?” To which the priest replies, “With this silver and these candlesticks I have now bought your soul. You must promise to become a better man. Go, Valjean, and start a new life.”
And Valjean does. For the rest of his life, an undeserving thief, Valjean, has an impulse for generosity that is almost uncontrollable, an impulse that even gets him into trouble. But Valjean can’t help it. He has to find one to whom he can show the kind of grace he’s experienced.
When you believe the gospel, you become the gospel.
In 2 Samuel 9:1, David asks, “Is there still anyone left of the house of Saul, that I may show him kindness for Jonathan’s sake?” (ESV).
Jonathan, David’s best friend, had died in battle against the Philistines fighting at his father, Saul’s, side. He had even stepped aside to allow David to become king—a position he was entitled to—because he recognized God’s hand on David.
Now that David was king, David wanted to see if there were any relatives of Jonathan’s still alive to whom he could show kindness for Jonathan’s sake. He searched far and wide until he found Ziba, a former servant of Saul, who could help him locate Jonathan’s last living son—Mephibosheth.
Though once his enemies—rebels against him, murderers of the King’s son, crippled in our sin, nobodies from nowhere—God remained rich in mercy toward us. Not “for Jonathan’s sake.” But for the sake of Jesus, our older brother, our Savior.
To understand how radical David’s invitation to him was, there are a few things to know about Mephibosheth.
First, he was technically David’s enemy. When a new king rose to power, the loyalty of the previous royal family could be destructive and deadly. Though extreme to us now, it was common practice then to kill any living relatives who could threaten the new kingship. No wonder, then, that when they met, Mephibosheth fell at David’s feet. He was afraid his time was up.
Second, he was physically weak. As an infant, he was dropped, causing him to become lame in both feet, rendering him useless at the time. We wouldn’t describe someone with a physical disability as “useless” today—in fact, we’d be offended by that. However, in an agrarian and militaristic society, Mephibosheth couldn’t work or fight, and he certainly had no value to a king. People also considered those who were lame in both feet to be cursed by God, and they were unable to enter the temple (Leviticus 21).
As if he needed more going against him, in Hebrew, “Mephibosheth” means “spreader of shame” and in verse 4 we find out that he’s from Lo Debar, which means “no place” or “nothing.” The story couldn’t make the point any clearer: This guy is a nobody from nowhere.
But David does the unthinkable: He invites Mephibosheth to literally dine at his table as one of his sons (v. 11). Scripture uses the word “hesed” to describe this kindness. That’s a word which means unconditional love, covenant love, the kind of love that God had shown to David.
And David does it all, he says, “for Jonathan’s sake.”
We experience this kindness too, even more so than Jean Valjean or Mephibosheth ever did. When we celebrate communion as followers of Jesus, we come and sit at the table of our King. Though once his enemies—rebels against him, murderers of the King’s son, crippled in our sin, nobodies from nowhere—God remained rich in mercy toward us. Not “for Jonathan’s sake.” But for the sake of Jesus, our older brother, our Savior.
Paul wrote that because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, God made us alive together with Christ and has raised us to sit with him in the heavenly places so that he might show off the immeasurable riches of his grace and kindness toward us in Christ Jesus (paraphrase, Ephesians 2:4–9).
When we have been shown this great kindness, we can’t help but demonstrate it to others.