Hugo drives this home for me. Jesus says, “If you follow Me and learn from Me you’ll recognize truth and it will liberate you. It won’t narrow you—I’m not into that! It thrills Me to see humans set free—It’s what I was born to do it and I do!” (1) He isn’t saying we’d have all the answers so we could pass a theological examination. It’s a heart and mind response to Him as a person, what He is and what that entails. It’s the realization, sudden or gradual, that the One speaking to us is all and more than we know to long for. That glad recognition comes when our minds are opened and with willing hearts we embrace Him who is the Way, the Truth & the Life. (2) It’s impossible to believe something or someone we’ve never heard of (3) and sometimes it’s extremely difficult to be open to truth you’ve been offered, especially if that truth is costly, especially if it runs against all we’ve held for many years and especially if it runs contrary to our deepest emotions or a prevailing and strong social wind.
When we welcome truth from an unlikely source it says something lovely about us. It says we’ve been willing to submit ourselves to something beyond ourselves, it says there’s some humility about us, some character that’s worthy of admiration. We learn nothing unless there is something in us that’s driving us to give ourselves to something (Someone) beyond ourselves, something (Someone) that has inner authority over us! All of this is the work of God who opens our hearts (see Acts 16:14-15)!
To be open-minded doesn’t mean we commit to nothing, believing that all truth-claims are forever suspect—that is to be closed-minded in the opposite direction. To be close-minded is to shut our hearts to further truth and so to the possibility of being stunned with admiration and gratitude. With grander, deeper truths we are more and more astonished at God and more and more amazed at what He is up to. To settle for the truth we have and to close the heart to further understanding means we work with the same perspectives on the same truths at the same level year in and year out. There is no growing surprise or astonishment so the joy and stability that rise from the profound depths of new and rich truths is less and less likely. Not only do the occasions for joyful awe occur less frequently, the very capacity for awe diminishes because it is so rarely engaged. Jesus warns against that great danger. (4) Worship becomes a bore, conversation becomes shallow and the whole of life is in danger of becoming a perpetual gray. Or we find ourselves blown around like a balloon in the air with every wind and wave of societal change or religious fad. So when the proverb passionately cries, “Buy the truth and sell it not,” we’re hearing more than good advice. “Righteousness exalts a nation” is not only true about political structures; it’s true of the “Separated Nation” of 1 Peter 2:9-10 that once was no nation.
When Paul urged the Ephesians (6:10-20) to buckle on the belt of truth he had in mind the truth about God in Jesus Christ, but he certainly assumed that that requires both humility and courage. Humility in that we’re to recognize truth’s authority over us. An authority we don’t create; we simply recognize it. And it requires courage to do that. I believe Paul would have admired Victor Hugo’s character, Bienvenu, in his book, Les Miserables.
Not far from Digne, Hugo tells us, lived G—, a leading light in the Revolution, a man universally hated as “a monster”. He’d been savage in his opposition to the ruling aristocracy and responsible for a great many cruelties during “the Terror” but since he had voted against the killing of the king, he wasn’t exiled and continued to live in France. And of course, like most of those revolutionary leaders, he was an atheist. “Thus,” says Hugo, “the geese cackled round the vulture.”
G— lived well off the beaten track, in seclusion, but somehow the word got back to the town that the reclusive monster was dying (“a good thing too,” some of the townspeople thought) Bienvenu the bishop went to see him. The path to the neat old cottage he lived in had long vanished in the undergrowth and that spoke its own message: not only did the old monster want to be left alone, the people purposed that that’s how it would be. He lived off some vegetables he grew in a small garden and the only human company he had was the boy who did some necessary things for him.
The Bishop found him, white-haired, sitting in an old wheelchair, smiling in the evening sun—eighty six years old and three hours from the grave. The revolutionary recognized the name the bishop gave and held out his hand but the Monsignor ignored it. Even when the man calmly spoke of his fast approaching death, the priest felt little emotion in the presence of one who’d been guilty of such horrors in the past. And though he didn’t want to admit it to himself, he was a bit irritated that G—did not address him as “Monsignor”. This was especially strange since he laughed at times when people gave him titles. The priest, whose life was dominated by compassion and kindness, felt the desire to be stern—a revolutionary was hardly better than an outlaw and as such didn’t need to be treated charitably—truth demanded something else.
The two began in earnest to argue their views. In a cold tone the bishop congratulated the dying man that “at least” he hadn’t voted for the death of the king. The revolutionary blazed back that he had voted for the death of tyranny, for the death of the dark night of the children, the prostitution of women and the enslavement of men. He had voted for a new dawn, freedom, brotherhood, for the end of prejudice and injustice. The bishop said he was in favor of all that but was opposed to the rage that motivated it. The atheist insisted that “justice has its anger!” The bishop reminded him of the awful horrors of 1793 and the republican solemnly declared: “Ah, 1793. I thought we should come to that! The clouds had been gathering for fifteen hundred years and at last the storm broke. What you are condemning is a thunderclap.”
The bishop spoke of the murder of the child, Louis XVII and G— passionately reminded him of the death of thousands of peasant children whose murder was every bit as evil as the death of a royal child—they were all innocent, royalty and commoner alike. Innocent children, and if that’s what the bishop mourned, the atheist mourned with him because innocence “is as sublime in rags as in royal robes”. He reminded the bishop that Jesus made no difference when he said “let the children come unto me” and would have welcomed the son of Barabbas as surely as Herod’s son. The bishop insisted he wept for them all. Yes, but he should weep “equally” for them all, his opponent reminded him. And since the people have suffered longest, if the balance must tilt, it should tilt on their side.
Everyone can tell awful stories, he went on. “I grieve for Marie-Antoinette…but I grieve no less for the Huguenot woman, then nursing an infant, who under great Louis was bound to a post, naked to the waist, while her child was held in front of her. Her breasts swelled with milk and her heart with anguish as the starving child cried to be fed and her jailer said, ‘Recant!’, offering her the choice between the death of her baby and the death of her conscience.”
The priest’s stony attitude was being destroyed but still he murmured, “Progress must believe in God… An atheist is an evil leader of the human race.” The old man didn’t answer him but looked to heaven as a tear formed slowly in his eye, brimmed over and then rolled down his pale face. Still looking upward he murmured words that made it clear he was no atheist. Finally to the bishop he said: “My lord bishop…I was sixty when my country summoned me to take part in her affairs. I obeyed the summons. There were abuses and I fought against them tyrannies and I destroyed them, rights and principles and I asserted them. Our country was invaded and I defended it; France was threatened and I offered her my life. I was never rich; now I am poor. I was among the masters of the State, and the Treasury vaults were so filled with wealth that we had to buttress the walls lest they collapse under the weight of gold and silver; but I dined in Poverty Street at twenty-two sous a head. I tore up altar-cloths, it is true; but it was to bind our country’s wounds… I have done my duty, and what good I could, so far as was in my power. And I have been hounded and persecuted, mocked and defamed, cursed and proscribed. I have long known that…for the ignorant crowd I wear the face of the damned. I have accepted the isolation of hatred, hating no one. Now at the age of eighty-six I am on the point of death. What do you ask of me?”
The old bishop, having the old, cold, wrinkled hand in his own, fell to his knees and whispered, “Your blessing.” And when he finally raised his head to look at him, the old man had died.
Meeting with “the monster” opened the bishop’s eyes in many ways but, in practice, his tenderness and attentiveness toward the poor and the defenseless and suffering were doubled. More than that, Bienvenu now realized as never before that there were more truths than he had been telling, more than he had been seeing, more than he had been cherishing. He now knew, as never before, that even our adversaries have been gifted with truth and the humility that’s essential to receiving truth. Cheerfully embracing truth doesn’t narrow us; it deepens and enriches us. It doesn’t blind us, it enlarges the world, shows it to be grander than we thought and helps us to better grasp the over-arching Story.
The bishop had his critics; for what should a man like him have to do with a man like G—? He should have had absolutely nothing to do with him! What made matters worse was this: when a few insisted that he speak about the revolutionary, he merely pointed to the sky. Whether he meant the man was in heaven or that God alone would judge him, Hugo doesn’t tell us, but that was his response. No bad thing!
Love of truth is another face of love. All those who love God will seek “the blessing” of that truth no matter where or in whom God has graciously placed it and they will receive truth to cherish and obey. Those who follow in the steps of the Dragon Slayer will make it clear that their Lord is “the Way, the Truth and the Life.”
(O God of Truth give us the wisdom to know the difference between truths that matter greatly and those hardly worth discussion. And when confronted with life-shaping truths gives us a willing heart to embrace them and act on them and not fear where or how or through whom you bring them to us. Give us the courage and loyalty to you and the Holy Scriptures to stand firm in the face of opposing influences. Dissolve within us the hunger to be thought well of that weakens us in your service and any hardness and arrogance that “being in the right” so tempts humans. This request for your help in Jesus’ name.)
(1) John 8:31-32; Luke 4:16-22; 8:26-39; 10:17-21: Hebrews 12:2
(2) Romans 10:9-17)
(3) John 6:44, 50; 11:23-27; 14:6
(4) Jesus warns against that in Mark 4:23-26