Memorial of Saint John Neumann
1 John 3:11-21
"Once a thief, forever a thief. What you want you always steal." Spoken by the antagonist Javert in Les Miserables, he fires his judgment toward his adversary, Jean Valjean. Javert is the figurehead of authority who believes there are two kinds of people in the world, those who are law abiding, and those who have transgressed. He is proud that he has lived his life without breaking a single rule. He holds his exemplary attitude before Jean Valjean, the protagonist in the story, who admitted early on that he had stolen a loaf of bread to feed his family. Having experienced radical forgiveness Valjean spends the rest of his life extending mercy to those suffering from misfortune. Javert on the other hand, spends the rest of his time in harsh judgment and condemnation of others, especially Jean Valjean.
These two struggle against each other much like the tensions which we live with and face on a daily basis. These certainly must have existed in John’s community too. In the first reading John speaks about these tensions: Cain who belonged to the Evil One, the world which hates the righteous, and love which lays down its life for another. Yet Victor Hugo’s work brilliantly shows that the one holding the grudge is the blind one. And living with that burden day-in and day-out becomes quite burdensome, bringing one down. The one who knows he has been forgiven, the one who has paid his debts, is portrayed as much freer and more joyful. Ultimately, this is what John is trying to communicate in the letter to his community.
Change or transformation has more than one side. Even if a person does change, how is this change accepted by others? Will society or the community receive the person back? Won’t the person always have to carry around the truth that they have a black strike against them? Won’t the first thing out of people’s mouths be a negative kind of statement? Wasn’t this the same with Nathanael? After Philip tells him, "We found the one that Moses wrote about in the Law" the first thing out of Nathanael’s mouth is the reply, "Can anything good come from Nazareth?"
Slowly we must put down our prejudices. Why is it that the heavier they are the harder it is to put them down? John’s gospel, thanks to Nathanael, gives us a recipe for letting them go. First, come to Jesus. And second, acknowledge who he is. Can it be that simple?
Will Javert ever be able to put down his justification? Will he let go of his intolerance toward Jean Valjean? Without giving away the story, what happens when he sees through his blindness that a tremendous act of mercy was extended to him? The story repeats itself in all of our lives. As Christians, we merely call it an encounter with the risen Christ, the Son of the Living God. Nathanael, after finding Jesus, becomes a believer and starts a new chapter of his life.
It’s a new year, and time to start a new chapter in your life.
Fr. David Colhour, C.P. is the pastor of St. Agnes Parish in Louisville, Kentucky.