Those familiar with the Bishop of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables recall his generosity, demonstrated most prominently by his gifting of two silver candlesticks to the convict Jean Valjean—a gift as unexpected as it was undeserved. Worthy at the moment of only condemnation, Valjean accepts not only the silver he had stolen but, essentially, his freedom as well. The Bishop bestows this gift by grace . . . and to the perplexed receiver the true value of this gift seems indescribable.
But there is more to the Bishop’s character. His generosity springs from a mind-set that puts others first and rests on a solid clarity of life’s purpose. At another point in the novel, the Bishop is about to embark on a dangerous journey to a remote village in his parish. Yet a notorious gang of thugs has laid claim to the wilderness along the way. Fearing for the Bishop’s safety, the mayor attempts to convince him to forgo the trip:
“But the brigands, Monseigneur?”
“Hold,” said the Bishop, “I must think of that. You are right. I may meet them. They, too, need to be told of the good God.”
“But, Monseigneur, there is a band of them! A flock of wolves!”
“Monsieur le maire, it may be that it is of this very flock of wolves that Jesus has constituted me the shepherd. Who knows the ways of Providence?”
“They will rob you, Monseigneur.”
“I have nothing.”
“They will kill you.”
“An old priest, who passes along mumbling his prayers? Bah! To what purpose?”
“Oh, mon Dieu! What if you should meet them!
“I should beg alms of them for my poor.”
“Do not go, Monseigneur. In the name of Heaven! You are risking your life!”
“Monsieur le maire,” said the Bishop, “is that really all? I am not in the world to guard my own life, but to guard souls.”
What are we to make of this mystery of sacrificial giving? Thomas à Kempis, a fifteenth-century monk and the principal author of the devotional classic The Imitation of Christ, had much to say about denying oneself in the service of God and others. One example: “No one is more powerful, no one freer than he who knows how to leave all things, and think of himself as the least of all.”
I see in this maxim a glint of explanation behind the power and freedom routinely exercised by Hugo’s Bishop.
This past Sunday, my pastor exhorted our congregation to give sacrificially. He emphasized again that “generosity is not something God wants from you . . . it is something God wants for you.” The thought crossed my mind that sacrificial giving had little to do with what we gave but everything to do with the spirit that characterized our offering: cheerful, humble, faithful.
Giving sacrificially entails not just an episode of selflessness but the habit of self-denial, rooted in faith and geared toward glorifying God. Again, Thomas à Kempis proves instructive. Imagining what Christ might say to a disciple, he writes,
What more do I ask than that you give yourself entirely to Me? I care not for anything else you may give Me, for I seek not your gift but you. Just as it would not be enough for you to have everything if you did not have Me, so whatever you give cannot please Me if you do not give yourself.
“I seek not your gift but you.” This seems to be the heart of the matter, for what more can we give? And why should we think that giving anything less would be enough?