Sacrificial Love and Where Our Stuff Ranks

I wonder how Monseigneur Bienvenu feels about the scruffy Jean Valjean dining at his table and sleeping in one of his beds. In Les Misérables, Valjean is an ex-convict, released from prison on parole and hardly clean or refined. He is a hard man after laboring in prison for 19 years, merely for taking bread to feed his sister's starving children. When Valjean needs housing and the Bishop Bienvenu welcomes him into his home, he takes a big risk, one that doesn't play out in his favor: Valjean steals his silver and runs off into the night.

When the police catch Valjean with the silver, he lies and tells them it was a gift from the Bishop. The Bishop surprisingly confirms this story, adding that Valjean forgot to take the candlesticks. In the soaring musical adaptation, Bienvenu tells Valjean that "God has raised you out of darkness; I have bought your soul for God." When I read this passage in high school, it triggered a dormant part of my heart. "See in this some higher plan," the Bishop exhorts him, and it made me see something higher too. I saw that goodness, that mercy, in the Bishop, and I wanted it inside me too. The mystery of sacrificial love and the yearning for it never left me.

In college, some friends and I had dinner on Friday nights with a group of homeless men and women in the park across the street. We ate together with our friends from the streets, learned their names and stories and shared life with them as best as we were able. We received a treasure in their friendship and kindness. One of my dearest friends always said that she didn't want furniture on which a homeless person wouldn't feel completely at home and comfortable. She never wanted a home so "perfect" that it alienated people and traded love for vanity. As she is now a doctor in south Asia, serving women who have few options, I doubt she is in danger of selfish vanity. She would probably disagree with me, however, knowing how easily our hearts are seduced.

Here in our home of Taiwan, a lovely island country where furniture is expensive and there is no real second-hand market, buying used furniture from departing expats is the cheapest option. We've furnished our home with couches we bought "fourth-hand" that are nicer than what we've had in the past. It raises an important question: Will we welcome sticky children and dusty travelers and sweaty workers into our home and onto our couch? Does having nice things change us?

It's not a popular question. And it's very relative. Having a refrigerator is a luxury beyond compare in some places of the world. In America, not having one is considered dehumanizing. How much is too much to pay for a couch? I suspect that many people don't even ask the question, but for those who do, it's very difficult to answer. Maybe someone somewhere has constructed a chart of which levels of wealth are pious and which are selfish, but it won't work. No matter where you set the bar, someone can dispute it. And don't we always set the Too Much bar just above our preferred lifestyle?

So what criterion do we use? How do we live in a way that recognizes the great need in the world and honors our fellow human beings, without turning to economic self-flagellation, as if we can do penance for our wealth through asceticism? Human flourishing is good. It would be good for everyone, everywhere, to have warm homes, clean water and fresh food, safety and security, loving families and communities, rewarding work, beauty. Yes, beauty. It's nearly impossible to enjoy beauty when you haven't eaten enough, or when you fear for your life. But as renowned artist Makoto Fujimura declares and exemplifies, "We are created for gratuitous beauty."

So maybe the issue isn't solely how much something costs, but instead what we love most, and where our stuff ranks. Do we love people more, or things? Do we invite our neighbor in gladly, embracing his dignity and the privilege of knowing him, or do his sweat and coarseness pollute our home? Do we delight in how we can practice hospitality and bring joy to others with our money, or do we prefer the way we can shop and collect and one-up and hoard? This criterion requires more of us than any spending limit. It invites us into a joyful lifestyle of love that looks not only to our own interests, but to the interests of others; one that values others above ourselves.

These questions hound me as much as anyone. I don't fully know how to live in the dual reality of blessing and want. But maybe we can learn from our friend Bienvenu -- "Welcome." Victor Hugo wrote of Bienvenu:

There are men who toil at extracting gold; he toiled at the extraction of pity [empathy]. Universal misery was his mine. The sadness which reigned everywhere was but an excuse for unfailing kindness. Love each other; he declared this to be complete, desired nothing further, and that was the whole of his doctrine.