By Rev. Dr. Glenn Hink
---- — A name matters.
Javert: Now bring me prisoner 24601. ... Your time is up. And your parole’s begun. You know what that means?
Valjean: Yes, it means I’m free.
Javert: No! It means you get your yellow ticket of leave. You are a thief.
Valjean: I stole a loaf of bread.
Javert: You robbed a house.
Valjean: I broke a widow pane. My sister’s child was close to death, and we were starving.
Javert: You will starve again. Unless you learn the meaning of the law.
Valjean: I know the meaning of those 19 years, a slave of the law.
Javert: Five years for what you did. The rest because you tried to run. Yes, 24601.
Valjean: My name is Jean Valjean.
Javert: And I am Javert. Do not forget my name. Do not forget me, 24601.
So begins the powerful musical and theatrical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s book, “Les Miserables.” On one side is Inspector Javert: cold, merciless and certain in speaking moral judgment without grace. And on the other side is Jean Valjean,, a man who in compassion stole a loaf of bread and now clings to hope for a new life. On his release from prison, Valjean speaks of his humanity: “My name is Jean Valjean.” But to Javert, this ex-con has no name. He is only a number, his prison number: 24601.
The names we speak, and the names we believe are important. We can open lives to the wonders of grace. Or we can close down a heart to the prisons of hell. The prologue of “Les Miserables” raises a fundamental human question: Will Javert have the final word, 24601? Or is there a greater power at work in the world?
The names we speak and believe about ourselves matter. You may know the names: lazy, fat ugly, dull, loser, hopeless. There are the whispers: not smart enough, not thin enough, not rich enough. And there are the names that don’t forgive, names that don’t forget, names that feel like a prison with no good future: “24601.” The names cut to the bone, and feel like hell. And there are always people who are glad to speak those names.
But don’t believe them. And don’t speak them. Rather, hear the name that is on the lips of God: “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” (1 Peter 2:9). We have a future with God. And the power of God’s salvation for the world can be at work in each of us now, changing the world one person at a time. Believe your name.
John Irving’s book, “The Cider House Rules,” takes place during the 1940s in a small town in Maine. In the center of the story is an orphanage overseen by Dr. Wilbur Larch, an Ob/Gyn doctor. Couples come to the orphanage to adopt children, and it is the great hope of the orphans to be adopted by a loving family. But as the children grow older, they know the likelihood of being adopted becomes less. Dr. Larch and the nurse who help him do the best job they can to create “family” for the children in the orphanage.
At bedtime there is a routine. Dr. Larch reads a story to the boys. They listen to the story with rapt attention. And then as the story ends for the night, Dr. Larch turns out the lights and says, “Good night, you princes of Maine. You kings of New England.” The boys giggle and go to sleep.
So we hear that through the story: “Good night, you princes of Maine. You kings of New England.” And toward the end of the story, one little boy asks another, “Why does he say that every night?” And the little boy responds, “Don’t you know? Because he loves us.”
Names do matter. Those boys who go to sleep at the orphanage are not named “Forgotten or Hopeless or Unloved or Orphans.” Rather they are given a new name every night: “Princes and Kings.” And they go to sleep every night with that new name, spoken by one who loves them. Do you know what that is? It is the gospel. It is grace. It is the power of God’s salvation in the world.
A name matters. Some cut deep. But others bring life, spoken by One who loves us.
The Rev. Dr. Glenn Hink is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Sharon.