The Works of Mercy: Ransom the Captive

It’s been a while since the Crusades. As a general rule, when our President goes abroad, he does not get waylaid on his triumphal ride home and find himself in the hands of brigands who send wax-sealed notes back to the Vice President saying, “Give us forty thousand pounds and we will release your Dread Sovereign that he may return to home to his people amid much rejoicing.”

That’s not to say kidnappings and ransoms are unheard of in the modern world. They are, alas, all too common. But it is to say that one of the differences between the modern and premodern world is that we don’t tend to think of ransoming the captive as a work of mercy. We tend to think of it as a sign of weakness. Our standard reply to those who demand ransoms is “We do not negotiate with terrorists!”

The idea of ransoming somebody as a virtue is an almost completely pre-modern notion. It depends on two things: 1) a living society built on slavery for its power and 2) a not very centralized state. Under those conditions of semi-frontier justice, the guy who is willing to buy your brother back out of slavery after a bandit raid or a skirmish with Saracens when the king and the nobles have no power to do it is a guy you are going to think very well of. But since slavery is (thank God) dead in the Western world (due, in the end, to the influence of Christianity) and the cops now tend to be the ones who have taken over dealing with hostage situations, we no longer have a living experience of what it means to be ransomed, nor of how it might be seen as a virtue. Our principal encounters with ransoming the captive as a virtuous work of mercy tend to come via historical dramas like Les Miserables:

A brigadier of gendarmes, who seemed to be in command of the group, was standing near the door. He entered and advanced to the Bishop, making a military salute.

“Monseigneur–” said he.

At this word, Jean Valjean, who was dejected and seemed overwhelmed, raised his head with an air of stupefaction.

“Monseigneur!” he murmured. “So he is not the cure?”

“Silence!” said the gendarme. “He is Monseigneur the Bishop.”

In the meantime, Monseigneur Bienvenu had advanced as quickly as his great age permitted.

“Ah! here you are!” he exclaimed, looking at Jean Valjean. “I am glad to see you. Well, but how is this? I gave you the candlesticks too, which are of silver like the rest, and for which you can certainly get two hundred francs. Why did you not carry them away with your forks and spoons?”

Jean Valjean opened his eyes wide, and stared at the venerable Bishop with an expression which no human tongue can render any account of.

“Monseigneur,” said the brigadier of gendarmes, “so what this man said is true, then? We came across him. He was walking like a man who is running away. We stopped him to look into the matter. He had this silver–“

“And he told you,” interposed the Bishop with a smile, “that it had been given to him by a kind old fellow of a priest with whom he had passed the night? I see how the matter stands. And you have brought him back here? It is a mistake.”

“In that case,” replied the brigadier, “we can let him go?”

“Certainly,” replied the Bishop.

The gendarmes released Jean Valjean, who recoiled.

“Is it true that I am to be released?” he said, in an almost inarticulate voice, and as though he were talking in his sleep.

“Yes, thou art released; dost thou not understand?” said one of the gendarmes.

“My friend,” resumed the Bishop, “before you go, here are your candlesticks. Take them.”

He stepped to the chimney-piece, took the two silver candlesticks, and brought them to Jean Valjean. The two women looked on without uttering a word, without a gesture, without a look which could disconcert the Bishop.

Jean Valjean was trembling in every limb. He took the two candlesticks mechanically, and with a bewildered air.

“Now,” said the Bishop, “go in peace. By the way, when you return, my friend, it is not necessary to pass through the garden. You can always enter and depart through the street door. It is never fastened with anything but a latch, either by day or by night.”

Then, turning to the gendarmes:–

“You may retire, gentlemen.”

The gendarmes retired.

Jean Valjean was like a man on the point of fainting.

The Bishop drew near to him, and said in a low voice:–

“Do not forget, never forget, that you have promised to use this money in becoming an honest man.”

Jean Valjean, who had no recollection of ever having promised anything, remained speechless. The Bishop had emphasized the words when he uttered them. He resumed with solemnity:–

“Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I buy from you; I withdraw it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God.”

Beautiful and moving. But how do we live this precept out in this day and age?

Well, one way is to support agencies like which exist to remind us that just because slavery was banished in Christian lands doesn’t mean it’s banished everywhere. In fact, at this hour, slavery is a thriving concern in the Islamosphere and Asia. It is also, in all but name, tacitly supported by global corporations that outsource their labor to countries where they can turn a fatter profit by paying sweatshop drudges bare subsistence pennies instead of dollars and call it “employment.” Child slaves, sex slaves, slaves of all ages and a multiplicity of nations toil across the globe at this hour. So there is still cause to ransom the slave, though it is primarily the slave bound by foreign shackles, not domestic ones.

That said, of course, there is always a spiritual application to these things as well. Jesus announced his own ministry by proclaiming the words of Isaiah:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” (Luke 4:18-19)

And yet, in the traditional sense, Jesus set no captives free, nor liberated any oppressed people. There is no storming of the Bastille in the gospels, no Underground Railroad, no Ransom of King Richard Lionheart. So in what sense does our Lord fulfill this prophecy?

Jesus gives us several hints. For instance, he exorcises and heals the demoniac who “was kept under guard, and bound with chains and fetters, but he broke the bonds and was driven by the demon into the desert” (cf Luke 8:26-39). The man had been “liberated” in the merely physical sense when Jesus found him. And yet the iron chains he broke are nothing compared to the spiritual chains Jesus breaks for him. Likewise, the woman with the infirmity (Luke 13:10-17) is described as “bound” by Jesus, and her healing foreshadows the complete healing of body, soul and spirit he means for us. And, not surprisingly, the way in which Jesus describes his mission is precisely in terms of slavery and ransom for the captive. It is worth quoting the passage in full, for it reveals how radical Jesus’ approach to the issues of power and slavery are:

And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him, and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What do you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” And they said to him, “We are able.” And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” And when the ten heard it, they began to be indignant at James and John. And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:35-45)

Note the Big Picture here. James and John seek to sit it Jesus’ right and left because they have every confidence that he is the Messiah. That is, they think the new Son of David is much like the old Son of David, Solomon. What did the old Son of David do? He built a splendid kingdom—on the backs of slaves. That’s that oriental potentates do. That’s why Solomon is remembered with a mixture of pride and resentment in the Old Testament. On the one hand, his reign was a Golden Age of immense nation pride. On the other hand, he becomes something like a new Pharaoh in order to achieve these goals. When his son Rehoboam promises to continue his policies, the news is greeted, not with excitement, but with civil war and the permanent loss of ten tribes of Israel. But still, his legend goes down in the memory of the Jews as a time of national glory.

Now a greater than Solomon is here and James and John are all about getting in on the action as top dogs over a new kingdom of slaves doing their bidding. It’s that ambition that Jesus rebukes with his new definition of greatness. And what a new definition it is! He proposes to not merely ransom the captive with money or gold as a king like Solomon might have done. He proposes to ransom the captive by taking the captive’s place as a slave!

For as he himself makes clear the ultimate form of slavery is spiritual and the whole world lieth in the power of the Evil One:

Jesus then said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham, and have never been in bondage to any one. How is it that you say, ‘You will be made free’?” Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, every one who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not continue in the house for ever; the son continues for ever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed. (John 8:31-36)

Slavery to sin, with its various spinoff forms of slavery like slavery to addiction, fear, violence, and so forth is the root of all the slavery in the world. Attack that and you ultimately attack physical forms of slavery.

That’s why one of the craziest complaints about the Christian revelation is that it is somehow responsible for the existence of slavery in the world. In point of fact, it’s the only thing that, in the long run, ever expunged the cursed thing from the face of the earth. To complain that it happened in the long run is like complaining that an Olympic weight lifter actually took a long time to stoop down, get a firm grip on the bar, summon his might, and then hoist the 3000 pounds over his head. Slavery is a phenomenon that is absolutely endemic everywhere in the human race since the dawn of time. The one and only thing that has ever succeeded in beating it back and rooting it out is the Christian tradition. That it took that tradition a long time to do it, and not without a lot of back and forth struggle, is due not to some peculiar and disgusting weakness in the Christian tradition, but to the fact that the Christian revelation was born into a world of mortals who took slavery for granted as the normal state of things, just as we take all our favorite sins as normal and resent having them challenged. The reaction of the Jews in the passage above—the Jews who had believed in him, mind you, not the Jews who rejected him—is our reaction, “Whaddaya mean, calling us slaves?” Our culture’s sole conception of freedom is “doing whatever I feel like”. Usually that means “doing what everybody else does.” In antiquity, what “everybody else” did was live in a slave culture.

Meanwhile, in our culture, we continue to live with a false conception of slavery and freedom. We have no notion that “doing whatever we feel like” is often a straight road into bondage. Addicts to drugs, alcohol, violence, pornography and sloth all “do what they feel like”. Indeed, we may be quite decent citizens who pay our taxes and recycle, all while living lives in slavery to raw, unadulterated Pride, the sin that made the devil the devil. Confronted with a real saint who is a slave to Christ (and therefore truly free) our conversation with him may go uncomfortably like the conversation between the Ghost and the Heavenly Spirit in C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce:

Look at me, now. I gone straight all my life. I don’t say I was a religious man and I don’t say I had no faults, far from it. But I done my best all my life, see? I done my best by everyone, that’s the sort of chap I was. I never asked for anything that wasn’t mine by rights. If I wanted a drink I paid for it and if I took my wages I done my job, see? That’s the sort I was and I don’t care who knows it. You may think you can put me down because you’re dressed up like that (which you weren’t when you worked under me) and I’m only a poor man. But I got to have my rights same as you, see?”

“Oh no. It’s not so bad as that. I haven’t got my rights, or I should not be here. You will not get yours either. You’ll get something far better. Never fear.”

“What do you keep on arguing for? I’m only telling you the sort of chap I am. I only want my rights. I’m not asking for anybody’s bleeding charity.”

“Then do. At once. Ask for the Bleeding Charity. Everything is here for the asking and nothing can be bought.”

In short, the first captive you can involve yourself in ransoming is yourself, sold as a slave to sin. Or, more precisely, you can submit to the ransom already offered when, for your sake, Jesus Christ was sold as a slave for thirty pieces of silver and, with that silver, said, “My brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I buy from you; I withdraw it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God.” Once you have accepted that ransom, pay it forward as best you can by telling somebody about the Great Ransom and you will be well on the way to living that work of mercy in the highest sense of the word.

(For more information on the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy, see my book The Work of Mercy: Being the Hands and Heart of Christ).


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