I did something yesterday that I cannot recall having ever done in my life before…
I went to a movie theater for a second time to see the same movie.
I know – that’s probably a threshold many of you have crossed over long ago – but I’m not prone to watching movies over and over again like some folks are, so once is usually enough for me. But I couldn’t resist.
Les Miserables has always been one of my favorite books – but it’s been 20 years since I read it last (I don’t tend to read books over and over again either!).
I’ll leave the cinema critique to the critics, but am compelled to talk about the story.
Oppressive poverty and political commentary aside, this story is about law and grace. It’s the story of redemption about as loud and clear as the world could hear it except through the pages of scripture itself. (You can read the story line in a thousand places, so I’ll be very brief – but if you don’t know it, do take the time to research it – or go see the movie and experience it for yourself!)
The wretched Jean Valjean is a bitter and beaten man – a convict who has served 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread and then trying to escape – but something (or rather someone) happens that changes everything. He is utterly undone by the mercy and compassion of someone who knows his sin but chooses to forgive the wrong and suffer the loss himself. (The loss is represented by silver candlesticks in the story – if you pay attention you see them throughout the movie.)
Jean Valjean is stripped of all of the rationalizations he has allowed himself to excuse his own wicked heart. His soul is naked before righteousness and he knows it full well. It changes him completely – dramatically – undeniably. His life becomes marked – no longer by bitterness and guile toward his fellow man – but by grace, compassion, forgiveness.
Through this character, we not only see the grace extended to a criminal, we also see what that grace can do to a man. Jean Valjean is manifestly transformed.
But we also meet the law – literally – in the character of Javert, the prison guard who exacted relentless fulfillment of any and every punishment prescribed. In Javert’s mind there is black and white – law keeping and law breaking. There are no extenuating circumstances allowed, no justifications – you are either innocent or guilty. That’s it.
Javert is relentless in his hunt to root out sin and indiscretion. He is driven to pursue righteousness no matter what.
He shows mercy on no one. He is confident and calm, knowing that he is right.
As you can imagine the story takes lots of twists and turns, and I won’t ruin the plot for you by giving away any secrets.
But in the beginning of the story, Jean Valjean is clearly the miserable one. The man is as broken as a man can be. He is almost an animal. But God meets him in his wretched state and he is completely changed. The change is so magnificent that Jean not only sees his own life differently but he sees mankind differently. He cannot help but to forgive and show mercy because his heart overflows with it.
And, through the twists and turns of the details of his life, when the law wants to rear its relentless head to convict him again, Jean Valjean is sometimes tempted to respond in his old way – but he cannot respond to the law in the same manner he did before he understood grace.
Grace changes everything.
By the story’s end, we realize that the Javert, not Valjean, is the miserable one. Javert meets grace, too, but responds very differently. Valjean finds peace – Javert finds none.
It is the story that Christ has written for us. The law drove Valjean – pursued him! – until he came to a place where he could no longer deny that he lives “a whirlpool of sin”. We each must come to the place where we recognize that in ourselves (it’s just as true for you and me as it is for Jean Valjean) we are incapable of satisfying the demands of the relentless, unyielding, uncompromising law.
But Jesus made the sacrifice and suffered the loss by giving his life for ours. And to him – the loss was like the silver candlesticks in the story – nothing when compared to the value he places on gathering his people to himself. We cannot offer him something in return – we must not try. We need to accept the sacrifice on our behalf and know that that’s the price that was required to free us. We need to cherish the sacrifice and love him more because of it.
The change in a man’s life is not just for the “hereafter” though it certainly makes all the difference for eternity. It is for the here and now.
Poverty and injustice continue – circumstances are not what the story is about. It is about the place where justice and mercy meet. The most wonderful or most terrible place in all of time and history – depending on how you respond.