“Les Miserables” is French for “The miserable ones.” Because of this, some would think that this story is one lacking hope. The exact opposite is true. This is a story about hope. The thing that makes this story so Christian in its worldview is where this hope comes from.
As previously mentioned, the main character in “Les Miserables” is Jean Valjean. His misery is quantified in his fugitive life — living a secret life concealing his identity as a former convict who skipped parole. Valjean spends the first moments of the movie demonstrating his sinful side – stealing a set of silver from a priest in the middle of the night. This is clearly the low point for Valjean. He does not stay in this depth, however, rising to dignity and purpose by the movie’s end. How does this transformation come about?
In this story, the face of the Law is a man named Javert. Javert is excellent at his job . . . driven by the charge of making sure every law is enforced. At the beginning of the movie, Javert’s job is to oversee the band of inmates working hard labor in the ship yard, Jean Valjean being one of those under his charge. Upon getting his release from prison to parole, Javert instructs Valjean on how his life can be “saved”:
You will starve again unless you learn the meaning of the law.
Javert’s plan for Valjean was for him to meet every letter of the law for the rest of his life. If Valjean did not accomplish this fact, he would return to forced labor as a prisoner of the state. Of course, Valjean is unable to stick to these terms, and Javert dedicates his life to finding Valjean and bringing him to justice. This is what the Law does. It does not have the ability to change a man, merely the ability to point out when the man is wrong.
Again, I do not know author Victor Hugo’s full intent on the character of Javert, but from my background it seems clear to me (biblically) that Javert is a type of the Law, the Old Testament Law. When writing in Romans 7:7-12, the Apostle Paul says:
What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead. I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.
Paul seems to be saying that the Law’s power toward sinful people is to show us where we have failed, not empower us to better living. Too many times Christians read the Law or hear sermons telling us how to live, and leave merely convicted and dejected . . . thinking of new ways we don’t measure up or new standards we will surely break. This is what the Law does. It does not liberate . . . it incarcerates. By the Law we see one compelling fact: God’s ways are high and holy, and mine are not. Javert’s relentless pursuit of Valjean mimics the Laws relentless conviction of us as sinners, cosmic convicts set to receive an eternal punishment.
The Law, however harsh, is not bad. On the contrary, the Law has an important job to do, and it does it well. Like Javert. On numerous occasions in the movie, Valjean tells Javert that the Inspector is simply a man doing his job. Javert is sworn to point out Valjean’s failure without partiality, and he consistently does so. In Galatians 3:23-24, Paul speaks of the importance of the Law:
Now before faith came, we were held captive under the Law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the Law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith.
According to Paul, the purpose of the Law was to parent us (the idea behind the word “guardian”) until we can accept Christ. The purpose of the Law is to convict us as sinners and show our need for something else. Something else that can truly change a man. That something is grace.
The hinge in Jean Valjean’s life is a single act of mercy and grace extended to Valjean. Grace is a gift. Something freely given that is not deserved and cannot be repaid. Grace is not simply forgiving a past transgression, but it is providing for someone’s need.
I have mentioned before that Valjean’s low point was when he stole a set of silver from a priest. After stealing these items, Valjean is on the run when he is caught by the Law. After catching him and recognizing that the silver came from the priest, Valjean is brought back to the priest’s home. Instead of convicting Valjean, the priest instead decides to extend great grace. The priest tells the police that he had given Valjean the silver as a gift and even proves his point further by giving him two more pieces of silver, the valuable candlesticks. The silver Valjean now possessed would allow him to start over. Not only would he not be arrested, he would have resources he could sell so that he could live. Not only would he have resources on which he could live, but Valjean now had an inspiration to live a different life. He sings:
Yet why did I allow that man to touch my soul and teach me love?
He treated me like any other, He gave me his trust, He called me brother
My life he claims for God above, Can such things be?
For I had come to hate this world; This world which had always hated me
Take an eye for an eye! Turn your heart into stone! This is all I have lived for ! This is all I have known!
One word from him and I’d be back
Beneath the lash, upon the rack
Instead he offers me my freedom, I feel my shame inside me like a knife
He told me that I have a soul, How does he know?
What spirit came to move my life? Is there another way to go?
I am reaching, but I fall And the night is closing in And I stare into the void To the whirlpool of my sin
I’ll escape now from the world From the world of Jean Valjean
Jean Valjean is nothing now
Another story must begin!
This single act of grace inspired a new and better life. What the Law was powerless to do, grace accomplished. Grace allowed this man to change and grow – to live another story.
This is what God has done for us in His Son Jesus Christ. Jesus is God’s grace gift to humanity. If the Old Testament Law convicts us as sinners, Jesus death on the cross graciously pays our debt and provides us the resources to live. More than just making us feel bad about our lack of holiness, Jesus is the wind in our spiritual sail. In Christ, we are made righteous (2 Corinthians 5:21). In Christ, we are made new (2 Corinthians 5:16-17). We are not changed because we try harder, we are changed because of the grace extended to us in Christ.
Miserable sinners lack hope on our own, but we are not on our own. Praise the Lord, we are not on our own! Because of His grace, another story has begun in us. A story of hope.
So far in my reflections on “Les Miserables” we have seen that:
- Life is hard, and so we long for something better.
- Sin and the fall kill us and prevent us from living something better.
- Our path to hope is found not in Law, but in Grace.
Tomorrow, I will conclude these reflections with some personal applications in light of this Gospel truth.