The Gospel according to Les Miserables.

Watching Les Mis last Friday was a great fun occasion, but seeing it through evangelical eyes was also very interesting. There is a curious allegory to the Gospel message of Grace triumphing over Law.

The basic premise of the story (as told in the cinema) is that Jean Valjean is released after fourteen years of slave labour for the theft of a loaf of bread. This punishment, while harsh was legally right and appropriate. Of course, this release cannot happen without due parole. And this is to be supervised by Javert, the inspector/parole officer/slave supervisor.

With his parole papers Valjean cannot easily get work, so he resorts to theft of silver from a church. When he is caught red-handed, the priest Myriel, out of pity and compassion for this wreck of humanity, takes pity on Valjean and tells the police officers that he gave the silver to Valjean, and, indeed, gives a bit extra on top. This vision of human compassion, forgiveness and kindness causes Valjean to dedicate his life to God, and indeed to the service of others, and the cause of what is right, fair and just.

Bishop Myriel frees Valjean, and asks only that he live a life worthy of this gift.

With the profit from this theft-gift, Valjean sets up a very successful business. But also breaks his parole. This entails the wrath and pursuit of Javert, who, with the law of the land on his side, commits himself to the entrapment and re-arrest or summary execution of Valjean.

From here on, Valjean is portrayed as the good and righteous man, adopting the daughter of one of his workers following her death, and generally being nice and lovely to everyone. Meanwhile, Javert, the law enforcer is seen as hard, cruel and merciless.

With my evangelical glasses on, Javert represents the Old Covenant – the law requires retribution, however minor the infringement, due punishment must be exacted, because the perpetrator has fallen short of the perfect standards of the law. Valjean represents the New Covenant, with the good priest falling into the Jesus role who gave grace (silver) where none was deserved, even though it meant the financial suffering of his own parish. With this gift of grace, Valjean seeks to give the same grace away, culminating in the release of Javert, his own persecutor, when he has him trapped behind the barricades.

As with Javert, the Old Covenant is not wrong, it is just impossibly right. There is no way that we can keep its commands, even striving to do so will compromise the law in other areas, which is exactly what Javert discovered. As with Valjean, those of us who have received such undeserving grace when we were filthy wretches who merited punishment, the question is how will we choose to react to that gift. Will we give our lives to the service of others, or will we rejoice in our freedom to make a little castle of our own? Or even better, can we act as a Bishop Myriel, offering a second chance to those we would sooner shun?

NB. I have the book on my reading list for 2013, so this diverting little comment refers only to the cinema experience, and I cannot say how faithful it is to the original Hugo text.

For a real example of the grace of Bishop Myriel see here – setting the prisoners free.


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