During the holiday season, my family and I love to watch the latest film adaptation of the classic musical Les Misérables. The work based on the novel by Victor Hugo, is a profound story of grace and redemption.
The story follows the lives of two men: Valjean, the criminal seeking redemption, and Javert, the man of the law. Through the lives and interactions of these two men, the evident themes of law/grace and justice/mercy emerge in a picture of God’s redemptive plan.At the beginning of the movie, there is a striking scene where Valjean, still imprisoned under the watchful eye of his guard Javert, is ordered to retrieve a French flag attached to a massive beam. Javert gives the command “Retrieve the standard!” and Valjean, with his head down, complies. With sheer tenacity of will, Valjean lifts the standard onto his back and delivers it at the feet of Javert. Valjean is then freed to a life of poverty and destitution due to the weight of his past crimes continually hanging over his head.
Providence will bring the lives of Valjean and Javert together many times in a clear contrast of how different people respond to grace. In the end, Javert’s devotion to the law will destroy him. He becomes entangled in a web of paradox because of mercy shown to him by Valjean and his legal obligation to bring the fugitive to justice.
Like Valjean and Javert, we too have been invited to embrace grace. But only through the intervention of Christ and his gospel will we escape the fate of Javert. The depravity of our heart is revealed in two directions: a disdain of God’s law resulting in rebellion or an obsession with God’s law resulting in self-righteous and self-deception. The law with its many demands is spelled out in detail throughout the Old Testament, with attached promises for those who obey and assigned curses for those that do not. The natural disposition of our hearts is to choose to do that which is evil, because as Paul describes us in Ephesians 2:1-2, “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit now at work in the sons of disobedience.”
Because of our constant disobedience, even our attempts at righteousness become futile and empty exercises. Like Valjean, when we will ourselves to lift the “standard” of the law it only rewards us with a shallow liberty, knowing that the best we can hope for is a life on the run, in fear that eventually our “sin will find us out.” And like Javert, our hearts cling to the false hope that adherence to the law will free us from the inconsistencies of our own souls.
As Tullian Tcividjian writes, “For Javert (as with all of us), the logic of law makes sense… It makes life formulaic. It breeds a sense of manageability. And best of all, it keeps us in control. We get to keep our ledgers and scorecards. The logic of grace, on the other hand, is incomprehensible to our law-locked hearts. Grace is thickly counter-intuitive. It feels risky and unfair. It’s dangerous and disorderly. It wrestles control out of our hands…we are, by nature, allergic to grace.”
The message of Les Misérables is the gospel message. It is a message of grace contrasted with the demands of the law – demands that were satisfied by the death of Christ on the cross. It is a message of new life extended to those who believe through Jesus’ glorious resurrection.