Law and Grace in Les Miserables

“For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus
from the law of sin and death.”
(Romans 8:2)

One of the things I have always loved about Les Miserables is the rich characters who make up the story.  It is a three hour musical – but those three hours dig deeply into some incredible lives; lives of tragedy, villainy, despair, redemption.  We see this most clearly in the stark contrast between Valjean and Javert, two characters whose stories share the same root (Valjean spent 19 years in prison, Javert was born in a prison), but whose lives eventually take dramatically different paths.

We first meet Javert as he is releasing Jean Valjean from the galleys.  Immediately we see the nature of his character.  He is quick to remind Valjean that while he may be free from prison, he will always be a criminal and a scourge to society.  We find in Javert an embodiment of unrelenting, unmoving, merciless law.

When we next encounter Javert, he is an inspector who has achieved his status by virtue of his diligence and perfect adherence to the law.  Meanwhile, Valjean has become the owner of a factory who business has saved the town and is appointed as Mayor.  Valjean success, however, comes not through his own merits, but by the mercy of a Bishop who shows him grace and changes Valjean forever.

As a man of the law, Javert is cannot show compassion: mercy corrupts divine order, the law is as fixed as the stars, it will not be mocked, he will not be moved.  Justice trumps all.  Valjean, on the other hand because of the extravagant grace shown to him, recognizes the Divine hand of grace that saves the wretch and sets him free.  Touched by grace, Valjean gives that grace to others, caring for Fantine and her daughter Cosette, and even sparing Javert’s life multiple times.

Ultimately, we see in Valjean and Javert two lives that are forever changed by grace.  One receives grace and mercy and is re-born to live a life of compassion and love for those around him.  The other rejects that grace, sees it as an affront to his own self-righteousness, and in rejecting grace, is doomed to destruction.

Sadly, there are many today who love Valjean, but live like Javert.  Grace and mercy, as concepts are fine, but in practice tend to make a mess of things.  We want what’s coming to us, we demand our fair share.  Mercy has a way of upsetting the apple cart, of negating our best-efforts.  We put a pretty shine on “respectable peccadillos ” and avoid the more heinous sins, so shouldn’t God recognize our good efforts and reward us based on that?  I have actually had someone tell me, “Why does that Amazing Grace song call us wretches – we’re not that bad.”

It is as if Javert has read Romans 1-7, and when confronted with Valjean’s grace, cries out with Paul, “I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.  Wretched man that I am!  Who will deliver me from this body of death?”  Unfortunately for Javert, he stops reading there, and ends his life in despair.

Valjean, however, turned the page and continued to Romans 8:1-2, “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.  For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.”

Friends we were all “from the gutter,” we are all under sin.  “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands, no one seeks God.  All have turned aside; together they have become worthless, no one does good, not even one” (Rom 3:10-12).  Will you take the course of Javert, only to learn that “by works of the law no human being will be justified in [God’s] sight, since through the law comes the knowledge of sin (Rom 3:20).  Or will you stand in the need of grace with Valjean and find that “there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom 3:22-24).

Don’t miss your chance to see this show.  If you’re in NW Iowa, get your tickets now.

More importantly, don’t miss out on the gift of grace that God has given in Christ.


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