I am Thenardier

“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…”
(Rom 3:23)

This is my last installment on the Les Miserables theme, and my last shameless promotion for the Cherokee Community Theater’s Production.  Our opening week was met with tremendous success, and we hope to have a second weekend that’s even better.  The review have been great, the energy is high, and the tickets are going quickly.  If you haven’t already made your reservations, hurry – if you think there’ll be “One Day More”, you just might miss it.

Today, I wanted to take a moment to consider a couple in the show who just might be everyone’ favorite characters, the Thenardiers.  Not quite the antagonists of the story that Javert is, the Thenardiers are like a catalyst for the show, they come in at critical moments and create a volatility that propels the story onward.  They are despicable, opportunistic, criminal, and raunchy, but they also bring much needed comic relief to an already heavy show.

When we first meet Mssr. Thenardier in Hugo’s novel, he is profiteering off the dead and wounded at the Battle of Waterloo.  Moving quickly before the carrion birds arrive, or more troops come his way, he picks the pockets and mouths for gold and silver – and makes himself quite a fortune in doing so.

The Thenardiers operate an inn, which is merely another opportunity for him to “rook the guests and cook the books.”  Madame Thenardier is no better than her husband.  Hugo describes her as a monstrosity of a woman:

tall, blond, red, fat, angular, square, enormous, and agile; she belonged, as we have said, to the race of those colossal wild women, who contort themselves a
t fairs with paving-stones hanging from their hair… Everything trembled at the sound of her voice, window panes, furniture, and people. She had a beard. She swore splendidly; she boasted of being able to crack a nut with one blow of her fist. This Thenardier female was like the product of a wench engrafted on a fishwife. When one heard her speak, one said, “That is a gendarme”; when one saw her drink, one said, “That is a carter”; when one saw her handle Cosette, one said, “That is the hangman.” One of her teeth projected when her face was in repose.

In the story, they have five children: two girls, Azelma and Eponine, whom they spoil to no end, and three boys, Gavroch, who as soon as he is able is sent out to live on the streets, and two other boys, who are unnamed, and rented out to another woman whose children died.  The Thenardiers are also the custodians of Cosette, Fantine’s daughter, who essentially serves as slave labor for these horrid people.

Throughout the story, Thenardier’s world keeps crashing into the life of Valjean; attempted robbery, extortion, and murder. There are not admirable qualities in the Thenardier’s.  At the end of the book, we find Thenardier and his daughter Azelma heading to America, where they become slave-traders.  Truly a reprehensible character.

And yet, there is something revealing about the Thenardiers.  Lost people do lost things, and the Thenardiers are a vivid, graphic demonstration of that truth.  They believe God is dead.  They look to the heavens and only the moon looks down.  For them it is a dog eat dog world, you take anything that’s not nailed down.  Only the strongest, the fittest, the most cunning will survive.  Rarely do you see such an honest portrayal of the logical conclusion to a worldview that does not begin and end with a sovereign and loving God.  If you believe that we have emerged from a primordial ooze, there’s nothing to keep you from acting like it.

Rather than point my finger at the Thenardiers and cry out “sinner,” however, I think it is more important to let the Thenardiers point their finger at me and show me the state of my soul.  I am no better than they.  When left to my own devices, I am a greedy, grabby, self-indulgent, naval-gazing opportunist who thinks my way is the best way and just wishes that God would see the brilliance in my own plans and get in line.  I am a rebel from God’s way, living of the remains of the wasteland of my own making, rather than enjoying the abundant treasures that are at His right hand.  I am a wretch.

I want to be a Valjean, noble, sacrificing, the unsung hero.  I’d settle for Javert, the legalistic, militant conservative.  Heck, I’d take an ABC Student who dies on the barricade for the cause of freedom.  But no, I am Thenardier.  Who will deliver me from this body of death?

I guess I should correct myself.  That’s who I was.  But thanks be to God through Jesus Christ my Lord!  I have found grace.  I have been saved, redeemed, transformed.  I have died, and continue to die to sin, that I may live for Christ.  I have laid down the crown I stole for myself, and claimed Christ as my Lord and Savior.  I was the Thenardier, dead in my trespasses and sins, but I have been made alive together with Christ.  I was once captive to sin and death, but I have been delivered from the domain of darkness and transferred to the kingdom of his beloved Son.  This is the grace of God at work in my life.  This is the good news that I must share.

I love theater because it compels us to think.  It holds a mirror before us, and shows us the nature of our hearts.  And hopefully, in stories like this, it will show us our need for grace, for mercy, and for the saving love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.


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I Dreamed a Dream

“Encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all…”
(1 Thess. 5:14)

If you haven’t already reserved your tickets yet for the Cherokee Commfantineunity Theater’s production of Les Miserables, let me give you one more reason why you should: Amy Sarchet as “Fantine”.  Amy is a member of Memorial Presbyterian, and a good friend and sister in Christ.  On top of all that, she has a beautiful voice, and portrays the role of Fantine with a depth and power that I have not seen in any previous production of this show.

For those of you who are unaware of the particulars of Les Miserables, Fantine’s story is one of broken dreams and broken hearts.  When she was young, she was swept up in a summer romance with a “university” man – he was handsome, eloquent, charming, and passionate – more than anything Fantine could have ever hoped for.  She spent the summer by his side, they dreamed of a new world of peace and equality; but when the summer was over, and the young man’s allowance spent, he left, and Fantine was pregnant.

As the show begins, we meet Fantine ten year later.  She has given her daughter, Cosette, to an inn-keeper and his wife (the Thenardiers) to raise, while Fantine works in a factory and sends money for her care.  Fantine loses her job in the factory, and in desperation sells her hair, her teeth, and eventually her body in prostitution, all to earn enough to provide for her daughter.

Certainly this is not the life she would have chosen for herself, who would.  As Fantine sings in the iconic song, “I dreamed a dream,”

I had a dream my life would be
So different from this hell I’m living
So different now from what it seemed!
Now life has killed the dream I dream.

Jesus encountered many women with similar stories in the gospels.  One woman was caught in adultery and brought before Jesus to see if he would condemn her.  Another was the Samaritan woman who had five husbands as was currently living with a man she was not married to.  Now I realize that our culture’s view on marriage has changed somewhat since Jesus’ day, but I would doubt that any young girl’s dream for her future would include an adulteress affair or a string of broken marriages and non-committal.

Everyone Jesus encountered in the gospels had somehow had their dreams shattered and their lives broken.  The hungry, the poor, wretched, the outcast, the sick, the lame, the mourning – this was not their dream for their lives.  But their hopes were torn apart, their dreams turned to shame.

And this is why Jesus came, to seek and to save the lost.  In Les Miserables, Valjean finds Fantine just as she is about to be arrested, intercedes for her, takes her to the hospital, and as she dies he promises that he will raise her daughter, Cosette, and provide for her every need.  Valjean, whose own life has been transformed by radical grace, offers that same grace to one in need.

This is the grace of Christ that the world needs today: a radical grace that brings comfort and hope to those who despair for want of both.  To the woman caught in adultery, Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”  To the Samaritan woman at the well, he addressed her brokenness, but then showed her that He was the Messiah, the savior she had been looking for.  Jesus fed the hungry, comforted the mourning, healed the sick, but more importantly, be brought the grace and forgiveness we all so desperately need.

Imagine if we were to look at the world the way Jesus did.  Jesus saw the world as broken and lost, not so that He would condemn the world, but so that He might show compassion.  He treated each person with grace, compassion, and love.  Sometimes that grace meant a word of correction or rebuke, sometime that grace meant a healing touch; in all, Jesus was revealing the grace of God through His transforming and life-giving love.

If we could live with that same grace, treating one another as if, deep inside, they were wounded, their dreams were broken and their hopes shattered, not so that we could feel superior but so that we could show compassion, how powerful would the message of God’s grace be.  This is the kind of grace that shapes the community of faith, what Paul was describing when he wrote in 1Thess. 5:13ff. “Be at peace among yourselves.  And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.  See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone.  Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”


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