And must I now begin to doubt, Who never doubted all those years? My heart is stone, and still it trembles. The world I have known is lost in shadow.
It’s been years since I revisited the story of Jean Valjean and Les Miserables, so whether you liked this particular version of the musical and adaptation of Victor Hugo’s classic novel, the story still contains a power and potency that can’t be ignored. While I’m not sure I enjoyed every aspect of the “live capture” singing (I thought some of Jackman’s and Hathaway’s choices didn’t quite capture the musical power of the piece) it still captivated, and since I don’t have an ear for music like my wife Russell Crowe’s generally criticized performance seemed more than adequate to me. And Crowe’s character, Javert, held my interest this time more than any other.
There is an oh-so-obvious parallel with the gospel (the good news of grace in Jesus) when we see Valjean’s character given unmerited favor by the benevolent, God-fearing bishop Myriel. Born into a world where he’s reduced to stealing to keep loved ones alive, we see Valjean’s character as both victim of society and chosen sinner. Though clearly given grace, food and hospitality by the bishop, (and he may have received more care had he extended trust) Valjean feels entitlement, pillaging the household silverware in the night and fleeing.
To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. – Luke 6:29
When caught and dragged before the Bishop, Myriel tells the officers of the law that he not only gave Valjean the silver, but insists the shocked sinner take his expensive candlesticks as well. The offering of loving grace irrevocably changes our protagonist and, while imperfect, he goes on to be a blessing to the city, raise the helpless young Cosette, and later rescue the life of her young love, Marius. The idea of this life transformed by grace has been used in many a lesson or sermon illustration. Much less in my experience, however, has been the focus on the man Javert.
Some label Javert a “fanatic” but is he truly that different from many of us?
The lawman Javert sees two kinds of people in the world: law keepers and law breakers. He doesn’t seem to believe in any form of change or repentance: the lawful must simply incarcerate the lawless, and he cannot believe in grace or its ability to change a heart. Held at gunpoint by Jean Valjean later in the story, he’s certain the lawless man will take advantage of this opportunity and kill him. The man he thinks Valjean is must do this. It makes absolutely no sense to let him go, as Javert swears he will never stop hunting him, never stop holding him accountable for his crime, and never believe he is anything other than an irredeemable thief. Yet Valjean sets him free. Valjean extends an unmerited favor (the very definition of grace) to his accuser and pursuer.
This selfless act still doesn’t quite convince Javert, but when the lawman sees Valjean rescuing Marius for no personal gain, the final straw lands on this stubborn camel’s back and he’s broken by the grace this man reflects, this undeniable repentent heart. The most shocking – but very true – reaction is that Javert can still not accept it, cannot receive the grace he’s been shown or given by Valjean. Instead of immersing himself in the life-changing wonder of this, being baptized into a new outlook on life, the man of law quite literally drowns in it.
Javert cannot embrace the narrative playing out before him, that a sinner may be redeemed by grace instead of earning it by keeping the law in meritorious fashion, that a man can have his debt canceled by a higher power who pays the price for him (and that this would yield life-changing fruit). Indeed, he’s undone by this man… who has been transformed into a better man than he.
The question is: do we find ourselves in Javert’s place of judgment and self righteousness?
The notion of grace is rare in religion: most worldviews focus on personal works, certain sacrifices, or scale-tipping karma to somehow balance or perfect one’s self for heaven, instead of facing an eternal judgment for our trespasses, our identity as lawbreakers. What’s humbling about this worldview is that we cannot put stock or testimony in our own actions as making us fit. Accepting the grace of the Christian faith is admitting while you were still a sinner, God extended grace – unmerited favor – we did not deserve. He gave us the “silverware” of a new life and heart, plus the “candlesticks” of eternal life in his light and love.
It’s not a “cheap grace”, either. Bishop Myriel doesn’t redeem Valjean so he can just do whatever his old heart might have desired. He says Valjean’s life has been spared “for God”, effectively stating that Jean should live his life by recognizing his true Creator and Savior, serving him and reflecting his grace to others. So it is true for all those reconciled to the God of the universe through Christ.
However, even Christians – over time – accrue a lot of Javert-style thinking. We speak as though there are “good” people and “bad” people instead of simply broken sinners… some of whom have submitted to this revealed grace and received a new identity in Christ, and others who Christians then call to see and receive it as well. We look down on certain types of lawbreakers and put them in more reprehensible categories, as though our trespasses didn’t equally stink.
Instead of thievery or culturally unacceptable trespasses, Javert’s sin is self-righteousness, which turns out perhaps to be the most difficult to repent from (and in his case, impossible). Javert is reminiscent of the self-described apostle Paul, who only changed when Jesus showed up and commanded he take a different path. Paul speaks of how lawful – and empty – he was:
“If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more… as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss… because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish… not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith…” – Philippians 3
The good news is that those who live like Javert aren’t irrevocably damned any more than Javert thought Valjean was… because we see a similar man like Paul can be humbled and turned around. Javert’s rigid path isn’t unalterable any more than Ebenezer Scrooge’s. Still, his grim fate in this story is a good reminder to us all: woe to those of us who would start letting the self-righteousness of Javert seep in, thinking of themselves as having attained a lawfulness of self and looking down on those stumbling in temptation and sin.
Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed… until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. – Galatians 3
The goal of life is to show the life-transforming, unmerited favor of our Creator and seek the redemption of those who are as we once were… though we have no power to force that change. Truly, when looking at who is truly “the miserable one” in Hugo’s story and 2012’s engaging musical film, it is the Javert who refuses to receive grace.
Questions for discussion:
Like Javert, do you view the world as filled with bad people and good people?
What reasons or excuses might you employ to justify your own lawbreaking?
Do you struggle with your ultimate fate being one of UNmerited favor?
Have you received moments of grace in your life like Jean Valjean?
How has being a recipient of grace changed the way you live?
For more on Les Miserables and the plight of Fantine, check out this follow-up review. Also, for a limited time you might be able to sin a copy of the film on Blu-ray and DVD!