The Nature of Grace

15 07 2013

“Jean Valjean: You never temper justice with mercy?
Inspector Javert: No, we might as well understand each other, Monsieur Madeliene. I administer the law – good, bad, or indifferent – it’s no business of mine, but the law to the letter!”

From Les MiserablesGrace Nature Maui

Okay, so I am probably thirty years late to this party. It probably has more to do with my general aversion toward musicals more than anything, but I finally saw Les Miserables. While watching the film, the theme of grace versus “the law” jumps at you from the opening scene when Javert tells Jean Valjean that he will carry shame around for his actions.

Inspector Javert and Jean Valjean represent the law and grace, respectively. To me, Javert represents the Pharisees in the bible. I can almost hear Jesus telling Javert, as he told the Pharisees in Matthew 9:13, “But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” Javert was more than willing to uphold the law, even when the man who had offended the law had actually been reformed.

Jean Valjean, a man referred to as a number by Javert, is the expression of grace, both as recipient and giver. At one point, Jean, feeling helpless because of his parole, is captured trying to sell silver plates that he had stolen from a priest. When soldiers take him to the priest, the priest tells them that he did give Jean the pieces. He also adds two silver candlesticks and offers Jean Valjean a new lease on life. The lyrics below show the priest’s offer of grace.

But remember this, my brother
See in this some higher plan
You must use this precious silver
To become an honest man
By the witness of the martyrs
By the Passion and the Blood
God has raised you out of darkness
I have bought your soul for God!

Jean Valjean keeps the promise to become an honest man and eventually becomes a factory owner and a mayor. When Inspector Javert comes to his town, Jean is forced to face his past. Javert goes so far as to accuse him of being prisoner 24601, but another man is captured and is believed to be Jean Valjean.

This brings a crisis of faith for Jean. Does Valjean let this innocent man whose only crime is bearing a resemblance to him suffer in his place? Does he let down the people who need his help and turn himself in for breaking parole? Jean, further demonstrating how his heart is changed by grace, does the right thing and announces his true identity at the innocent man’s trial.

This act, of course, brings the religiosity out of Javert, and he begins to hunt Jean to return him to “justice.” The inspector misses the point that Jean has been reformed and is actually a righteous man. All he sees is a law that is broken, and the guilty man needs to suffer punishment for his crimes.

Near the climax of the movie, after years of a cat-and-mouse chase between these men, Jean Valjean eventually gains the upper hand over the inspector. The inspector has been captured as a spy, and Jean offers to take “care” of him. Instead, of exacting revenge, he offers Javert his freedom. However Javert believes it is a ploy by Jean to gain his freedom. Valjean’s response is more evidence of the extraordinary work of grace in his life.

You are wrong, and always have been wrong.
I’m a man, no worse than any man.
You are free! And there are no conditions,
no bargains or petitions;
there’s nothing that I blame you for.
You’ve done your duty, nothing more.
If I come out of this alive,
you’ll find me at number fifty-five Rue Plumet.
No doubt our paths will cross again. Go.

There is no doubt that Jean Valjean is free. He is free from guilt, from shame, and from anxiety. He knows he must pay for his crime, and more than willing accepted his fate. Unfortunately, Inspector Javert does not, maybe even cannot, understand Valjean’s offer of forgiveness. This ultimately leads the inspector to an unfortunate decision to kill himself. The man of the law unable to receive grace ends his life because grace takes the law and puts it on its head.

The truth is Christ came to fulfill the law. All are put in right standing with the Law by accepting His sacrifice in their place. One of my favorite passages on this truth is from II Cor 5 (quoted below)

16 So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. 21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

Let’s us never forget the grace of God extended through Christ.




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