This past weekend, I watched the 1998 film Les Miserables for the umpteenth time. It’s a historical drama set in early 19th-century France and based on the novel by Victor Hugo. Yes, it definitely has elements of melodrama (its efforts to evoke viewer sentiment are glaringly obvious), but the story really is compelling. One of the reasons the film has always intrigued me is because its central theme of redemption beautifully pictures the biblical story of mankind’s redemption through Christ. Les Miserables is a story that seeks to discover the nature of man and, more subtly, the nature of God, by exploring such issues as sin, compassion, forgiveness, sacrifice, and reformation. The conflict between justice and mercy, law and grace, is established in the very first scene, and it dominates the rest of the work. Because the former is embodied by the antagonist and the latter by the protagonist, the film clearly promotes mercy and grace as the supreme virtues and more honorable life path—but not before examining the trade-offs.
Les Miserables traces the struggles of ex-convict Jean Valjean to claim peace in his life. After serving 19 years in a prison labor camp for stealing bread, he is let off on parole. The plot opens here, with Valjean homeless, wandering, and destitute. One night, he encounters the graciousness of a bishop, who invites him into his home to eat and stay the night. But instead of expressing gratitude, Valjean knocks him out and steals his silverware. The police capture Valjean and bring him back to the bishop’s home to return the silverware, but the bishop attests that he had given it to Valjean as a gift, and that he better take the candlesticks as well. When the policemen leave, the bishop makes Valjean promise that he will become a new man: “Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil. With this silver, I’ve bought your soul. I’ve ransomed you from fear and hatred. Now I give you back to God.”
So astounded by the bishop’s selfless act of mercy, Valjean undergoes a complete transformation, newly devoting himself to compassion and honest living. He takes on a new name and a new identity. He becomes mayor of Vigau, where he provides honorable jobs for women. He pours his wealth into bettering the town, choosing to live simply. But when Javert, a former prison guard, is hired as the town’s new police inspector, he recognizes Valjean and makes it his mission to have him dismissed and returned to prison. Javert is obsessed with upholding law and order, of maintaining his rigid code of justice. He is the embodiment of law without grace, of justice without mercy. Javert is a legalist, a Pharisee of sorts. He wants everyone to obey the letter of the law, without regard to its spirit.
At one point in the story, Javert is captured by a group of revolutionaries, and Valjean is entrusted with the task of executing him as a spy. But Valjean lets him go free. Javert is scandalized by this act of mercy. It deeply offends his moral sense, dumbfounds him, because in his mind, he deserved to be punished.
At the end of the film, Javert finally captures Valjean. “It’s a pity that the rules don’t allow me to be merciful,” he says. “I’ve tried to live my life without breaking a single rule.” But then he unties Valjean and lets him go. He violates his life code by withholding punishment from someone who, according to the law, deserves it. And because he cannot bear to face the fact that he committed an act of mercy, he drowns himself in the Seine.
Of course, the film is by no means a perfect parallel to the gospel story; the analogy does not cohere at every point. But if anything, the film reminds me that God’s mercy is completely mind-blowing, and that I am so undeserving of it. Whereas Valjean embraces the hope that God’s mercy (and the mercy of man) affords, Javert finds in it only despair because he cannot understand it. He believes that man’s nature is fixed, that we are born either sheep (obeyers of the law) or wolves (transgressors of the law). Valjean, however, recognizes that man is innately sinful but has the capacity to do good, toward God and others, if he only allows mercy and grace to infiltrate his life.
Because of His substitutionary act on the cross, Jesus Christ has the power to overhaul the sinful nature of every individual and replace it with a new one, one with inclinations and desires pure and sacred; He gives us a new Spirit—His own. Jesus Christ is represented at the beginning of the film by the bishop, who, like Christ, invites Valjean to enter his home, eat at his table, and find comfort and rest in his presence. Valjean is Everyman; on screen, he reflects us back to ourselves. We—law-breakers, all—are the least worthy of God’s kindness. We are guilty of offense. And when God extends His mercy to us, when He invites us in in spite of our criminal record, we slap Him in the face, rejecting His goodness. Javert has got one thing right: When a crime is committed, someone has to pay for it. Breaking the law demands punishment. Javert illustrates the concept of humility in the face of wrongdoing in his speech to the mayor Valjean, after he publicly denounced him without any proof: “A grave violation of the public trust has been committed. An inferior has shown a complete lack of respect for the law. … I slandered you, monsieur. I’m here to ask that you demand my dismissal. … You may say that I can resign, but resignation is honorable, and I don’t deserve it. I must be punished.” When Javert finds out later that Valjean is in fact who he originally thought he was—an ex-convict who escaped his parole—he seeks throughout the entire film to deliver punishment to him.
The word “ransom,” used at least once in the film, is one of those buzzwords in Christianity. We talk about being ransomed from sin and death. The word is often associated with kidnappings and/or paid sums. It’s the same within the Christian context. To ransom someone is to free him or her from captivity or punishment; a ransom, noun form, is the payment for the release of someone. We all enter life in captivity—imprisoned by sin, slaves to our natural lusts, sentenced to death. But God, both just and merciful, sent His Son to pay for our crimes. Jesus Christ purchased our freedom in a way no one else possibly could. He is the only one who has a perfect record, a perfect standing before the Judge, so He served our sentence—death on a cross—so that we wouldn’t have to. And now, we can be renewed and transformed if we only accept Christ’s gift of grace. We are redeemed—another Christian buzzword (somewhat synonymous to ransomed), meaning to purchase, or buy back. To recover ownership of something by paying a sum. In ancient Palestine, the word redemption was often used in reference to the freeing of a slave. Jewish law gave the right of redeeming, or repurchasing, to the next relative, called the kinsman-redeemer (Hebrew Goel, Leviticus 25:47-49). This person was someone who was free himself and who was able and willing to pay the required redemption price, or ransom. The act of redemption cleared the slave from debt or blame and restored his or her honor and worth.
In Les Miserables, Valjean is redeemed, “bought back,” by the bishop, who shows him compassion when he is least deserving of it. The bishop pardons Valjean for his crime, releasing him from his bitterness and anger and mistrust, and opening him up to a life of love and freedom. But the bishop has to pay for, has to sacrifice, his expensive silverware and candlesticks to clear the blame from Valjean. However, this redemptive act is what impels Valjean to become a new man. Valjean cannot show love to others—to the sick and misunderstood Fantine, to the abused Cosette, to the physically wounded Marius—until he is first shown love. In the same way, “we love because he [God] first loved us” (1 John 4:19). God loves us so much that He purchased us with His blood, so that we could be given a new name, a new identity, a new purpose. The bishop experienced an extremely small loss compared to what Jesus Christ lost: His life, and the favor of His Father. Salvation is free for us, but it wasn’t free for Jesus.
Thank you, Jesus, for being my Kinsman-Redeemer. For releasing me from the debilitating cycle of sin, for buying me back unto Yourself. I pray that the people of this world would acknowledge your loving act and be willing to receive it, rather than rejecting it in favor of bondage to sin and self. I pray, also, for those who are entrapped by the opposite extreme—by their obsession with keeping every moral law, with judging and condemning others, with earning Your favor. God, we can never earn Your favor on our own. Thank You for saving us miserable ones, for counting us worthy of eternal life because of Christ’s sacrifice. Thank You for sending Your Spirit to empower us to do good works for You. Thank You for treasuring me, wretch that I am, and for patiently transforming me into a more perfect mold of Your Son.
This past Sunday at Citylife Church, music director Bobby Krier led us in a beautiful song about God’s deep, deep love for mankind—its bold defiance of reason, its strength and endurance, its redeeming power. The song is called “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us,” with words and lyrics by Stuart Townend. Here are the lyrics (or, if you’d rather hear them than read them, click here):
How deep the Father’s love for us,
How vast beyond all measure
That He should give His only Son
To make a wretch His treasure.
How great the pain of searing loss,
The Father turns His face away
As wounds which mar the chosen One
Bring many sons to glory.
Behold the Man upon a cross,
My sin upon His shoulders.
Ashamed I hear my mocking voice
Call out among the scoffers.
It was my sin that held Him there
Until it was accomplished.
His dying breath has brought me life.
I know that it is finished.
I will not boast in anything—
No gifts, no power, no wisdom—
But I will boast in Jesus Christ,
His death and resurrection.
Why should I gain from His reward?
I cannot give an answer.
But this I know with all my heart:
His wounds have paid my ransom.
God’s love really is mouth-stopping.