On a snowy Wednesday evening, I decided to venture out by myself to see Les Miserables.
I have a confession. I had never seen Les Mis. I left the movie theater speechless, in awe of a story filled with themes of grace, redemption, forgiveness, justice and love. As I spent time reflecting on the story and thinking of what to write, I realized that, whether 1815 or 2012, there exists a struggle between the land and the Lord, a struggle to seek revenge or to offer grace.
So, what is grace? It’s the “unmerited mercy” given by God. Simple, right? It’s a concept that I’ve heard countless times through scripture and song. “Your Grace is Enough,” “Grace that is Greater,” “Amazing Grace,” “Only Grace,” “Grace like Rain” Need I go on? I get it. I know what it is. But because we live in a society that celebrates revenge and puts grace behind an “eye for an eye” mentality, I often find myself struggling to adequately convey the meaning of grace.
Nearly twenty years earlier, Valjean was imprisoned for stealing bread in order to keep his sister alive. As the story of Les Miserables begins, the following words remind us of an ever-present notion in our world today. Under the law of the land, Valjean will always be a thief and a slave. “Look down. Look down. You’ll always be slave. Look down. Look down. You’re standing in your grave,” they sing. Is this the message that we send to those whom we call “criminals?” Is this the only option that we offer for those who fight for survival today?
Grace first reveals itself when the Bishop of Digne offers Valjean a place to stay. That night, Valjean, still influenced by the “criminal” title placed upon him by society, steals multiple pieces of silver from the church. After being captured and returned to the church, the bishop not only tells the guards that the silver was a gift to Valjean, but also offers two of the church’s silver candle sticks to Valjean as well. Are we willing to offer such grace when wronged by others?
“You must use this precious silver to become an honest man. God has raised you out of darkness. I have bought your soul for God,” sings the bishop. The bishop offers Valjean a different way just as Jesus, grace personified, offers a different way in his teachings. And what is this different way?
Matthew 5: 38-48 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Additionally, James 2 reminds us that “mercy triumphs over judgment.” And in my experience, mercy (and grace) triumphs over a lot more than judgment. Mercy (and grace) triumphs over oppression, hatred, greed, corruption, revenge and a slew of other things.
Valjean’s life goes from one controlled by the law of the land to one transformed by the grace of God. Grace causes Valjean to embrace justice, to care for the oppressed, and to show others a different way of living.
To accept grace, we must allow it the change our lives. Valjean opens his heart to grace. Javert does not. When Valjean spares Javert his life, Javert still cannot accept that there could be another way. He has spent years under the control of society and because he cannot escape this control, he takes his own life. Where have you seen obedience to the law of the land lead to personal destruction. Where have you seen grace bring peace?
“To love another person is to see the face of God.”