JOPLIN, Mo. —
Nineteenth century France was dominated by decades that are best described by the notable lines of Charles Dickens: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” The best of times were had by those whose wealth accumulated faster than it could be spent -- those whom the law, courts, politics and culture favored.
The worst of times was relegated to the low class of society, who paid the bill to ensure that the upper class could have their way. For the poorest of the poor, life was reduced to the basest level of human existence. They found themselves coping in ways they would never have thought possible, doing things they would have condemned had times been better. Desperation had remade them into someone they themselves hardly recognized.
Jean Valjean simply stole a loaf of bread cooling on a window sill. He was desperate and thought he had no other options. This loaf would relieve the hunger pains of his starving sister and her children. He was captured and imprisoned. Thus begins the epic story of Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables”, a story of two roads taken; that of escapee Valjean and that of Officer Javert, who gave relentless pursuit. It is a story of grace versus law and how both can impact life.
Eventually the novel became a musical, playing in 42 countries and 21 languages all around the world. Today, 27 years later, it continues to break attendance records. In December “Les Miserables” will be released as a motion picture adaptation of the musical, starring Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway and Russell Crowe.
One billing describes the story: “Set against the backdrop of 19th century France, ‘Les Miserables’ tells an enthralling story of broken dreams and unrequited love, passion, sacrifice and redemption -- a timeless testament to the survival of the human spirit.”
Yes, but there is more to the story than the survival of the human spirit. Deep within the plot is an understanding of God, which challenged the conventional thinking of the time. Hugo, who was reputed as being a nonbeliever, introduces the character of a simple priest and rejects the common portrayal of an angry God in favor of a caring God who is able to redeem life.
Imprisoned for stealing the loaf of bread, Jean Valjean escapes and somehow finds his way to a monastery. A priest welcomes him and extends a hand of compassion. Sneaking away in the darkness of the pre-dawn hours the next morning, Valjean betrays that compassion by stealing treasure belonging to the church.
Captured, Valjean and the stolen treasure are brought back to the church. In an astounding move, the priest embraces Valjean and calls him a friend. Then, to the amazement of all, the priest hands over to Valjean additional treasure, pretending that Valjean had absentmindedly forgotten the gifts.
Stunned, Valjean walks away in the light of day carrying the treasure and the claim of God upon his life. With these two gifts, Valjean, who was still a wanted man for stealing the loaf of bread, begins to put together the pieces of his broken life. Always mindful of God’s grace, Valjean diligently extends the same compassion to those trapped in circumstances that kill life’s dreams.
Officer Javert continues his relentless pursuit of Valjean, always showing up at critical moments, always hoping to make right the law, always choosing law over life. This struggle between law and grace -- between good and better -- is a major theme of the story. It is not unlike the struggle between Judas and Jesus. Javert, like Judas, ends his life by suicide.
The outcome of law is death. The outcome of grace is life. That’s Gospel.
Craig Tally is the senior minister of First Community Church in Joplin. His column appears bi-weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.