The story of Les Miserables twists and turns over decades, but ultimately I believe that it is a study of two people, with two very different world views.
The first is Jean Valjean, a man who has served nineteen years hard labour for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister and her sick child, upon release he has to present his papers everywhere he goes, and his identity is still that of a criminal –even on release.
The other Javier, also came from nothing, born into poverty who has worked his way up in life to become a captain in the guards, he is law abiding and morally upright, the uniforms he wears and the role he has makes him feel (and others treat him) as an upstanding and moral citizen. Javier would probably call himself a Christian believing that being ‘a good person’ was the same as being a Christian!
At the start you’d think the ‘goody’ must be Javier, as Valjean is an angry man, who robs and steels.
He ends up knocking on the door of the house of the Bishop desperate for food, the Bishop welcomes him into his home, treats him with love, eats with him and lets him stay the night.
In the early morning Valjean robs the Bishop steeling much of his silver, and runs off and is caught and brought back to the Bishop. The Bishop, greets him warmly, and told the captain of the guards that the silver Valjean has was a gift from him, and then he took the candlesticks from the mantelpiece and gave these to Valjean as well, saying that he (the Bishop) had bought his (Valjean’s) soul for God.
We stopped here yesterday both in our morning service and later in our alternative worship time, and explored this amazing parable of grace.
We thought of the four responses the Bishop could have had:
1) He could have had vengeance –“how dare you steel from me “said whilst kicking him!
2) Or perhaps could have legitimately had justice –and seen Valjean returned to prison-.
3) Or he could have been merciful let Valjean go without pressing charges.
4) He choose radical grace, he gave Valjean what he did not deserve! It was unearned goodness and kindness.
What of us? I thought about myself and I know we all have a tendancy to what revenge/justice when we have been wronged, but when we have done something wrong we want mercy/grace.
This is one of those cross-road moments for Jalvean, indeed the story could be argued is a series of mini morality plays about how we respond in those defining moments of our lives.
There are plenty of other defining moments in Les Miserables.
-> What does Valjean do when there is a fight at the workshop, and he sacks a girl who he thinks is the perpetrator (who because of his actions ends up decending into horrific poverty, prostitution and then death).
-> Valjean is asked to seek out a child and ensure she is cared for.
-> A man is arrested and charged with being Jean Valjean, does the real Valjean let him suffer in his place or does he free him at great personal cost.
-> When Valjean has the opportunity to kill Javier at the baracades, which would be both a chance for revenge and also preserve his safety.
-> When Javier has an opportunity to arrest Valjean but in doing so the man he is carrying to hospital/freedom would surely die.
Yet life is made up of defining moments, maybe not perhaps as major as these, but we all have the opportunity to practice grace at times.
I am working for an organisation called SleepSafe in Bournemouth which provides a safe place for the homeless to sleep (and feeds them too) most recently we have been at the Salvation Army in Winton. On their walls in almost every room they have their strap-line “Grace is practiced here”, we all have –each day- opportunities to practice grace. Indeed hypothetical grace is of no use to anyone, empty rhetoric grace benefits no-one. Yet the real thing changes lives, many other peoples lives are transformed through Valjeans life, he was a recipient of grace that “gives away that which he has received”.
I was struck by the words of Jesus to the woman that washes his feet and anoints him “those who have been forgiven little, love little; but those who have been forgiven much love much” –the problem is many of us have forgotten how gracious God has been to us, we have begun to become more like Javier who is proud of his righteousness, rather like the older brother in the story we have called the prodigal son.
Another film that Les Miserables reminds me of is the rather cheesey “play it forward” which explores the ripple effects that can happen with random acts of kindness, and as we pondered the Bishops generousity we were challenged both to think about what extravagance might look like in generousity and kindness.
For me, the story is a challenge about who we would be within this story, will we be Valjean embodying grace with great courage and bravery (the one who is technically a ‘criminal’) or the law enforcement officer Javier who is law-abiding, rule-keeping and lacking in compassion and kindness. We think of the choice the people were given at Easter Barabbas or Jesus, but actually the choice was really between Caiaphas (the high priest, a Pharisee and a religious man) or Jesus.
At the start of the new year perhaps we need a motto? My suggestion would be “choose grace” –there are lots of opportunities each day to choose grace, yet often we fail to do so, and become unflexible and religious.
I remember a quote which says: “religion is as helpful as throwing a drowning man BOTH ends of the rope”.
Let’s be people who choose grace and transform lives.
Let’s be people that do not just choose the right things, and follow good ideas (important though that is) but rather who we are is as important as what you do, because who you are will effect what you do!