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17 February 2013

The power of grace, according to Jean Valjean

First, a disclaimer.  Although this post discusses details of the movie/musical Les Misérables, there really is nothing about the plot that cannot be found by reading any newspaper or internet review and only the very beginning of the movie is really discussed.  However, if you want to see nothing about the film until you have seen it, don’t read this!

Today I went to see the movie Les Misérables.  Oddly, although I’ve listened to the Broadway Soundtrack many times, and know the basic premise of the story, I really didn’t know or remember much about the details.  And so it was that, in the first few minutes of the film, I was amazed by one of the most powerful exhibitions of grace that I have ever seen in film.  After Jean Valjean has been paroled after serving a 19-year sentence for stealing a loaf of bread for his sister’s dying child, he is understandably bitter and angry, vowing never to forgive the injustice that has been done to him.  After stealing the silver from a convent, he is caught and the Bishop, instead of accusing him and sending him back to prison, tells the authorities to that he has given Valjean the silver and, in fact gives him more.  In a moment that I imagine to be much like Jesus talking to the woman caught in the act of adultery, he says, “Use this silver to make yourself an honest man.”  In the next scene, Valjean is sobbing in front of the altar, completely broken down and overwhelmed by this act of grace, which has given him an opportunity at a new start.  He dedicates his life to the service of God and others, vowing never to forget what has been done on his behalf.

There is so much to say just about that one little bit.  It is key to the rest of the film, another 2+ hours’ worth.  However, it is also key to my life, to my Lenten journey and to my relationship with God.  

In reading reviews and comments about the film, it seems this moment is glossed over as “heartwarming” or an “act of kindness” and somehow, to me, the fullness of its meaning is lost.  The deeper meaning, to me, is that this is exactly how it looks when God redeems us.  This is why the life and death and resurrection of Jesus have such power.  Jean Valjean could be considered a “small time” criminal, a “minor” sinner.  He was treated unjustly, wasn’t he?  He “only” stole a loaf of bread. And surely, because of his sorry circumstances, he could be justified for stealing the silver from the Bishop.  However, the law sees it differently.  He is no different from any other criminal.  He has committed a crime and he must pay the penalty.  But the penalty he has to pay, far beyond the hard labour of prison, is also a life of bitterness and hatred. 

Many of us have found ourselves in this same boat.  We don’t consider ourselves really “that bad” of sinners.  We’re generally honest, hard working and just trying to get along in life.  Meanwhile, we’ve been hurt, often by the Church and by those we love, perhaps our parents or our friends.  We feel justified in living lives underpinned by bitterness and perhaps even revenge.  We seek out churches and therapists who help us to see how we’re not to blame and that we don’t need to be caught up in all that negativity and guilt and shame. 

However, we’re missing out on a big piece of the puzzle if we stay there.  Jean Valjean almost missed it.  But, of course, if he had, Victor Hugo would not have had a story.  The story is that ALL of us, no matter how big or small our offenses, live in a world embittered by sin, by fear, by guilt, despair and revenge.  A literal reading of the Bible attributes this state of sin to Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden.  Whether that story is literally true or whether it is a metaphor (or a parable or an allegory, I’m never sure which), it is clear that SOMEHOW, the wonderful and perfect Creation that God intended has gone horribly wrong.  It is still beautiful, to be sure, but horrible things happen, often to really good, nice people.  And, despite our best intentions, we often do horrible things to those we love. 

So, what happens when, in our bitterness and guilt, someone says, “I love you, wholly and completely.  You are beautiful just the way you are, because I MADE YOU THAT WAY.  And I forgive you for all of the wrong you have done, even the wrong that you’ve kept hidden way deep inside.  I see all that. I KNOW you. And you are mine. “  How do I respond to that? How do you respond to that? 

If I really, truly take that all in, the only way I can see to respond to that is the way Jean Valjean responded.  It is so overwhelming to realize that I have been saved from a life of bitterness and fear and regret that really, all I can do is cry and pray and throw myself at the mercy of God and commit my life to following that example of grace and forgiveness.

Of course, the rest of the story, as I’ve repeated over and over on this blog, is that God became one of us and is intimately familiar with every kind of suffering we’ve experienced.  Jesus took it all on and he overcame it.  And that’s why we can trust him when he invites us to lay it all down and follow him. 

There is more to say about this.  The notion of “Cheap Grace” comes to mind.  A discussion of the rest of Jean Valjean’s story and his struggle to stay true to his promise to God to act with integrity and kindness is well worth further exploration.  Those will have to wait for another night.  For now, I’m contemplating this powerful scene in the context of today’s churches.  It’s either “believe in Jesus or you’ll go to Hell because you’re a miserable worm” or “forget all that shame and guilt stuff, God made you good and so you’re good. Period.”  I think it’s neither and it’s both.  I am a miserable worm and destined for Hell.  Whether that is a Hell of my own making, in this life, or a place of eternal suffering in the hereafter is not really as relevant as that fact that without the kind of grace embedded in the life, death and resurrection of Christ I am doomed to hopelessness and despair.  On the other hand, I AM a precious Creation of God and I no longer have to feel guilt and shame for what I’ve done BECAUSE of that grace.  At one extreme, the Gospel is not really “Good News” and at the other, it is pretty much meaningless.

As I contemplate this awesome, powerful grace, I want to leave you with a line from one of the final songs in the film:  “To love another person is to see the face of God.”  May I love others in a way that shows my gratitude to God for this most amazing grace.


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