Les Misérables: A Classic Revisited
Erica and I recently went to see the newly released version of Victor Hugo’s 150-year old masterpiece, Les Miserables. Now, I am not one who typically enjoys musicals or 17th-18th century stuff if it doesn’t have to do with either the Revolutionary War or the Civil War. I am a history buff but it is easy for me to get lost in all of the flowery language of 18th century England or 19th century France. On the other hand, Erica, my lovely fiancé, LOVES this film genre. She adores Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice”. She marvels at “Phantom of the Opera”. Anything from the 17 or 18 hundreds is “right up her alley”. When I saw that Les Miserables was being released on Christmas Day, I knew we had to go see it soon after. Not only is it a classic, but it makes Erica happy to see films from this era. After watching the film version of this classic I can easily see why it is still be produced after 150 years. This work is a classic indeed and the story it tells is marvelous and highly theological. It is a story of heart-wrenching mercy. Mercy is the theme of this film and work by Hugo. Now before I dive a little deeper into and praise the major theme of the film, I wish to give a fair warning about a few scenes I feel were unnecessary. There are two sex scenes involving prostitutes that are very suggestive and one of them is completely unnecessary and inappropriate. I was disgusted at such a scene in such an otherwise excellent film. I was extremely disappointed in that scene and it nearly makes me recommend you to forfeit this version of Les Miserables for an older version. Nevertheless, the other aspects of this film are amazing and Anne Hathaway’s performance was jaw-dropping. Erica is not usually a Hathaway fan, as I am not either, but she found herself praising her performance into the night. So, while a bathroom break may be necessary for the sex scene with the prostitutes and thieves, the rest of the film deserves uninterrupted attention.
Two Responses to Mercy
Mercy is a little word that makes big changes in the lives of so many. For some it breaks and changes their hard hearts into hearts that bleed for mercy and shower it upon others. Still yet, for others mercy is life’s greatest stumbling block. It only hardens their hearts even more as they cannot understand its ways. Les Miserables tells this very story well. Two characters are juxtaposed in their responses to mercy. One, a one-time prisoner Jean Valjean, is broken by mercy shown to him and he lives. The other, a prison guard and police officer Javert, is hardened by mercy shown to him and he dies. This is a wonderful theological portrait of two responses to mercy that we give as sinners. As sinners we either respond with brokenness to the free message of the gospel, or we respond with hardness to it. The former leads to life eternal and the other to death.
Jean Valjean is the first character that we see as he is working as a prisoner (a slave more like) under the watch of the strict prison guard, Javert. Valjean has been imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his five year-old niece who was starving. His sentence was five years but he has been serving for nineteen due to several failed attempts to escape. As Valjean is released on parole, he seeks to reestablish his life on the outside by finding work. At this point in his life, Valjean is hardened by the injustice he has suffered and has a deep and dark heart of unforgiveness that is obvious to the audience.
From here, Valjean is turned down by many employers as they do not want to hire a thief. In the words of Javert later on in the work, “Once a thief, always a thief”. With each rejection, Valjean is losing hope as he is without food, shelter, and care. Then Valjean stumbles upon a church where he comes under the care of Bishop Myriel. The bishop gives Valjean food, drink, and a place to rest. His kindness and mercy is unlike any other he has seen. The greatest gift of mercy is yet to come, however. In the night, Valjean steals much silver from the church and attempts to escape in the night. Caught by French police, Valjean is beaten and thrown back at the feet of the one he has stolen from, the kind and merciful Bishop Myriel. Literally, the officers tell Myriel that this prisoner is now in his hands. The bishop responds by telling the officers that the silver was a gift from him to Valjean and that he had forgotten the rest of his gift as he hands Valjean two candlesticks. This act of mercy frees Valjean from a return from prison. Tremendous mercy has been shown. A gift has been given. Now take note of the brokenness and humble response of Valjean:
Take an eye for an eye!
Turn your heart into stone!
This is all I have lived for!
This is all I have known!
One word from him [the Bishop] and I’d be back
Beneath the lash, upon the rack.
Instead he offers me my freedom!
I feel my shame inside me like a knife.
He told me that I have a soul…
How does he know?
What spirit comes to move my life?
Is there another way to go?
I am reaching, but I fall
And the night is closing in…
As I stare into the void —
To the whirlpool of my sin.
Valjean is brought to his knees by mercy as he realizes his own depravity. His sins are great and yet this man has shown him mercy. From that point forward, Valjean’s life is changed as you will see in the film. He becomes a man of mercy himself, showering it upon many throughout the course of the film. Valjean was caught in mercy grasp and was never released. This prisoner of France has now become a prisoner to mercy. And in this Valjean found true freedom.
On the other side of mercy is Javert, the world’s most ardent legalist. He is captivated by the law, possessed by the law, and controlled by the law. Mercy has no place in his heart. In fact, he sees no place for mercy whatsoever because of justice. Javert is on a manhunt as a one-time prisoner, Jean Valjean (24601 as Javert so “affectionately” calls him), who has broken parole. He chases and pursues Valjean throughout the film as his life philosophy of an eye for an eye shines forth. He is a cold and hard man who always treats others with strict justice. Mercy is shown to Javert in the most dramatic way possible. I was on the edge of my seat throughout this scene. While I do not want to spoil the scene for those who haven’t seen that film, I will briefly say that Javert is given into the hands of Valjean to do as he pleases with him. One flick of the knife could end Javert’s life and he feels that this would be justice. He fully expect Valjean to kill him, yet Valjean remains true to his merciful character. A man who has been shown mercy shows mercy to his most dreaded enemy. He releases Javert to go free. The man who had harshly pursued him and treated him for over thirty years was in chains at his feet. The tide had turned. Valjean acted swiftly with mercy and saved Javert’s life. Now notice Javert’s response to such loving kindness:
Who is this man?
What sort of devil is he?
To have caught me in a trap
And choose to let me go free?
It was his hour at last
To put a seal on my fate
Wipe out the past
And wash me clean off the slate!
All it would take
Was a flick of his knife
Vengeance was his
And he gave me back my life!
Damned if I live in the debt of a thief!
Damned if I yield at the end of the chase!
I am the law and the law is not mocked!
I’ll spit his pity right back in his face!
There is nothing on earth that we share!
It is either Valjean or Javert!
How can I allow this man
To hold dominion over me?
This desperate man that I have hunted . . .
He gave me my life! He gave me freedom!
I should have perished by his hand
It was his right . . .
It was my right to die as well . . .
Instead I live . . . But live in hell!
And my thoughts fly apart
Can this man be believed?
Shall his sins be forgiven?
Shall his crimes be reprieved?
And must I now begin to doubt
Who never doubted all those years?
My heart is stone and still it trembles . . .
The world I have known is lost in shadow
Is he from heaven or from hell?
And does he know
That granting me my life today
This man has killed me even so?
Javert then goes on to kill himself by jumping off a bridge. Mercy hardened his heart and led to his death.
Vision to Respond
Mercy is utterly beautiful. The mercy of God is the most beautiful of all. That God would show mercy to sinners is unfathomable and scandalous. For the sinner who responds to God’s mercy in the gospel with brokenness and faith will live forever because this mercy is bought by the blood of Jesus Christ. This mercy will change a sinner to show mercy to others. Valjean demonstrates the change God’s mercy has on an undeserving sinner.
Mercy can also be a curse to those who refuse to be broken by it. The legalist who refuses to confront his own depravity and sinfulness will be tormented by mercy all his or her life until they die eternally apart from the mercy of God.
What is the difference between the two? I believe it is a vision to respond. The Valjean has had his or her eyes opened to the truth of the gospel. The Javert remains blind and cannot understand the ways of God, especially grace and mercy. May we pray for God to open the hearts and eyes of the Javerts that we know in our lives. Truly, it is God alone who can give light to see the beauty of mercy and liberate the Javert from the darkness of seeing only the torment of mercy.
“In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God…For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” – 2 Corinthians 4:4, 6
What I love about this film is its exaltation of mercy. This tale is a beautiful retelling of Jesus’ parables of the pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18:9-14 as well as the prodigal son found in Luke 15:11-32. This mercy is not cheap but indeed it is expensive. It must pay the cost of justice and the only mercy worthy enough to save sinners is that of God in Christ Jesus. For he became a curse for us as he hung on a tree (Galatians 3:10-13). He became a propitiation as he appeased the wrath of God against sinners (Rom. 3:21-26). This expensive mercy is worthy to save and to change lives and that is exactly what it does. It is glorious mercy and I was thrilled to see Les Miserables as it is full of mercy. It contrasts the merciful with the merciless. In the words of David Mathis, “the merciful have first received Mercy (God) and then aim to show mercy to others. The legalist adamantly rejects mercy, and in rejecting mercy has rejected Mercy.” This classic by Victor Hugo highlights this truth of life. Mercy is glorious to those who eagerly receive it. Mercy is terrible to those who reject it.
I suggest that you take a look at Hugo’s work, Les Miserables. If you do not watch this most recent production in theaters, then I suggest you take a look at the script. As you observe the dramatic conflict between the legalist (Javert) and the merciful (Valjean), I pray you, as I, will become more aware of this struggle in life as well as within yourself. May we combat the little legalist living inside us with the mercy of God, for it will forever triumph. As Les Miserables so glorious tells the story, Javert is killed by the mercy of one man, while Valjean is saved by the mercy of another.
“For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.” – James 2:13