The New Testament parable that is Les Miserables

Les Miserables, which won the Golden Globe for Best Musical or Comedy earlier this week, is easily the most explicitly religious movie I've seen in a long time. Characters speak of Lucifer's fall, the never-ending road to Calvary, beggars at the feast and many other Biblical references. More generally, the conflict between the two main characters - Jean Valjean and Javert - resembles a problem central to Christian morality: the tension between mercy and the law.

The movie begins with the parole of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a laborer who once stole a loaf of bread to feed his sister's starving children. Even after serving 19 years, Valjean is informed by police inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) that he is not really free. He is branded a thief and an ex-convict, preventing him from finding honest work. He eventually steals silver from a church and is caught with it, but the bishop lies, saying that he gave the silver to Valjean, effectively saving him from another long prison term.

This moment of mercy by the bishop galvanizes Valjean: it reminds him that he is not just a thief, but a man with a soul, and so he takes the silver to become an honest businessman. He also tears up the identity papers labeling him as a convict and breaks parole. Javert sees this deception as a criminal act and commits himself to putting Valjean in prison again.

Javert does not hate Valjean or even particularly dislike him, but he cannot forgive him. He is the law, and that makes mercy impossible. As Javert sings:

And if you fall as Lucifer fell, you fall in flame.
And so it has been, and so it is written on the doorway to paradise,
that those who falter and those who fall must pay the price.

According to Javert, we are all capable of following the law, and when we don't, punishment follows. There is nothing unfair in this. When Valjean complains that he only stole a loaf of bread, Javert shares a surprising part of his own history: that he was born inside a jail but lived a good life according to the law and became an honored policeman. If he can do it, Javert reasons, anyone can – and they deserve punishment when they can't meet that standard.

Jesus, however, paints a very different picture. In the parable of the unforgiving servant, He tells of a man who had a large debt forgiven, but then refused to forget a small debt another man owed him. Jesus uses this story to show why we must forgive those who sin against us: because God has forgiven us our own sins, we should be gracious when people sin against us, and forgive them. The fact that we once needed mercy compels us to act mercifully to others.

This grace, of course, does not give Valjean the freedom to "go on sinning so that grace may increase." Even while Javert's law held authority over him, Valjean found other duties that he could fulfill: his promise to the bishop to become an honest man and his promise to the dying Fantine (Anne Hathaway) to raise her child well. Valjean needs liberation from Javert's exacting justice, but he also must do what he can to live a good life judged by a better law.

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Jesus would definitely be on ValJean's side, but I am afraid I have met more Javerts in my life. Haven't we all?
Love this, Marta. My favorite part of Les Mis is what you described, and how Valjean is literally hounded by a legalistic sense of always failing, never being good enough, shame from his past. Valjean is saved by grace and knows that, but can never quite find the freedom of it.

That's probably why I cry at the end when Valjean starts singing "take me now, to thy care. Where you are, let me be. Take me now. Take me there. Bring me home."

He's tired of fighting and ready for heaven. It gets me every time.
"... he also must do what he can to live a good life judged by a better law."

Galatians suggests otherwise.
I think the most interesting thing about Javert's character is how tragically enslaved he is to the notion of law--or, more specifically, to the principle of retribution.

SPOILER ALERT FOR THOSE WHO HAVEN'T SEEN IT!


This was my first time to watch or hear the story of Les Mis, and I was genuinely upset by Javert's suicide. With the theme of redemption playing out so lavishly throughout, I truly expected Valjean's new persona to elicit a transformation in Javert's steely heart. But no...just before plunging himself to his death, Javert sings of how, by Valjean's act of setting him free instead of killing him when he had an open chance to do so, Valjean had in fact "destroyed" him.

In other words, whereas the bishop's act of grace transformed Valjean into a fruitful citizen of God's kingdom, Valjean's act of grace toward Javert collapsed his narrow, black-and-white worldview upon him and left him in utter, inconsolable despair. It seems that Javert wants nothing to do with a world--or a God--that tolerates the subversion of the law by a simple act of grace.

I imagine there will be many Javerts in hell--not because they are evil people so much as because they simply will not freely accept a salvation they haven't earned (and never can earn). And that is tragedy indeed.
Indeed! It's a very natural thought pattern to fall in - but one worth trying to be aware of, I think. Thanks for reading this post.
I hadn't quite connected that part to the Christian story, but I think you're right. I was very drawn to the idea that his love for someone who could not repay that love immediately (Cosette) was the best thing he had done. Truly, the greatest of these is love.

This is one of the things I love most about this movie. It really is rich in Biblical symbolisms that lead me to think about the Bible in new ways. It's not a substitute Bible of course, but as a way to call my mind to parts of the Bible, it's very interesting and encouraging to me.
Tim, can you elaborate a little on this? I'll admit, it's been a while since I've reread Galatians so maybe I'm just not remembering the specific part you're referring to. When I wrote this passage I had Romans 6 in mind, particularly Paul's answer to the question "Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?" (6:1, NKJV) Paul's answer, as I understand it, is that while we certainly aren't justified through living a good life, we are now free to live a good life (and ought to do so so) because we are saved. In Paul's words, "Do not let sin reign in your mortal body, that you should obey it in its lusts. [...] For sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace." (6:12,14)

Thanks for your critical reply, TimF. It's always good to think about these things more deeply. If you can point me to the part of Galatians you had in mind or elaborate a little on your thoughts there, I'll try to reply to that directly.
I was upset and surprised by that aspect as well, and I would have liked to look at it in more depth in a longer post. (This movie really does have a lot of themes Christians would do well to think about.) The suicide certainly deserves careful thought!

The best sense I can make of this scene is by thinking of Javert almost as the law personified. He isn't just a man who puts too much emphasis on justice; he is consumed by it, to the point that it's hard to separate Javert the man from the law he is so keen to uphold. As I was watching the movie (and I've only seen this version, not read the books or seen the musical), I thought Javert's suicide was similar to how the old legalism was overthrown by Christ's death. This is suggested by Javert's statement in that final song, that "It is either Valjean or Javert."

I'm not entirely satisfied with that interpretation because Javert is a man, and it seems like cheating to turn him into an abstract concept. Perhaps it's as simple as this: no one, not even Javert, can survive having his standard of justice turned upon them - so if we try to rely on our own goodness for our salvation, we are condemning ourselves.

If I'm being brutally honest, this is one of the more disquieting parts of the movie, and I haven't quite worked out what to make of it. As I said, it's definitely something to think (and pray) about.
A lot of people struggle with Javert and how extreme his suicide is. I know this sounds strange but - as a concept at least - it's one of my favorite parts of the story.

I'm really intrigued by C.S. Lewis' book "The Great Divorce" and how things that seem insignificant, or even virtuous, if separated from God for eternity become something ugly.

My favorite Biblical example of this is the older brother in the story of the Prodigal Son. He's been a rule follower all his life and claims to love the Father, but when the Father shows grace we find out the older son actually loved his own righteousness more than the Father himself.

To me Victor Hugo (very much a Christian) HAD to have been thinking at least a little about Valjean and Javert as the older and younger brother from that story.
I read Valjean and Javert as Prodigal Son absolutely. Javert, in every way, is completely "imprisoned" by his personal idea of "good." It can start well meaning, but I go back to my original post, where I said, how many of us have met these people in real life, people who literally say, "I did it, so you can too?"
The suicide fits the story. Valjean is inspired by the Bishop's act of grace. Javert is confused by it. it conflicts too much with what his idea of a "good man" is. He has nothing left to live for, because he has clearly stated, his only mission is to return Valjean to prison.

 

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