Last Saturday (January 12, 2013) I had the opportunity to go see Les Miserables ("Les Mis") with a couple of friends. I had been told to bring lots of tissues, because it is a very tragic story. And while there were aspects of the movie that were very tragic, I was enraptured in the story of the Christian Life I felt it was portraying. I found it to be an illustration of what it looks like to live under Grace rather than under the Law. Let me explain.
The story begins in France during 1815 as a bunch of convicts are hauling a dilapidated ship into dry dock. You discover that one of these prisoners is Jean Valjean, a man who was arrested 19 years earlier for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving nephew. On this particular day Javert, the chief prison guard, comes to Jean Valjean and informs Valjean he has been released but his papers are marked as a dangerous criminal (for stealing a loaf of bread). As a result, he will always be known by his prisoner number - 24601 and will be on parole for the rest of his life. Should he fail to report for parole he will be hunted down and locked away for the rest of his life or worse. Unable to find work because of his prisoner status, feeling helpless, abandon, and in great despair, he stumbles into a church yard hoping to find a secluded place in the courtyard to sleep. The priest finds him and brings him into the church for a warm meal and a place to sleep. After ravenously devouring the food provided, Jean Vajean goes to sleep, only to arise in the middle of the night to steal all the silver and sneak away. He is caught by local authorities and brought before the priest to be convicted of his crimes. Valjean had informed the police that the priest had given him these items, and the priest informed the officers that this was, indeed correct. He then proceeded to give Valjean the elaborate candlesticks he "forgot" as part of his gift. Valjean is subsequently released and left to ponder the remarkable grace he has encountered. He goes into the chapel and demands of God what he has just experienced and who he is, is he prisoner 24601, Jean Valjean, or someone else altogether? This is an act of love, mercy and grace that has forever changed his life. He tears up his papers, destroying the identity of the man he once was, and embarks to seek out who he is now that he has encountered Grace.
Years pass and Jean Valjean has changed his name to Monsieur Madeleine and has become the wealthy owner of a factory as well as the major of Montreuil-sur-Mer. The factory provides work to hundreds of men and women so they can earn a honest wage to provide for themselves and their families. During this time Javert has been advancing through the ranks of the French Military and has been assigned to the town where Valjean (Major Madeleine) resides. Javert thinks he recognizes Valjean, and launches an investigation to see if this truly is Jean Valjean. He later confess to Major Madeleine (Valjean) that he mistook him for an ex-convict who has missed parole for the last several years, but that this felon has been captured and is about stand trial and be convicted. Valjean accepts this news and is torn - should he let this stranger endure the punishment that according to the law should be his, or should he "fess up" and risk letting all of those whom depend on him fall as well. He has such a strong sense of justice, that even though it would be considered understandable for him to let the other man takes his fall, he goes to the court to profess that the man on trial is innocent and that he is prisoner 24601. He pleads his case stating that while he was 24601, imprisoned for stealing to feed a starving child, he now is a Major and factory owner, providing for people so that they do not have to face the challenges he did. He is a new man with a new identity. He then flees, as Javert pursues him, wanting to ensure that he is appropriately punished under the law.
Little background is given on Javert, besides the fact that he, like Valjean, was born in the sewers of France. Javert, however, was able to work is way up through the military by embracing the law and doing all that it demanded of it. By the end of the movie, he had risen to be a top commander within the military. Javert is a strict advocate of the law, demanding that the law must be followed and that there is no grace, only adherence to the law. If the law is broken, then the punishment prescribed by the law must be rendered.
There is an incredible story involving many other characters woven throughout this saga, as Valjean freely gives the love and grace he had been freely given and Javert battles to ensure the law is maintained. This is where much of the passion of the movie arises and paints an incredible portrait of lives lived by these two men. A stunning masterpiece portraying the difference between a man struggling to redeem himself through the stringent requirements of the law versus a man who has encountered unearned, unconditional love, mercy and grace and learns to live as a new man under this Grace.
The movie draws to an end with a showdown between Valjean and Javert. Valjean has the opportunity to kill Javert and instead spares his life and releases Javert. Knowing that Valjean is free and close at hand, Javert dons his military uniform and sets out in pursuit. Javert, eventually corners Valjean, and knowing that their chase has come to an end, they stare each other down. Javert has now encountered grace from Valjean and is forced to choose to either extend the mercy Valjean demonstrated to him, or he could kill him on the spot. Javert lets Valjean go, and he ponders what led him to do such a thing. He had given his life to uphold the law, it had defined everything he was, and he recognized that in that final encounter with Valjean the law suddenly became meaningless and void in light of mercy. In his despair in realizing that everything he poured his life into held no hope, he casts himself off a bridge to his demise, rather than choosing to live in grace. Valjean, on the other hand, lives out his days in peace, knowing that he has lived a life in Grace. He had learned "to love another person is to see the face of God" (quote from the movie, but I no longer remember the context).
As I mentioned, I found this movie to be a poignant illustration of life under the law versus a life under Grace. Like Valjean, I have encountered God through an incredible act of love and grace, and as a result my identity changed from being under law to under grace. The Bible puts it this way "This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!" (2 Cor 5:17 NLT). Through His death and resurrection Jesus redeemed us so that we are no longer under the law, but under Grace. It was always impossible for the law to be maintained, rather it was there to demonstrate that we cannot earn our own salvation, we need a remarkable act of Grace and unconditional love to redeem us from its effect, and that is exactly what we have through Jesus.
However, life is not that simple, as Valjean was persistently pursued by Javert, the staunch upholder of the law. To me, Javert represents the religious spirit that plagues many believers, trying to convince me that they I am guilty and need to be restrained by the law. It calls up my past, stating that because this is how I was, I will be defined as a sinner for the remainder of my life. It is an accuser that states I am a "dangerous criminal" who must be controlled and confined and kept rigidly in check, otherwise all sense of order will be lost. While attempting to maintain the law may allow a person to climb the ranks of religion, it has no room for love and mercy. If the law is broken, punishment must be given, it is the only way for there to be justice. It cannot abide freedom, love and mercy, because it does not understand these things.
So I am left with a choice. Now that I have encountered Jesus and His unconditional love, how am I going to respond. Am I going to let the law continue to plague me and tell me I am nothing more than a sinner and walk through life with the guilt of condemnation and the fear of breaking the law, if only for my survival, or do I accept my new identity as an adopted child as the King of Kings and walk in the freedom of His Grace? This is the journey I have been on while I'm here at BSSM. Recognizing that I actually have a new identity in Grace and Love that I have been freely given, and I am no longer who the law declares me to be. Now this does not mean that I walk around abusing this Grace I have received, rather I have freely received, and I feel the only response available to me is to freely give in return. I am a new creation, my old man is dead and I am born again in Christ Jesus. It is time to embrace this identity and no longer heed the voice that tries to tell me I am still prisoner 24601.
I hope my illustration makes sense. I found this movie to be a provocative illustration of what I am currently journeying though as I learn what it means to truly be a "New Creation."