There has been quite a bit of chatter recently about the film adaptation of the staged Broadway musical of Les Miserables, Victor Hugo’s sprawling novel of revolutionary politics and love in 19th century France. It is a wonderful story full of loyalty and betrayal, intrigue and chivalry, love and loss, scandal and virtue.
But mostly, it’s a story of the redemption of one life. An embittered convict and thief named Jean Valjean is shown mercy by a kind priest, who insists that his act of grace has bought Valjean’s soul for God. Indeed, that one act brands Valjean with an unwavering sense of right, and an unshakeable commitment to mercy towards others—especially the vulnerable.
The conflict in Les Miserables arises from constant interplay between the unbending, ever-pursuing, bent-to-punish law of police detective Javert and the unrelenting, ever-freeing, willing-to-sacrifice grace of Valjean. Like a pebble tossed in a still lake, wherever Valjean goes, grace and mercy follow, overflowing and transforming the lives of all who encounter him – even when they don’t always recognize it.
Now it’s possible for Christians to push the law & grace story-line too far, and turn Les Miserables into an explicit gospel morality tale, like a Billy Graham film–which it is not. But there are echoes of the true gospel that we can hear and see and feel in Hugo’s grand tale.
One of the most poignant scenes is not in the musical or the film, but plays a key part in the novel. Valjean has promised the dying waif Fantine that he will retrieve her eight-year-old daughter Cosette from the shady innkeeper Thenardier with whom she has been staying, and make provision for her future. Valjean goes, and when he arrives, he first encounters Cosette fetching a pail of water from a stream in the woods in the dark of winter, wearing only a threadbare cotton dress. It is obvious that her “care” has degenerated into little more than slave labor for the innkeeper and his family.
He silently took hold of the bucket’s handle and said, “My child, that’s very heavy for you, what you’re carrying there.”
Cosette raised her head and answered, “Yes, it is, monsieur.”
“Give it to me,” the man continued. “I’ll carry it for you.”
Cosette let go of the bucket. The man walked along with her….
The man walked very fast. Cosette followed him without difficulty. She was no longer tired. From time to time, she looked up at this man with a sort of calm and inexpressible confidence. She had never been taught to turn to Providence and pray. However, she felt in her heart something resembling hope and joy, which rose toward heaven…
The man spoke, “is there a servant at Madame Thenardier’s….are you alone?”
“Yes, monsieur.” After a pause, Cosette raised her voice, “I mean, there are two little girls….Madame Thenardier’s daughters.”
‘What do they do?”
‘Oh, they have beautiful dolls….they play, they have fun.”
“All day long?”
“Me? I work.”
“All day long?”
The child raised her large eyes, whose tears could not be seen in the darkness, and answered softly, “Yes, monsieur.”
When they drew near to the Thenardier’s inn, Cosette took the bucket back, for fear of being beaten if she were not carrying it. In the light of the fire of the common room, Valjean looked more closely at Cosette.
“…Everything about this child, her walk, her attitude, the sound of her voice, the pauses between one word and another, her look, her silences, her slightest gesture, expressed and portrayed a single idea: fear. Fear was spread all over her; she was, so to speak, covered with it…”
The Thenardier’s little girls came in, chattering and playing. Cosette looked up from time to time, but mostly kept her head down, working on knitting some stockings for the other girls. Without leaving his chair, Valjean, who was a stranger to everyone else, smiled and asked “Madame, why not let her play?” When the innkeeper’s wife stalled, he asked how much the stockings were worth, and offered her five times as much – which she greedily took.
Then he turned towards Cosette, “Now your work belongs to me. Play, my child.” The innkeeper’s wife said, “You see, monsieur, I am very willing for the child to play. I am not opposed to it; it is good for once, because you are generous. But you see, she’s poor. She has to work.”
Since Cosette did not have a doll herself, she began to play with something that she had fashioned into a doll. But when the innkeeper’s daughters became distracted by a kitten and the adults were in conversation, she quietly grabbed one of their older d dolls and held it close. When the girls noticed, the innkeepers and their daughters yelled that she had dared touch the doll with her “dirty…awful…beggar’s hands”. And Cosette wept.
In this moment, Valjean “walked straight to the street door, opened it and went out….The door opened again, and the man reappeared, holding the fabulous doll… which had been the admiration of all the youngsters in the village since morning; he stood it up before Cosette, saying, “here you are; this is for you.”
Cosette was so stunned that she went and knelt in a corner of the room. The innkeepers and their daughters “were so many statues. Even the drinkers stopped. A solemn silence descended over the whole bar-room.” In time, Cosette was coaxed to come and take the doll to herself.
It was an odd moment when Cosette’s rags met and pressed against the ribbons and fresh pink muslin of the doll. Not long after this, Cosette left hand in hand with Valjean. From that moment, he was her father and she was his child.
Here is the question: in your relationship with God, do you see yourself as a poor slave who must work or a loved child invited to play?
Your answer makes all the difference in the life you live.
Your answer will tell you whether you’re enduring a religion of a frowning God, or enjoying a relationship with your heavenly Father.
Your answer will tell you whether or not you have encountered the gospel of Jesus.
You see, our sin – the choice to live life apart from God, pursuing a world where self rules for self’s pleasure- makes us slaves. Jesus said, “anyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” (Jn.8:34) We are bound to it and by it. Once aware of our sin, we sense our distance from God. We feel the lash of guilt on our souls when we blow it yet again and the weight of His disapproving gaze.
Feeling our poverty of soul, we turn to work. It’s all we know to do. We work to make things better with God, to turn His disappointment, to deflect His anger, to keep Him happy. We do our best for God, pursuing our religious duty by busying ourselves with church or trying to make what we think He would like of our home or work or school. We carry about a leaden bucketful of good intentions, spiritual thoughts, religious impulses and moral actions that we want to dump before Him at the end of every day.
We work harder, better, and longer, frantically doing more for God, all while hoping maybe He’ll toss a scrap of blessing our way.
And deep down, we know it’s still not enough. So we live covered in fear. Fear that God remains disappointed, that we will miss it — again, that everybody will figure out we’re a fraud, that the bar of performance will keep rising, that we’ll miss blessing – or even heaven.
We live with tired souls –worn-out, burnt-over, bedraggled and often seething with anger.
So, so many people who claim to know God and who are active in evangelical churches live their days like this. Their entire faith is built on “do more, do better”, a sick waltz of guilt, fear and weariness.
But it’s not Christianity.
Jesus comes into the dark night of our religious slave labor, when we are burdened by our sins, overcome by our inability to perform or to carry the expectations we feel one step further.
“My child, that’s very heavy for you, what you’re carrying there…Give it to me. I’ll carry it for you.”
Actually, what He said was, “Come to Me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Matt.11:28)
Jesus comes to us, and He notices that our religious slave work seems futile and meaningless and joyless and lifeless. He pays an exorbitant price to free us.
“Now your work belongs to me…”
Actually on the cross, and with His blood, Jesus paid more than we ever dreamed our pitiful souls could warrant. “You were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.” (1 Peter 1:18-19)
In one instant, Jesus brought more and gave better than all our religious and moral labors could ever produce. “When the goodness and lovingkindness of our God appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to His own mercy by the washing of regeneration and the renewal of the Holy Spirit, which He poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior.” (Titus 3:4-5)
Jesus took the work we feel we need to do, because he intended to fully do the work we most desperately need. Among his last words from that cross were these: “It is finished” (Jn.19:30)
Jesus comes to us, and His heart is that we have His resources for life — now and forever. That fear might be banished, and that His joy and delight might be our life.
”…Play, my child…”
Actually, what Jesus said was, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you…these things I have spoken that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be full.” (John 15:9.11)
And it is all a gift. “here you are; this is for you”
Or to put it another way: “God, being rich in mercy, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ –by grace you have been saved—and raised us up together with Him and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages, he might show the immeasurable riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. ” (Eph.2:5-9)
It is indeed an odd moment when the rags of our orphaned and sinful souls are touched by the radiant beauty of the Savior’s nail-scarred hands. But remember, “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” (Jn.8:36)
In Christ, you are
no longer a weary and worthless slave,
but a rested and dearly loved child;
no longer tolerated by a taskmaster,
but delighted in by a Redeemer;
mo longer working for approval from a demanding God,
but gladly playing under the grace-full gaze of your heavenly Father.
“Play, my child”
This is the gospel of Jesus Christ.
If you are that child…
(Quotes from Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo, translated by L. Fahnestock & N. MacAfee; Signet Classics, New York, 1987; pp. 395-409)