Law, Grace and What Makes Les Miserables


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“I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice.”

Abraham Lincoln, speech in Washington D.C., 1865

…mercy triumphs over judgment. – James 2:13

In Christianity it seems there is always a struggle between grace and law, between those who are merciful and those who demand strict justice. This balance between judgment and mercy seems hard to find in our modern world. The Apostle Paul gave us the balance in Scripture. But since he emphasized it often, we are left with the impression that the first century church didn’t quite grasp it either and was always in need of a reminder.

In the latest version of Les Misérables this same conflict is portrayed with amazing music, and incredible acting. Jean Valjean, paroled from prison after twenty years for stealing bread to feed his sister’s children, finds mercy in, of all places, the church. He is brought in from the cold and fed by the kindly Bishop Myriel. Jean repays the priest’s kindness by stealing silver from him. When he is caught by the police the bishop covers for him and, for perhaps the first time in Valjean’s life, he is shown mercy. Valjean leaves the church a changed man. Some would even say he was born again with a new name and a new life. But, because he has broken parole he is pursued by the Law in the form of Inspector Javert. The inspector knows no criminal can ever change. In his world there is no reformation, no redemption, no forgiveness, and every infraction of the law must be punished without mercy. This is the line drawn which explains the rest of the movie for the audience.

Though Jean Valjean is perfectly guilty, you root for him throughout the movie. And although Javert is completely innocent in the eyes of the law you never identify with him or wish him well. The sinner, Valjean is always offering what he was given, mercy. Javert offers no mercy or compassion only the strict adherence to the law. In a world of justice Javert is the example of righteousness. It seems Valjean is a beautiful picture of the work of grace in a man’s life. Javert? Well, he is the law.

Mercy and justice. Law and grace. It almost seems the two cannot live together. One must overcome, and one must die.

We must all obey the law or face judgment.

Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. – Hebrews 10:28

There is no mercy in the law. Yet, everything in us says that surely there should be some level of mercy in the law. Must justice always be so strict? Actually, the answer is yes, justice must be strict.

A judge that ignores the law or even worse, applies it arbitrarily is no judge at all. As citizens we would rise up and demand the resignation of a judge like that. We demand and expect justice from our judges. We want law breakers to receive their just penalty, unless of course the law breaker is us. That is why we do not identify with Inspector Javert. Javert offers no mercy to the one we identify with the most. Javert can’t offer mercy because mercy and law cannot live together.

But, at the same time we must have Inspector Javert in our own lives because without the law we can never understand grace.

Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. – Galatians 3:24

It is quite a dilemma! Is there never a point where the two meet? Yes, there is! It was at the cross. The cross of Christ was both the judgment of God against sin and the grace of God poured out on mankind.

Like Jean Valjean we have all sinned. We have all broken the law of God. And, like it or not, we deserve the full judgment of a righteous judge.  Pursued by the inspector, we deserve to be caught. Now, you might object to this characterization. Most of us would object to being called a sinner. But that is what makes Jean Valjean so appealing! At the beginning of the movie he protests the severity of his punishment. His crime was so small, and it was committed for such a noble reason! But, after receiving mercy from the kindly bishop he never again argues his case, he accepts that he is a sinner. We would compare ourselves to a far worse sinner and say “But I am not as bad as……..” However, you and I have committed crimes against God. We have all sinned and come short of the sinless perfection demanded by the Holy One of Israel. As sinners we deserve justice. The penalty of sin is death (Romans 6:23) and Jesus died on the cross to pay that penalty.  That is the justice side of the cross.

Jesus was perfect and without sin, therefore He did not deserve to die. He was actually the first innocent man ever killed. Therefore the penalty He paid on cross could be applied to all of us. That is the amazing side of grace!

Perhaps the clearest picture of the cross in Les Misérables was when Jean found out an innocent man had been arrested in his place and he wrestled with how to respond. Just before turning himself in, he sang, staring at the crucifix:

“Can I condemn this man to slavery

Pretend I do not feel his agony

This innocent who bears my face

Who goes to judgment in my place”

Christ went to judgment in our place, the innocent who bears our face also bore our judgment. At the cross both justice and grace are manifested for us.

But for Inspector Javert law and mercy cannot exist together. When his life is saved by the very man that he hates, the mercy he received is more than he can stand. Just two lines from his final song show the conflict in his soul between the law and grace.

“There is nothing on Earth that we share! It is either Valjean or Javert! And does he know… that, granting me my life today, this man has killed me, even so?”

Mercy extended killed the law, or, as James said …mercy triumphs over judgment.

Wrapping it up

What difference should this make in our life? As Christians we were condemned under the law, but received mercy at the cross. The kindness of God brought us to repentance. We should therefore extend mercy to everyone we connect with. The light shining in the darkness should be the light of love in a world of hate.

As you engage a lost and dark world are you offering law or grace? What about when you engage brothers and sisters in Christ? Are you demanding perfection or offering forgiveness?

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. – Matthew 5:7

As always we want to offer you a resource to help you in your pursuit of Christ. The above button is a link to one of our favorite studies.

“Though justice be thy plea, consider this,

That in the course of justice none of us

Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;

And that same prayer doth teach us all to render

The deeds of mercy.”

William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616), “The Merchant of Venice”, Act 4 scene 1

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