One of my favourite musicals is Les Misérables. It has played to packed houses for over 30 years in the West End and has taken the world by storm wherever it’s been performed. I guess there are not many people who do not know about it or heard about it.
I’m a bit of fan! I’ve enjoyed the stage production on many occasions. I have the CD and DVD. I actually booked my ticket for the film version six months in advance!
The musical (music by Claude-Michel Schönberg and lyrics by Alain Boublil) follows Victor Hugo’s novel of the same name, first published in 1862, in telling the story of Jean Valjean – a French prisoner hounded and ultimately transformed by forgiveness. Valjean was sentenced to hard labour for stealing a loaf of bread and gradually, because of his environment, became a hardened convict. He was eventually released after 19 years: 5 years for the offence and 14 years for trying to escape!
Convicts in 19th Century France had to carry identity cards (remember his prison number? *) and because of the stigma, no innkeeper would allow a dangerous criminal to spend the night. Valjean wandered the village roads for several days seeking shelter against the weather until, finally, a kindly Bishop had mercy on him.
That night Valjean lay in his comfortable bed until the Bishop and his sister drifted off to sleep, then he rummaged through the cupboard for the family silver and crept off into the darkness. The next morning three policemen knocked on the Bishop’s door, with Valjean in tow. They’d caught the convict in flight with the stolen silver and were ready to put the scoundrel in chains for life.
The Bishop responded in a way no one, especially Valjean, expected:
So here you are! I’m delighted to see you. Had you forgotten that I gave you the candlesticks as well? They’re silver like the rest, and worth a good 200 francs. Did you forget to take them?
Valjean couldn’t believe what was happening. He was speechless. The Bishop assured the gendarmes that Valjean was no thief: This silver was my gift to him.
When the gendarmes withdrew, the Bishop gave the candlesticks to Valjean:
Do not forget, do not ever forget, that you have promised me to use the money to make yourself an honest man.
The power of the Bishop’s act, defying every human instinct for revenge, changed Valjean’s life forever. A naked encounter with forgiveness – especially since he has never repented – melted the granite defences of his soul. He kept the candlesticks as a precious memento of that life transforming moment and dedicated himself to helping others in need, becoming a successful businessman and Mayor in the process.
Hugo’s novel, however, stands as a two-edged parable of forgiveness.
A detective named Javert, who knows no law but justice, stalks Valjean mercilessly for over two decades. As Valjean is transformed by forgiveness, the detective is consumed by a thirst for vengeance. When Valjean saves Javert’s life – the prey showing grace to his pursuer – the detective senses his black and white world, lived in obedience to the Law, beginning to crumble. Unable to cope with a grace that goes against all instinct, and finding within himself no corresponding forgiveness, Javert jumps off a bridge into the Seine River.
Hugo paints a remarkable picture of the dramatic theological confrontation between Old Testament law and New Testament grace. Magnanimous forgiveness and grace, such as that offered to Valjean by the Bishop, allows the possibility of transformation. Just as magnanimous forgiveness and grace, offered to us through Jesus, also allows the possibility of transformation for each one of us.
May God’s richest blessing be upon you and enable you to show mercy and grace to others.
This is a copy of my article for the June 2017 edition of the Billericay ‘Around Town Magazine’
My article Amazing Grace might be a helpful read too!
The following wasn’t included in my Around Town article but it’s a helpful addition!
It seems to me, and I agree with Dietrich Bonhoeffer on this, when he argues that the Church has been guilty of cheapening God’s grace. In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer makes these comments in comparing what he calls ‘Cheap Grace and Costly Grace’:
Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our church. We are fighting today for costly grace. Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjack’s wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessing with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits … Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.
Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. … Costly grace is the gospel – which must be brought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.
Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son, ‘ye were bought at a price’ and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us.