Law and grace in Les Miserables
Watching the Wolverine and Gladiator sing felt so odd. Yet in Les Miserables, the two macho actors Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe, made brave attempts to sing in this film version of the musical. But what have I to complain of.? I paid only $4 for the movie – a wee bonus for being older. My son twice told me to go catch it, and I did not regret doing so. Music and song has a way to reach the heart and it did move mine. As I reflected on the themes I realized there was an iridiscent interplay of law and grace throughout the musical. Surely there must be a blog post there waiting to be written. However, I chanced upon a wonderfully written, insightful piece in a Facebook post of Soh Chin San and was just blown away by it. I asked his permission to upload it on blogpastor.net and he kindly consented. So here it is: “The Beautiful Exposition of Law and Grace in Les Miserables” . Read and be blessed.
To be honest, Les Miserables (the movie) was really dreadful for me during some parts. I was not really into the historical aspects of the French revolution, and I could not appreciate the singing talents of the young revolutionists. So I was just either watching the movie with my palm on my face, or sleeping through those parts. Berinda was so amused.
The next day after I watched it, it just hit me that the spiritual aspects of the movie is so so beautiful. You may have seen some of your Christian friends post this on their facebook after watching the movie “Law and Grace in Les Miserables, Beautiful!”, and wondered what this was all about.
Law and Grace in the Bible
In the Bible, God has two major covenants – one is the Mosaic Covenant established with Moses, and the other is the New Covenant established with Jesus. Before Jesus came, the Jewish people lived under the Law – the 10 commandments. If they perform, they are blessed. If they fail, they are condemned. Yearly, they offer sacrifices to atone for their failures of the 10 commandments. No one could keep them, not the best of them.
Jesus came, and He showed the true heart of God, the heart of Grace, and established the New Covenant of Grace. The New Covenant of Grace is not based on man’s performance on the 10 commandments, but is based on God’s goodness and what His Son, Jesus has accomplished for us on the cross. And because of the death and resurrection of Jesus, we are no longer under the old covenant of the Law (the 10 commandments), we are now under the new covenant of Grace and His finished work.
The Bible says “For sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace.” In Romans 6:14
In another place “But now we have been delivered from the law, having died to what we were held by, so that we should serve in the newness of the Spirit and not in the oldness of the letter.” – Romans 7:6
Christians are called to live by grace, lean on grace and be transformed by grace. Christians are called to live in the newness of the Spirit, not in the oldness of the letter (the law).
As the Word says, the law is holy, just and good. But it is not meant to save or transform. It is meant only for the purpose of bringing man to the end of himself, ready to receive Jesus as our Lord and Saviour.
In 2 Corinthians 3:7, Paul talks about the glory of the New Covenant. Notice that he calls the law the ministry of death.
“But if the ministry of death, written and engraved on stones, was glorious, so that the children of Israel could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of the glory of his countenance, which glory was passing away, how will the ministry of the Spirit not be more glorious? For if the ministry of condemnation had glory, the ministry of righteousness exceeds much more in glory.”
That is why we call the Gospel the Good News. It is that good. Jesus has come to establish the New Covenant. Man no longer needs to perform to be loved or forgiven by God. Everything is given through the perfect sacrifice of His Son. That we receive the forgiveness of sins, the gift of righteousness, the abundance of grace, eternal life, peace, joy, love, every manner of fruits based on His finished work. Hallelujah! Christ is made unto us wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, redemption.
Victor Hugo knows Law and Grace
As the movie ended, there is just a deep sense that Victor Hugo understands law and grace. He brings it out extremely well in the characters Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) and Javert (Russell Crowe).
Back when the message of grace and the New Covenant was preached, many Christians attacked it and called it “heresy” and that Christians who live by grace and not be law practise “lawlessness”. But even back in 1862, Victor Hugo knew very well what are the effects of living under grace and living under the law. We shall use the stories of Jean Valjean (characterizing a man transformed by grace – God’s goodness and unmerited favor) and Javert (characterizing a man who lives by the law, upholds the law).
1. A man who lives by the law never rests
Javert spent his whole life upholding the law, and hunting down Valjean. He will never rest until justice is upheld. He has no other life and purpose other than upholding the law and bringing Valjean to justice. Every waking day and night, he cannot enjoy life as it is, but simply spends his time thinking about capturing Valjean.
2. A man who lives by the law condemns everyone
Javert cannot see any fault in himself. He is the righteous man. And everyone else is a criminal or a flawed moral character. His vocation is to condemn. He does not lift a finger to help the person transform. He can only say “You are wrong, you need to be punished”, but cannot say “let me help you.”
3. A man who lives by the law is unbending
Javert cannot compromise on the law. The law is one composite whole. If he compromises on one, the whole system falls apart. He needs to uphold the law in its entirety.
4. A man who lives by the law can never accept grace
Valjean, after years of being hunted like a dog, chose to forgive Javert and let him go. But Javert cannot accept grace. He cannot accept love and forgiveness. He does not understand it. He spends his whole life holding people to the law and throwing them into prison. And for someone to just let go and give him grace, is something that he has never experienced and will never accept.
5. A man who lives by the law ends with death and destruction
Paul was not exaggerating when he says “the ministry of death”. Javert could not reconcile the mercy shown to him and the need to uphold the law. In his dilemma of moral wrestling, he kills himself.
1. Grace gives and saves and loves unconditionally.
We see Valjean going around, doing good to all the people he met. He uses his strength to save a man pinned underneath a cart. He adopts Cosette as his own daughter and loves her unconditionally. He risks his own life to save Marius because he loves Cosette. Throughout the whole time, he did not need the law to remind him to do good. The love of God burns in his heart to do good, to give, to love, to save with the sacrificial love. Amen!
2. Grace upholds Justice.
This is a beautiful part. At one point in time, Javert arrested a man and accused him of being Valjean. Valjean could have let the man die and live his life of prosperity and happiness. He would never be hunted by Javert again. But when one lives by grace, He upholds the law without even knowing it. People who live and are transformed by grace do not live lawless lives. On the reverse, they fulfill the law, and more. Valjean is an act of courage and justice, appeared in the court to clear the man’s name.
3. Grace is never vengeful, and full of forgiveness.
On one occasion, Valjean has the perfect opportunity to finish off Javert. The man who caused him so much misery, looked down on him, condemned him, and is even the cause of Fantine’s death! But Valjean, having known grace, tasted grace, decided to give Javert grace and mercy. He does not need to take revenge or take justice into his own hands. He is a man after all, shown the same grace and mercy. He never condemns others, but grace begets grace.
4. Grace lets go and lets God.
During the wedding preparations of Marius and Cosette (this part was not shown well by the movie, but it is in the novel), Valjean admitted to being a convict in the past. He upholds truth. And Marius was horrified by this truth, assumes the worst of Valjean, and asks Valjean to leave. Valjean respects Marius’ judgment and decided to leave Marius and Cosette, his beloved daughter. He loses the will to live.
And this is the beautiful part. Behind the scenes, God is orchestrating for Valjean’s name to be vindicated thoroughly. During the wedding, Thénardier (Sacha Baron Cohen) was trying to convince Marius that Valjean was a murderer, using the piece of cloth. The fabric made Marius realise that Valjean was the one who rescued his life and realised that Valjean is a man of courage, goodness and love. Marius brings Cosette to reconcile with Valjean.
When you are under Grace, God vindicates your name! You do not have to defend yourself!
5. Grace may go through trials, but will have a beautiful ending
Valjean has gone through so much in life. But yet, he has never lost sight of grace. He never stopped loving, giving and sacrificing. At times when he upheld truth and justice, he was misunderstood or landed unto trouble. But God always delivered him, never left him, never forsook him. And best of all, God gave him a glorious, beautiful ending in his life. This is consistent with all the patriarchs of the Abrahamic Covenant. Abraham, Jacob, Joseph. They went through several challenges in life. But they lived before the 10 commandments was given, based on God’s goodness. And while they faced severe trials in life, God always delivered them, gave them a beautiful ending, an eternal weight of glory. Hallelujah! 2 Corinthians 4:16-17 says
“ Therefore we do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.”
Other background that brings out the beauty of Les Miserables
Did you know that Valjean is based on a real person? An ex convict who became known for his philantrophy.
Did you know also know, that when Victor Hugo published Les Miserables, every great critic in Paris has a deep negative report on the book?
These were some of the comments:
“One cannot read without an unconquerable disgust all the details Monsieur Hugo gives regarding the successful planning of riots.”
“artificial and disappointing”
“neither truth nor greatness.”
“an “infantile” effort and brought an end to Hugo’s career like “the fall of a God”.”
Wow. Imagine how crushed he must have been, to receive such scathing words from professional critiques. But in the same way that God gives Valjean a beautiful ending and an eternal weight of glory, God has vindicated Victor Hugo by making Les Miserables one of the most celebrated musicals for the last 150 years. And I believe God honors him because of the beautiful story of law and grace.
And today, it coincides with the Gospel Revolution happening around the world.
Hallelujah! Praise Jesus for His grace!