by Tony Reinke of desiringgod.org, the ministry of John Piper:
The new stage-to-screen adaptation of Les Misérables is proof again of the enduring power of Victor Hugo’s 150-year-old masterpiece. The novel-turned-musical has been released for film and television now 67 times in the past 115 years.
And although I cannot commend that you go see the newest rendition — mostly due to two suggestive sex scenes involving prostitutes — we don’t need the new film to explore the enduring value of Les Misérables.
The classic script for the plays and for the new movie is available online. And all the musical highlights from the new film, including Anne Hathaway’s incredible rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream,” can be found on this new soundtrack. Best of all, the English translation of Victor Hugo’s French classic was beautifully redone by Julie Rose in 2008. This recent edition offers us a new translation of a captivating story of mercy.
Mercy, that little word, reminds us that we are self-insufficient. We need others. In the end, our salvation must come from the outside. Salvation is a gift, a gift of free mercy. I think this is one profound reason Les Misérables has endured, and why it has attracted so many adaptations and performances.
Surrounding the romance and revolution in the middle, Les Misérables is really a story of profound theological contrast, a contrast in how sinners respond to the offer of free mercy. At a profound level, this is the story of two responses to mercy: one man is broken and lives, and one man is hardened and dies.
Jean Valjean is a hardened prisoner with a soul full of anger when we meet him. Hugo, of course, would be more likely to pin this stone-heartedness on society and harsh prison conditions (more so than he would understand indwelling sin as the cause). Jean Valjean stole bread for his starving niece, and for it was sentenced to five years in prison. Failed escape attempts got him 19 years total before his release.
At his release from prison, Jean Valjean finds himself in a tortuous and unending darkness of unforgiveness. “At intervals there would suddenly come to him, from within or from without, a gust of rage, an added burst of suffering, a pale and rapid flash of lightening that would illuminate his entire world and would suddenly reveal all around him, before and behind, in the glare of a ghastly light, the awful sheer drops and grim overhangs of his fate.” Such was his life and future.
Jean Valjean attempts to reintegrate with society, but the ex-prisoner finds rejection at every turn. At last he turns to the charity of a local bishop, Bishop Myriel, a kind and self-sacrificing man that takes him in for the night. That night Valjean steals the Bishop’s silver, is soon caught by local police and brought back to the church. The Bishop tells the police that the silver was his gift to Jean Valjean, thus sparing Valjean from a return to prison.
In the play the Bishop later says to Valjean, “By the passion and the blood, God has raised you out of darkness.” And such mercy spares Jean Valjean from returning to prison, but it is a mercy that forces a crisis in Valjean’s life.
In the light of mercy, Jean Valjean is thrown into the depravity of his sinfulness, and he is broken. By the Blood-bought mercy offered to him by the Bishop, Jean Valjean’s life is permanently and forever changed. He himself becomes a man of mercy.
Javert is the legalist, literally, and he holds strictly to the letter of the law. He serves as both a prison guard and a police officer who is always watching Jean Valjean with a keen and cruel eye. Javert is always looking for Valjean, chasing him, and seeking to arrest him after he breaks his parole. An eye for an eye is also Javert’s law. There is but one way to treat others, and it is by strict justice.
The story leads up to one climactic scene when Jean Valjean has the opportunity to kill Javert, who has been imprisoned by revolutionaries. But instead of an eye for an eye, instead of retribution for the lifelong struggles and pain Javert has inflicted on his life, Jean Valjean shows him mercy, cuts his bound hands loose, and sends his archenemy off as a free man.
But such mercy sends Javert, the legalist, into a tailspin from which he cannot recover. For him, mercy proves to be an unsolvable problem.
Indeed, God’s mercy is beautiful — beautiful to the sinner who is willing to confront his own sin and self-insufficiency, and who is willing to be humbled. But to the legalist who refuses to confront his own sins and self-insufficiency, this same offer of mercy becomes an inescapable problem that hardens the soul. It is a classic retelling of Jesus’s parables of the tax collector and the Pharisee (Luke 18:9–14) and of the prodigal son and the older brother (Luke 15:11–32).
Mercy is never free. Mercy is very expensive. Mercy requires paying the cost of justice, and that is the cost of our Savior’s life. But that mercy is beautiful to behold for those whom God has given eyes to see it. Mercy changes lives. And the offer of mercy can also harden.
The power of Victor Hugo’s classic Les Misérables is the way it contrasts the life of the merciful with the life of the merciless. The merciful have faced their sin guilt and been broken like glass. The merciless have faced their sin guilt and hardened themselves like steel. The merciful have first received Mercy (God) and then aim to show mercy to others. The legalist adamantly rejects mercy, and in rejecting mercy has rejected Mercy.