‘Les Miserables’: A parable as old as the Bible
I just saw “Les Miserables,” and I am delighted to say that the film delivers on the main message of Victor Hugo’s story: Law versus Grace.
The film brings out the historical background of a failed rebellion against a king and his army in France. It paints a Dickensian picture of dirty, desperate peasants and callous aristocrats. And it tells a poignant subplot of a loving father who must accept that his daughter is grown, and release him to the young man she loves.
But most of all, “Les Miz” tells about the duo of Jean Valjean and his antagonist, Inspector Javert: one a repentant criminal, the other a ruthless policeman.
The story opens with Valjean ending two decades of hard labor for the crime of stealing bread for his family. Javert tells Valjean he will be on parole forever, and Valjean finds it almost impossible to find work. He turns bitter and brutal, using his strength and wit for no one’s good but his own.
A priest takes him in for the night, but Valjean thanks him by taking off with the silver chalices. Police catch him and return him to the priest, who says he gave the items to Valjean. It’s a vivid picture of Jesus’ instruction that if someone takes your coat, “give him your cloak as well.”
What happens next is what changes Valjean: The priest says his soul has been bought and he is obligated to become a better person. A repentant Valjean takes another identity and founds a humane, well-run factory. He also finds a sick, destitute street woman and takes care of her, then pledges to raise her daughter after her death.
Unfortunately, Javert finds him out and pursues him for jumping parole. Valjean is forced to flee again, this time with his grown adopted daughter.
The antagonists meet again during a the street rebellion, this time with Javert in Valjean’s gunsights. Valjean spares his life, yet Javert insists he will resume his pursuit at the first chance.
The final confrontation ends with a stark difference between the men: Valjean wanting only the safety of his daughter and her lover, Javert driven by his rigid, heartless version of justice. The inspector can no longer deny that his quarry of several decades is a changed man. Yet the law he serves allows for no compassion or leniency. Under this unbearable strain, someone must break.
How remarkable that a popular author — and gifted scriptwriters and filmmakers — should grasp the nature of the gospel, whether they know the source or not. That belief acknowledges the evil nature of humans and the stern demands of divine law. Yet it also states that God designed an end run around his own law: Jesus, in his own death, has paid the penalty, secured forgiveness and provided a way for people to change.
But accepting pardon carries its own price: Once people belong to God, they are responsible to turn their lives around — i.e., repent.
“Les Miserables” works on a human level as well. Many people try to escape their own flawed nature by condemning, pointing the finger, exposing those around them. Others understand flaws, but they can still see how people can change. Which type of person makes the world better? And which type really pleases God?
These are more than heady thoughts. They are soul-searching concepts.
— James D. Davis
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