Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Les Miserables

On Saturday night, Erin and I sat in the rain at Starlight with Zach and Valerie and Will and Annie Biggs and watched the musical Les Mis. It was an incredibly moving experience. In fact, I was glad it was raining so people couldn't tell I was crying...

I'd read the book a couple years ago, so I knew the story. I'd strongly recommend the book as it's one of the most beautiful pictures of the gospel you'll ever find in literature, as was the musical. To read a summary of the story, click here. I'd also recommend the abridged version, unless you really want to read about 100 pages describing Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo or the 18th century Paris sewer system renovations.

I'll summarize so as to make the main point about the musical/ story. Jean ValJean spent 19 years doing hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister's children. In prison, ValJean was watched by Inspector Javert. ValJean's sentence was constantly extended due to fighting, killing and trying to escape. When ValJean is finally released, he finds that excons can't get a job or even a bed in an inn. A priest finally takes him in but ValJean steals the priests silver and sneaks out in the middle of the night. When ValJean is caught by the police (thus breaking his parole and sending Javert on a life-long search to re-arrest him) the priest tells the police that he'd given ValJean the silver as a gift. This act of grace changes ValJean's life. He commits himself to serving God and the destitute.

ValJean moves to the town of Montreuil-sur-mer and opens a factory with a new method for making bracelets and he becomes incredibly wealthy. Wealthy enough that he never has to work again and he gives away money the rest of his life. A single mom who had been sweet-talked into bed by a real loser, Fantine, is working in the ValJean's factor but is sent away when some nosy neighbors report her "sin" to a foreman. Fantine ends up selling her hair, teeth and eventually her body to send money to the family keeping her daughter, Cosette, not knowing the family is ripping her off with false medical emergencies. Javert tries to take Fantine to jail but ValJean rescues her and eventually risks his life to save Cosette as well.

Javert gets back on ValJean's trail when ValJean saves a man caught under an oxcart. The whole town is shocked at ValJean's strength and Javert knows of only one man with that type of strength, prisoner 24601. ValJean risks his freedom to save another man and then does so again by testifying in court that he, "Monsiuer the Mayor" is the convict Jean ValJean, not the dim-witted man they have on the stand. ValJean struggles greatly with both of these acts, but he is propelled to do the right thing by the love of Christ and the love of the priest. In fact, several times during the story when ValJean is struggling over whether to risk his own life to save the life of another, he takes out the Priests' silver candlesticks.

To summarize, the rest of the story is about ValJean raising Cosette and trying to avoid being caught by Javert. And the rest of what I'll write is the whole point of this post. Javert represents extreme legalism. Over and over, he claims the way to please God is to follow the laws. Javert cannot view ValJean as anything other than prisoner 24601. Various times he tells ValJean "people cannot/ do not change." Javert's character remains static.

ValJean is the one who changes. When the love of Jesus overwhelms ValJean through the Priests' love, ValJean's life trajectory completely changes. He infuses the world with love and hope. Since he couldn't rescue Cosette's mother, he devotes the rest of his life to saving Cosette.
But in his own mind, ValJean is also still prisoner 24601. He believes God and the rest of the world are still looking at him as the convict. Although no one other than Javert views him this way, ValJean cannot forgive his past or embrace his new identity. The climax of the book however, changes all of this.

When Cosette's fiance, Marius, is wounded behind the barricade in a battle of the another round of the French Revolution, ValJean risks his life to rescue Marius and bring him back to Cosette. With an almost superhuman act of strength, ValJean carries Marius to safety through the sewer. Just before rescuing Marius, ValJean had the chance to kill Javert, in fact Javert begged him to do so, but ValJean let him go. In the sewer, ValJean runs into Javert. He promises Javert that he'll return to allow him arrest him but he must first safely deliver Marius. Javert lets ValJean go but while waiting for ValJean's return, he collapses mentally.

Javert CANNOT deal with the reality of ValJean's transformation. Prisoner 24601 could NOT have shown him such mercy nor risked his life to save the life of another. Javert's rigid categories of people and how God works in the world are torn apart. Rather than changing his views to fit reality, Javert's mind is destroyed. When ValJean returns to surrender to Javert, he gets word that Javert has thrown himself into the River Sienne.

ValJean never tells Marius it was he who rescued him. In fact, Marius believes ValJean actually killed Javert, so he and Cosette reject him for awhile. ValJean is sitting in a dark room, waiting to die while Cosette and Marius are being married. ValJean still believes this type of fate is what prisoner 24601 deserves. But before leaving the wedding ceremony, Cosette's former captors tip Marius off to the fact that it was ValJean who saved him that day. The newlyweds immediately seek out ValJean and throw themselves at his feet. They're finally able to see who ValJean has become. No longer prisoner 24601 but a true lover of Jesus and humanity.

When ValJean is able to see himself through Marius and Cosette, his identity is FINALLY changed. He finally accepts the grace of God and that in Christ, he is "a new creation." It took someone else revealing his new identity for ValJean to accept it.

Javert teaches us we can't keep God in a box. God keeps busting out of our box, so we're forced to either get a new box or suffer from a false view of God. ValJean teaches us that it's not about who we were but who Christ has made us to be now!

Are you struggling to "allow" God to work in a way you don't understand? Are you buying into the lie that you can never change? Folks, He's a BIG and POWERFUL God. Let's allow him be in charge while we simply obey.

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