AN ILLUSTRATION OF GRACE: LES MISERABLES
Unfortunately, many people have a hard time grasping the concept of grace, because we have such a works-mentality in the church. Therefore, I want to use a contemporary story as an illustration to help you to understand how great God’s grace is. When Jesus, the Master-Teacher, taught His disciples, He would use the things around Him to teach people about the Kingdom of God. Jesus said, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a farmer who planted good seed in his field” or “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed planted in a field.” He would use things that people in His day could relate to. I want to follow the example of Jesus and use a contemporary story to help you to understand God’s grace. The story I want to use is called Les Misérables.
“Les Misérables is a French historical novel by Victor Hugo, first published in 1862, that is considered one of the greatest novels of the nineteenth century. In the English-speaking world, the novel is usually referred to by its original French title, which can be translated from the French as The Miserables, The Wretched, The Miserable Ones, The Poor Ones, The Wretched Poor, or The Victims.” (Wikipedia.org). I first read the book in English class when I was in high school, but since then have re-read the book, and have seen both the 1998 film version of the movie starring Liam Neeson, and the more recent 2012 musical film version of the movie starring Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe.
In my opinion, this story is such a powerful picture of God’s unconditional grace towards us as the wretched, the poor, the miserable and undeserving sinners. It’s interesting also that the setting of the story is the June Rebellion – the Paris Uprising of 1832. In this story, the people were rising up in revolution, demanding their freedom. The terrible conditions during this time period included major economic problems including food shortages, people living in poverty, and major discontent, and so the people were rising up to fight for freedom. What a beautiful parallel with the Book of Galatians which is all about grace and freedom.
The story of Les Misérables is about Jean Valjean, a man who stole a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s children. “Sentenced to a 19 year term of hard labor… Jean Valjean gradually hardened into a tough convict. No one could beat him in a fistfight. No one could break his will. At last Valjean earned his release. Convicts in those days had to carry identity cards, however, and no innkeeper would let a dangerous felon spend the night. For four days he wandered the village roads, seeking shelter against the weather, until finally a kindly bishop had mercy on him.” (Philip Yancey, What’s So Amazing About Grace?).
In the opening of the musical film adaptation of Les Misérables, in the Prologue Work Song, we see the policeman Javert releasing Jean Valjean after his imprisonment. He sings, “Now bring me prisoner 24601, Your time is up, And your parole’s begun, You know what that means.” Valjean responds, “Yes, it means I’m free.” Javert shouts, “No! Follow to the letter your itinerary, this badge of shame you’ll show until you die, it warns you’re a dangerous man.” Valjean pleads, “I stole a loaf of bread. My sister’s child was close to death, And we were starving.” Javert interjects, “You will starve again, Unless you learn the meaning of the law.” Valjean says, “I know the meaning of those 19 years, A slave of the law.”
I see in this story a powerful parallel with the teachings in Galatians. The rest of the entire story of Les Misérables is all about the contrast between the law and grace. For twenty years after Jean Valjean was released from prison, Javert – who represents the law – pursued him, seeking justice. But something happens after Valjean’s release from prison. After three days of wandering, hungry, jobless (no one will hire him because of his past), homeless, he goes to a village where he experiences undeserved grace from a kindly bishop.
Pastor Chris Jordan