But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God. (Ephesians 2:4-8)
The Phantom of the Opera, Wicked, Miss Saigon, Oklahoma!, Evita, Ragtime, Once On This Island, Sweeney Todd...these are some of the musicals whose soundtracks and sheet music grace my shelves. I enjoy these shows and so many more, but I always come back to Les Misérables as my most favorite. I have seen it on Broadway, in Atlanta, and in London. I own the soundtrack and can sing all the parts. It’s not the familiarity or the music that gets me, though. The thing I love most about “Les Mis” is its message of grace.
The main plot centers around two men, Jean Valjean, who finds that life as a parolee is not much better than prison, and Inspector Javert, who makes it his life’s mission to capture Valjean when he manages to escape from the eyes of the law. Both men experience grace and mercy in the course of the story; what fascinates me is how differently they respond upon receiving these gifts.
When Valjean is caught stealing the Bishop of Digne’s silver, the cleric insists to the police that it was a gift and gives the ex-con more valuables with which to start a new life. Valjean feels guilty when he is given this reprieve, this moment of grace. He takes what is on offer, however, determined to make good on the priest’s instruction to use it to better his life. He becomes a respected and wealthy businessman, and for a long time he is able to hide his true identity from Inspector Javert, who doggedly searches for the escaped convict. He stays out of trouble and helps the destitute Fantine by adopting and raising her daughter, Cosette. Just when Javert thinks he has found his man, Valjean steps forward and reveals himself rather than letting another man take his punishment.
Of course, he escapes again after this, and Javert continues to hunt for him. This chase becomes his singular purpose and drives every move he makes. When he finally catches up with Valjean, there is a revolt in the offing. He disguises himself as a participant in the fight at the barricade where Valjean has gone to keep an eye on Marius, the would-be lover of now-grown-up Cosette, but eventually the fighters figure out who he is. They offer Valjean the chance to kill Javert, but he refuses, offering instead the same mercy and grace that the bishop had shown him years before - he gives the detective his freedom rather than the death he probably deserves.
Where Valjean accepted the priest’s compassion and turned his life around, Javert cannot accept that not only did his quarry escape yet again, but that the hunted did not kill the hunter when the opportunity was presented to him. Instead of accepting the gift Valjean gives him and finding a new, more positive focus for his life, he sees only his failure to accomplish his goal. Ultimately, he chooses to commit suicide as an alternative to having to live with his failure, rather than seeing Valjean’s actions for what they were--a precious gift and a chance to change.
We were all given precious gifts on a cross two thousand years ago, the gifts of God’s mercy and grace, and we have the choice to accept them or not. We can be like Valjean and repent, seeking to better ourselves and others, or we can take the death that we deserve for our sins as Javert did. Which one will you be? Given the options, I have to say (or rather, sing), “Who am I? I’m Jean Valjean!”