Les Miserables: Grace and Law in Juxtaposition


Set a place at the table for both law and grace

Published Wednesday, January 2, 2013


Presents were opened, candy flowed from our stockings, gift cards were exchanged and a lot of tasty foods covered the table. After our food comas, my family sat together and talked about life. Then, we began talking about what movies were out, and everyone wanted to see “Les Miserables.” We saw the film, and it had me in tears. 

This film/musical is the strong juxtaposition of two men. One, Jean Valjean, is a man who stole bread and served 19 years of hard labor for his crime. Hardly a just punishment, and yet he has been branded a thief with papers that remind him and others that he is not to be trusted. Another, his polar opposite, Inspector Javert, vows to make sure that Jean remembers his crime and remains in his place — at the bottom — and in the horrible state that the title accents. Forever his place is to remain wretched and poor.

In the middle of these two is an intervention, by a kindly bishop named Myriel, who extends the grace of God to Jean in a moment of his weakness (in which he steals valuables from the bishop’s home and the bishop, rather than press charges, gives Jean all that he stole and more — the candlesticks as well). He claims the man for God — and thrusts Jean on a personal quest for redemption and renewal. Jean makes himself into a vessel of grace, while Javert remains a dark shadow.

The musical aside, in my own mind and heart, I struggle between the seeming coldness of law (as I read the law of Moses) and the grace that the gospels hold. I read about Abraham and God’s extended hand, doling out blessings often to the undeserving, yet faithful man. I know that the order of law is necessary, and yet without the softness of grace, the burden on all becomes like unbreakable chains.

Consider the parable of the beaten and broken man, robbed and left for dead on the side of a road (from gospel of Luke chapter 10). A priest and a Levite, people of the law, passed the man by, both not willing to soil themselves with the messiness of mercy. His life of order held his humanity at bay. It was a Samaritan who bent his knee and cared for the man, took him to an inn and paid for his mending. The Samaritan is like Bishop Myriel, extending grace and allowing the blood and soil of reality to stain his clothes, mess up his carpets and drain his bank account.

Is there a struggle between order and grace in reality? I think so. Those who lean toward order (like Javert) like to understand the universe in terms of hierarchy and by the ability to hold structures together. Like engineers, their plans are intricate and can build great civilizations. The weakness of order is that it can be judgmental and cold. Those who lean toward grace (Jean) see the world as messy and moldable. Their strength is empathy, and their arms are wide open, seeking to catch anyone who needs care or a helping hand. The weakness of grace is to be run over by those who would take advantage of kindness and can be seen as foolishness.

I once heard a speaker say, “The ‘grace people’ and the ‘law people’ need to get together.”

This would be a good thing. The two intertwined create the goodness of justice and emphasizes the dignity of all people, everyone created to do great things. Imagine a world where the priest, the Levite and the Samaritan all stop to save the beaten man. They have a conversation, nurse the man to health and then feast together. They talk about their differences and learn from each other, all confident in who they are.

I’d like to be at that table.

Columnist Daniel Griswold is the director of youth at St. Andrew By-the-Sea United Methodist Church. Follow him at twitter.com/dannonhill. Read his blog at http://www.danielgriswold.wordpress.com.

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