Les Miserables: The Hope for Redemption
The year was 1862 when Victor Hugo wrote the novel Les Miserables. Which in French means “the miserable ones, the pitiful, the poor.” And in it he was describing a large percentage of the population of France in his day and in the years leading up to his time. And the novel was designed to prick the hearts of those who would read a 1500 page novel. And cause them, inspire them, and move them to live differently, to act differently; to act with mercy.
Now it became an almost instant hit. It was published not only in France but all around the world in multiple languages and millions of copies were sold. By the end of Hugo’s life he was a national hero in France and 3 million people came out on the streets of Paris to observe his death at his passing.
Victor Hugo’s novel has since been translated or adapted for film 50 times in a variety of languages including the 2012 version from which you will see several clips this morning. But its most famous adaptation was first produced on the stage in 1980 in Paris, France. And the musical version of Les Mes has gone on to be the most successful musical of all time. Many of you have seen it and experienced its music. The music has a way of gripping your soul. And when you put that together with the story it’s such a beautiful picture of the gospel. And what is so moving about this is that it is not just a story from 1862, it’s a story that is 2000 years old. A story of redemption. A story of mercy and grace. A story of great love.
Well I’d like to tell you a little bit about the story this morning because you really need to know the story, at least parts of it, in order to make sense of this message. So let me just start off by reminding you of how the story is set.
How Jean Valjean became a Thief
The novel actually begins in 1795 which is the year the French Revolution began. During this time there was great poverty and there were many people in France who couldn’t eat. There was not enough food. There was not enough income or jobs in order to sustain families. There were people malnourished. They were becoming sick. Many people were dying.
Jean Valjean is the protagonist in the novel. He was 25 years old. He was living with his sister and her 7 children. And he was the sole breadwinner. His sister tried to work, but with 7 children what could she do? So Jean Valjean hired out as a reaper, a workman, a teamster, a laborer, whatever he could do to find work.
Well there came a very severe winter and Jean had no work. And the family literally had no bread. So on a cold winter night Jean Valjean left the house, 7 hungry children, and on that night he became a common criminal. He walked to the bakery. He broke out the baker’s glass window and he reached in a he stole a loaf of bread and ran. And he was caught. And he was sentenced to 5 years hard labor in the quarries for stealing a loaf of bread. And given no longer a name, but simply a number. His number was prisoner number 24601.
Now while he was in prison there were several attempts at escape and each one that he participated in postponed his sentence. So in the end he spent 19 years in hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread.
Now the musical and the film adaptation begin in 1815 when he’s finally released. Now he’s 44 years old. And he’s got his papers, his passport if you will, and those papers identify him clearly as a felon. And he leaves prison and he quickly finds out that being a felon is not really freedom. He tries to find a night’s stay in an inn and as he presents his papers and in every place he enters he’s rejected and told that no felons are welcome here.
Finally he gets ready to sleep on a bench and a woman comes to him and says, “There’s one place that will take you in.” And she pointed to a door. He got up and he walked to the door. He knocked on the door and the bishop in that community answered the door, welcomed him in for a meal, and then gave him a place to sleep for the night.
In the middle of the night Jean Valjean realized that there was really no hope for him. He was a common thief. He was branded that. He might as well be that. And so he tiptoed down the stairs his knapsack with him and he took all of the bishop’s silverware, placed it in the knapsack and got ready to leave. The bishop interrupted his theft and Jean Valjean turned and struck the bishop, knocked him out and ran out the door.
Now the scene you’re about to see from the film is really a pivotal scene. In this scene he has been caught, brought back to the bishop and if he is taken back to prison he will spend the rest of his life in the quarries, or worse he may be put to death.
But I want you to notice that the bishop’s reaction sends Jean Valjean’s life on a different trajectory. Take a look.
Do you see the gospel in that scene? I mean, how do you miss it?
The Power of Redemption
And there are so many dimensions of the gospel there. And the first quite simply is something that Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount that the bishop takes seriously and lives out. Where Jesus says these words: “You have heard that it was said and eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but I say to you do not resist an evil doer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.”
The bishop has been beaten by this man and robbed by him. He has every right to see that he is sentenced to the harshest possible sentence. But that’s not what the bishop does. The bishop follows the teachings of Jesus here. He shows the man mercy. Why? Why would Jesus tell us when somebody strikes you on the cheek you turn the other cheek? Why would he tell us when somebody takes something from us we offer to give even more? I mean that’s foolishness. That’s absurd. The way of the world and what our heart tells us is that you get even with somebody. You don’t just get even, you get ahead.
But what Jesus knows is this, that the only real possibility of transformation in the other person happens when instead of returning evil for evil we return blessing instead – as the apostle Paul says in Romans.
You see what happens when somebody wounds you and you bless them instead, you do something kind to them, Paul says it’s like “putting burning coals upon their head.” That is that they are ashamed. They feel guilt. And maybe there’s the possibility in that moment of shame that they reevaluate their life and they’re changed. If not that at the very least it’s hard for somebody to continue to hate if they’re your enemy when you continually show kindness to them. And eventually that begins to work on their soul.
And that’s what jean Valjean experiences in the bishop. And that changes him. His life is utterly changed from this time forward.
Now the language here is very biblical. “I have saved your soul for God,” he says. That’s a biblical phrase. It talks about what Jesus Christ has done for us. That He paid a price and it wasn’t two silver candlesticks and a bag of silver. He gave His life to save us, to ransom us from evil. We’ve been redeemed. We’ve been purchased. The apostle Paul says, “You’ve been bought with a price.”
And what Jean Valjean realizes is that this man could have sentenced him to death but instead he has given him life and has blessed him. And because of that he lives with the knowledge of this, that he is a redeemed man; that somebody paid a price for him. And the rest of his life he tries to live up to what was paid for him.
And the Christian gospel is such that when you look at the cross and you realize that God paid a price. He sent His Son who suffered and died on the cross; that He is our redeemer and the one who ransomed us from the grave. You’re meant to look at the cross and say, “I have to live differently because of that.” That’s one dimension of the cross of Christ and the idea of atonement is that when you see it you’re so moved that you say, “I can’t live the way I lived before because a man died for me.” This is a picture of what we see in this powerful portrayal in this musical of Jean Valjean and the bishop.
Now as we look at this, part of what we see in this is we begin to see this man’s life changing right before our eyes. And the novel and the musical now fast-forward 8 years. Jean Valjean has left. He’s gone to a village where he changes his name and his identity. He realizes as a felon he’s not going to have a chance. And so he changes his name to Monsieur Madeleine. And he goes to the town of Viggo where he’s determined to demonstrate mercy to everyone else. He lives a life of integrity and mercy and kindness and compassion towards other people.
He takes a simple job but he works himself up in the company and he goes from a simple worker to a manager and finally he owns the company. And everyone in that community has come to admire Monsieur Madeleine. Until finally they ask him to be their mayor.
Now as the story unfolds part of what we see is that he shows mercy to the people in his village. And one particular person he shows mercy to that changes her life. Her name is Fantine. Now Fantine is a woman who had born a child out of wedlock, her daughter Cosette.
But in France in this time to have a child out of wedlock was equivalent to being a felon. No one would hire her. No one would show her mercy or grace.
Finally unable to hold down a job she left her beloved daughter with a couple, the inn keepers and she goes to the next village over, to Viggo to start her life over again just as Jean Valjean had done; hoping she would find a job, hoping people wouldn’t know. She begins to work there in that village. And as she begins to work someone discovers that she has a child out of wedlock and she loses her job.
She’s still sending money back to take care of Cosette and she sells everything she has to take care of her daughter. And it’s not enough.
She has her hair left and she has her hair cut off and sells her hair to take care of her daughter Cosette and then she has nothing left and still no job. Well she has one thing left. She has her body to sell. And so Fantine though she’s sick and feverish, she goes on the streets and she begins to sell her body on the streets to try to take care of her daughter.
Now she is another of the miserable ones that Hugo’s writing about. And Hugo paints such a powerful picture of the sorrow and the tragedy that she felt and experienced in her life. And it’s captured so well in this clip where we hear Fantine sing the song, I Dreamed a Dream.
I Dreamed a Dream Song clip:
Act II: Tender Mercy
Do you hear and feel the misery and the pain that Hugo was writing about in hearts of people who were reduced to selling themselves on the street? And here’s a woman who desperately wants somebody to understand; somebody to care; somebody to reach out in an act of kindness. But all they could do is judge her for who she’s been. She’s dying of tuberculosis and doesn’t even know it. And nobody cares.
I wonder do you notice the people who are miserable in your own life? The miserable ones? Do you notice the ones who are hurting and just need somebody to offer a word of kindness or an act of care or demonstrate compassion? Do you notice when the person in the next cubicle gets off the phone and you can tell they’re in tears? Do you even stop to talk to them; to offer a word of care? Do you recognize the people in our own city who had dreams they dreamed once, but no more? Do you offer even a word, even an acknowledgement? Do you see them?
Now Fantine is arrested. Inspector Javert who we will meet in more detail in just a moment has her arrested and he’s very clear. This is a man who follows the rules. He doesn’t care about the need for compassion. He doesn’t care about the need for grace. What he recognizes is that there is a rule and it’s been broken. She deserves to go to jail. She pleads with him. “Please, I have a daughter to feed. What will happen to my daughter if you throw me in jail?”
“I don’t care about your daughter. You broke the law.”
So at that moment Jean Valjean, the mayor of the city comes by and he sees Fantine. And he hears what’s being said in the conversation. And on the spot he pardons her. But he not only pardons her. The most prominent man in the city, the most powerful man and the most influential and wealthy man takes this sickly prostitute to his home to care for her, to give to her, to show her mercy.
Now she can’t even fathom this. When she awakens in his home she doesn’t understand. She thinks he wants favors. She thinks he is any other man. “It’s ok. It’s no charge,” she says. Don’t you want to kiss me?” “No. I just want to care for you.” She’ll die in his arms but not before she knows that she’s a person of worth and has value. And not before he gives her hope.
Now I can’t see these scenes with Fantine and Jean Valjean and not think about stories from the Bible.
One of those is in the Old Testament; the book of Hosea. Hosea the prophet was commanded by God to go marry Gomer. Gomer was a prostitute. He paid to purchase her from the man who owned her and then he loved her. He married her. They had children together. And God said, “I want you to do this so this might be a picture to my people Israel of my love and my willingness to forgive and show mercy. I want them to know that they have prostituted themselves by following other gods, but I will take them back still and I will still faithfully love them if only they’ll let me.”
Gomer leaves Hosea, goes back to a life of prostitution. And God says to Hosea once more, “Go back and take her to be your wife and love her again as I have done with Israel.”
In chapter 6:6 of Hosea God is speaking directly to the Israelites. And these are people who like in Inspector Javert had been very clear about what was right and what was wrong and what God had really wanted, they thought, was sacrifices; animal sacrifices. And God says to them, “That’s not what I’ve been looking for. You mistreat people. You treat the miserable ones poorly. Don’t do this anymore.” And finally He says this. Hosea 6:6, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.”
Mercy is a word that in Hebrew means a variety of things. Of course we usually think of it as we have a right for revenge and we choose to forgive or let go of our right for vengeance. And that is one dimension of mercy. But in the Bible mercy is far more than that. Mercy is actually kindness, its pity, its compassion. It’s caring for somebody else who may have no claim on you. They don’t deserve it necessarily but you give it to them anyway. And God says, “This is what I desire is mercy and not sacrifice.”
And so part of the question that this story begs is are you living that way? Do you understand that part of your mission in life is to look around to see people who need pity and compassion and mercy? And are you extending it to them? Jesus made it very clear, “Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy.”
We are called to show one another mercy. Now one of the things that’s amazing about this is that Jean Valjean the most powerful citizen in the town does this. The most affluent. The most respected. And what I value about that is that it reminds us that to whom much is given much is expected. That’s what Jesus said in Luke chapter 12.
And I see that in many of you. Many of you who are affluent and you’re successful in you work or business and you’re prominent people and yet I see you with your sleeves rolled up working to reach out to meet the needs of others. And you recognize that, you know what all this stuff is about how I use this for God’s purposes. It’s really not about me.” And that’s an important life lesson that Jean Valjean teaches us; that Jesus teaches us.
Now not everyone saw Jean Valjean’s actions as admirable. In particular a man named Inspector Javert. Inspector Javert was a guard at the prison where Jean Valjean was serving time for 19 years. And after Jean Valjean was released he went on to become a police inspector and he knew the fact that Jean Valjean had disappeared. Now he’s assigned 19-20 years later to the town of Viggo. And when he arrives there to present his papers to the mayor he looks at Mayor Monsieur Madeline and he’s shocked because he recognizes this man. He certain that he’s Jean Valjean the convict, the felon who disappeared.
And so he goes about the process of trying to prove this. And once he proves it he spends the rest of the novel trying to have him arrested and thrown back in the quarries.
Javert is a man who only sees things in black and white. There are good people and bad people. And there’s no chance for mercy. And you catch that in this confrontation between Javert and Jean Valjean. He has come to know for certain that the Mayor was indeed Jean Valjean, prisoner 24601. In this you hear his way of describing the world. Take a listen.
Clip: The confrontation
Judgment vs. Mercy
That’s a hard man. For Javert rules come before people. And he’s one of those who live a merciless life. And in many ways he mirrors a group of people who Jesus was in conflict with on a regular basis. They were the Pharisees.
I remind you in Matthew’s gospel we find in Matthew 9 that Jesus calls Matthew to be one of his followers. Now Matthew was a tax collector. And you’ll remember that tax collectors were considered traitors. They were wealthy and they got wealthy on the backs of the Jewish people. And Matthew is standing at his tax collecting booth and Jesus comes by and says, “Matthew I want you to be one of my followers.” Jesus shows him extravagant mercy. And Matthew is stunned that a religious man would want him. “You want me to be one of your followers?”
“Come on Matthew. I’ll make you a fisher of people.”
Matthew says, “How about if I have a dinner party and I invite all my friends over and you can talk to them tonight? Would that be ok?” And Jesus says, “I’d love to come to your home.”
So that night Jesus goes to Matthew’s house. And all of Matthew’s friends are sinners and tax collectors and Jesus is eating with them. And then the Pharisees come along. And they see Jesus in there eating in this house and they’re so pure and holy they wouldn’t dare cross the threshold of a man’s house like Matthew. And they wag their fingers at Jesus and they ask the disciples why? Why does He eat with people like that? Doesn’t He know that’s unholy? It’s unlawful. He shouldn’t be doing it.”
And Jesus turns to them and He says, “You don’t understand do you? Go back and study this passage of scripture from Hosea where God says, I desire mercy not sacrifice. You meditate on that and see if you can understand then why I eat with sinners and tax collectors. I desire mercy and not sacrifice.”
Twice in 3 chapter’s Jesus quotes that verse from Hosea. Because it captures His heart for people. People came before laws. And His desire was to see people redeemed and transformed by the power of mercy.
Now the question that’s raised by the interchange between Javert and Jean Valjean is this; which are you? Javert or Jean Valjean? Are you judging other people constantly? Are you looking down upon them because of their past or their background, their station in life? Or do you see people the way God sees them? Do you understand that people can change? Do you know that there’s mercy and mercy can change their lives? Do you see what could be and not just what is? How do you look at people? Is it all about the rules? Or is there room for mercy in your life? Jean Valjean or Javert which are you?
That sets up one last scene. And in this last scene we find that Mayor Monsieur Madeline has received word that a man in Paris; a man with a very low IQ who has been a thief in the past has been caught and been accused of being Jean Valjean, because he looks like Jean Valjean. And the police think, “Finally now we’ve caught him and he’s going back to the quarries.”
And so a trial is taking place and now the real jean Valjean, Mayor Monsieur Madeline is faced with a dilemma. There’s an innocent man that’s going to spend the rest of his life in the quarries if he doesn’t say something. But what should he do?
He’s wrestling with this decision. To be merciful is going to cost him the rest of his life. He’s going to give up everything. What does he do? Here’s a man who’s been a thief in the past, why not him just go? And so there is this struggle that he’s feeling.
Listen to this song as it captures the dilemma and what he ultimately decides to do.
Clip: Who am I?
The Costliness of Mercy
And so he confesses in the middle of the trial. He’s not just the Mayor. He is the former convict 24601. And he’s resigned himself to going back to prison.
Now here’s the question that’s posed by this scene. Is what price are you willing to pay to do the right thing? What price are you willing to pay to show mercy to somebody else who doesn’t deserve the punishment they are about to receive? What price are you willing to pay to show kindness and care and compassion?
And here’s the thing. It’s really easy to show kindness and compassion and pity to other people when folks will notice and they’ll pat you on the back and you’ll be a hero. But are you willing to do the right thing, the compassionate thing when it costs you something and no one notices or praises you? Are you willing to pay a price, to sacrifice something great, to take risks and to live boldly, but to do those things that you really don’t feel like doing, that come difficult and hard to you?
Listen, most of the most important things that God is going to call you to do are going to be hard and you might even be afraid to do. That’s how it works. But you go ahead and do it anyway. You press through the fear and you do it anyway. And you come out the other side and you say, “I’m so glad I did that. That was one of the most important things in my life. Are you willing to live boldly and to take risks in order to pursue a life of mercy?
I want to wrap this up in this way. The last major theme that is permeating the novel and the musical to me it is captured very well in our mission trip rummage sale. Every year we put on this gigantic rummage sale that has become our biggest and most successful fundraiser for all of our mission trips. You donate all of the junk that you don’t want anymore. Some of its broken and its half-used and it’s a little worn. And some of it is out of style and you donate all of that and we sort it and price it.
And in the days leading up to the sale I love to just sort of walk through and see all of the stuff. And I look at some of the stuff and I think, “Who in their right mind would want that?” It’s broken. It’s dirty. It’s worn out. It’s used up. And lo and behold before the end of the sale someone wants it and they pull out their quarter, or 50 cents or dollar bill and they buy it.
Something that probably most of us consider pure junk is something very valuable to someone else. As they say, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”
And you know what I think. Every week when we gather here, this is God’s rummage sale. And I think all of us here in this room we are people who are broken and a bit worn and rejected by somebody. And maybe in our own mind or in the eyes of others we don’t appear to be worth very much. But God sifts through all of this and you know what, He sees all your junk, all your garbage inside all your brokenness and all your past, but He sees past that and He says, “I see a treasure and I want that one.”
And He pays not just pennies on a dollar. He pays an extravagant price for you. The price of His Son, Jesus Christ. And that in the end is the story of Les Mes.
It’s the story of a bishop who looks at a felon who’s beat him, stolen from him and says, “I see something worth saving in you.”
It’s a story of the most prominent citizen in the town who looks at a prostitute and says, “I see something worth loving in you.”
And it’s a story of a God who looks past all your stuff and says, “I see something worth saving and loving in you.”
Victor Hugo wrote this in the preface of the 1862 edition of Les Mes: he says, “So long as ignorance and misery remain on earth books like this cannot be useless.”
This story, Les Mes is a story that is 2000 years old. And so long as there is ignorance and misery in this world the gospel cannot be useless.