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The Heart of 'Les Miserables': Where Justice and Mercy Meet

One of the most vivid, most moving examples of God’s goodness and mercy is currently playing at a movie theater near you.

The long-awaited film musical “Les Misérables” opened on Christmas Day, and it’s well worth the wait. The original novel has been in print for over 150 years, and the stage version is beloved by audiences around the world, so you may already know the story. But for those who don’t: “Les Misérables” is about an embittered ex-convict named Jean Valjean, who steals from a bishop but is shown forgiveness. After the bishop intervenes to prevent him from going back to prison, a transformed Valjean spends the rest of his life serving God and others.

Chuck Colson used to say that “Les Misérables” was a story that meant a great deal to him personally. And I’m sure you can understand why.

The tension in the film comes from the struggle between mercy and justice. Whereas Valjean’s new life exemplifies grace, the forces of justice are represented by the police inspector Javert. Because Valjean has broken parole, unable to find any other way to start a new life under the harsh laws of the period, Javert relentlessly pursues him for many years.

The ex-convict is living a life of virtue as mayor of a small town, helping the poor and providing employment for many. But Javert still sees him merely as Prisoner 24601, the man who broke the law and has to pay for it.

He tells Valjean, “Men like you can never change,” and he honestly believes it — until the night when Valjean shows him mercy. At that moment, the unbending representative of the law is faced with a moral conflict that he cannot handle.

As Mike Cosper writes at The Gospel Coalition, “Valjean is determined to live a life worthy of the grace he's received, and his sense of calling leads him to radical sacrifice for the sake of others. Javert, on the other hand, lives with unflinching loyalty to the law. His confidence in the law makes him utterly certain of both his own righteousness and also Valjean’s sinfulness. The story sets these two on a collision course, a head-on crash between law and grace.”

Javert is so sure he’s right, and that the law is right, that he simply cannot comprehend the idea of a virtuous ex-criminal. It shatters his entire worldview. Jean Valjean, realizing the depths of his own sin and his great need for redemption, has been able to receive God’s mercy; Inspector Javert cannot.

This timeless story brings to mind Jesus’ warning in Matthew 21 that the tax collectors and prostitutes would enter heaven before the Pharisees.

Now, you should know that “Les Misérables” is rated PG-13 for some sexual content, violence, and language. It is, after all, a story set among thieves and prostitutes.

But I maintain that this story is so important that those mature enough to handle it should go ahead and see it — especially since it stands in such stark contrast to the film I talked about the other day, “Django Unchained,” which invites the viewer to get high on gore, vengeance and retribution.

Let’s not be a bunch of Javerts who get so distracted by what’s on the surface that we can’t see the goodness underneath. “Les Misérables” is the kind of movie that Christians are always asking for: powerful, well-made films that deal with themes and ideas that truly matter.

And now we’ve got one; let’s show that we can appreciate it!

Eric Metaxas is a co-host of BreakPoint Radio and a best-selling author whose biographies, children's books, and popular apologetics have been translated into more than a dozen languages.

BreakPoint commentary airs each weekday on more than one thousand outlets with an estimated listening audience of one million people. BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print.

Publication date: January 17, 2013

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