Law and Grace in “Les Miserables”

Lisa and I recently had the opportunity to view the latest movie release of Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables.”  I am always very cautious of commending any product of Hollywood, but I found the layered story of human suffering and the juxtaposition of law and grace very moving in this production.  Because of two suggestive scenes involving prostitutes, I want to caution anyone who might stumble, and I would certainly limit viewing to adults (it is rated PG-13), but as it is a current topic of discussion among our members and in our culture, I thought I would provide some insights to help direct our conversations.

Joe Rigney is a professor at Piper’s Bethlehem College and Seminary.  In a blog post entitled, “Les Miserables and the Law of God,” He provides solid biblical perspective.  What follows is a significant portion of his post.

Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables is again a topic of conversation, and for good reason.  Christians, in particular, have rightly celebrated the portrayal of the beauty of mercy and grace in this moving 150-year-old tale. Most of the theological analyses have contrasted Javert, the law-obsessed Inspector, with Valjean, the grace-transformed thief.  And while much

of this analysis has been spot-on, it’s important that a central biblical and theological reality not get lost. Let me put it this way: Many people regard Javert as the consummate legalist, the embodiment of a single-minded preoccupation with perfect obedience to God’s righteous Law. The problem is this: he’s not.

Make no mistake, Javert is a legalist, from his back teeth to his little toe. But the law that forms his fixation is not the Law of God, the Law of Moses, or the Law of Christ. It is law, for sure, but it is 19th-century French law, draped in a veneer of religiosity, but bearing only a passing resemblance to anything biblical.  The apostle Paul says that God’s Law is holy, righteous, and good (Rom 7:12). But there is nothing holy about condemning a hungry man to prison for five years for stealing bread. There’s nothing righteous about branding such a man as a dangerous criminal for the remainder of his life. There’s nothing good about a law (or law-man) obsessed with catching a parole-breaking former thief, while ignoring persistent criminals like the Thenardiers.

The law Javert loves is a bureaucratic web that entangles the poor and privileges the wealthy. The society Javert defends oppresses widows and orphans, driving them into prostitution and theft as a means of survival. Javert’s law privileges the testimony of the well-to-do over that of a shivering and defenseless woman (even as the powerful seek to satiate their lust in the seedy part of town). Javert’s law consigns the poor to a life that is nasty, brutish, and (in Fontine’s case) mercifully short.

Distinguishing Javert’s legalism from biblical law is of more than merely semantic interest. It can color the way that we as Christians read the Old Testament. It can perpetuate the idea that attempts to faithfully obey God’s Law are problematic and flawed from the outset, when such efforts are in fact worthwhile and commendable, provided they are done from faith in Jesus and out of confidence we’ve already been accepted by God.

 Think of it this way: If Jesus (or Moses) came to Javert, he would not condemn him for his meticulous attempts to keep God’s Law; he would condemn him for neglecting God’s Law, for ignoring God’s Law, especially its weightier matters: mercy, justice, and faithfulness (Matt 23:23). In other words, Javert would be condemned as a Pharisee, for that is just what he is. . .

All of which is to say, in keying off Les Mis, let’s not equate Javert with God’s Law or with Christian obedience (over against Christian mercy and grace). In fact, if we’re thinking biblically, Valjean is the true lawkeeper, who upholds the weightier matters, protects the weak, the poor, and the oppressed, and keeps the Great Commandments (love for God and love for neighbor) because he was bought by the grace of God (in the bishop’s silver).

I’m not saying that Les Mis doesn’t communicate the beauty of mercy. It certainly does — and does so spectacularly. Nor am I saying that Javert is not an example of everything that is wrong with humanity. In fact, this analysis shows just how pervasive the human penchant to establish false laws is . . . {Instead} Remind yourself that the God of all grace, the God of astounding mercy, the God of ransomed sinners reveals himself not only in Matthew and Romans, but also in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Remember that “the world we long to see” is a world in which we walk according to the Spirit and thus fulfill the righteous requirement of the Law (Rom 8:4). Remember that it would most likely be Valjean, not Javert, who would echo David’s song in Psalm 119: “Oh, how I love your law!”