The Gospel and Les Mis, Part 2 (Guest Post)
Most of the readers of this blog will be familiar with the Law/Gospel distinction that is present in the New Testament. While this distinction grew out of a particular set of controversies involving a particular law code and its relevance to a particular cultural situation (something that we Protestants often forget to our own exegetical detriment), the New Testament also occasionally abstracts what we might call the principles of Law and Gospel as two ways of standing before God: one (Gospel) embraces God’s gracious promises by faith, and the other (Law) sees the performance of certain works of law as necessary before God bestows his blessings as a kind of due (see Romans 4 and Galatians 3). In the New Testament, this latter way of life is accompanied by nationalistic pride and personal self-righteousness, leading these practitioners to feel unduly confident in themselves and overly critical, judgmental, suspicious and pitiless towards the “sinner” and the stranger—attitudes that are not compatible with the message of Jesus. We know that the way of Law is not particular to first-century Palestine, but has been incarnated in various ways in many cultural settings through time—a fact that Protestantism has been very good at pointing out.
In my previous post on the stage musical Les Mis, I discussed the life of protagonist Jean Valjean, a man who has a life-changing encounter with grace, and then comes to embody grace, compassion and forgiveness. Such a discussion would be incomplete without mentioning Valjean’s antagonist and foil, Inspector Javert. If Valjean represents the Gospel, grace, Spirit, faith, gift, humility side of the coin, then Javert represents the Law, works, wages, pride side.
Javert, like Valjean, came out of the same mass of misery as many of the characters in the play. He describes his humble beginnings in one of his confrontations with Valjean:
I was born inside a jail
I was born with scum like you
I am from the gutter too
Though the play doesn’t offer details about Javert’s upbringing, it is easy to play armchair psychologist and explain how such a grim beginning could motivate a man to become a paragon of law, order and duty. Javert is the very embodiment of the law (as he himself declares) and is the spiritual cousin of Bunyan’s allegorical portrayal of Moses in The Pilgrim’s Progress: “He spareth none, neither knoweth he how to shew mercy to those that transgress his Law.”
Somewhere in his journey to becoming a respectable inspector, he became cold, proud and self-righteous. That he knows nothing of grace, mercy or forgiveness is detectable the moment he appears on stage. We first meet Javert when he comes to release Valjean from his prison sentence. Recall that Valjean was imprisoned for stealing food from a house out of desperation. Valjean and Javert share the following exchange as Valjean is released from his bonds:
Now bring me prisoner 24601
Your time is up and your parole’s begun
You know what that means
Yes, it means I’m free
No! It means you get
Your yellow ticket-of-leave
You are a thief
I stole a loaf of bread
You robbed a house
I broke a windowpane
My sister’s child was close to death
And we were starving
You will starve again
Unless you learn the meaning of the law
A little later in the play, Javert offers the following in response to an ailing prostitute’s anguished plea for mercy after being falsely accused:
I have heard such protestations
Every day for twenty years
Let’s have no more explanations
Save your breath and save your tears
‘Honest work, just reward,
That’s the way to please the Lord’
Javert is ready to take this individual to jail despite her infirmities, and would have if Valjean hadn’t interceded and taken her to the hospital.
At one point Javert compares his spotless record to that of the criminal Valjean, and has this to say:
He knows his way in the dark
But mine is the way of the Lord
And those who follow the path of the righteous
Shall have their reward
And if they fall
As Lucifer fell
And so it must be
And so it is written
On the doorway to paradise
That those who falter and those who fall
Must pay the price
Javert continues to hunt Valjean from place to place throughout the years (as Valjean did break parole by tearing up his ticket of leave and assuming a new identity), making our hero’s life incredibly difficult. Yet in a wonderful twist of fate, Javert, while trying to infiltrate a group of revolutionary students with hopes of terminating their rebellion, is found out and held as a prisoner until the students can determine his end. Valjean, who has earned the favor of the students, asks that Javert be handed over to him.
Again we see a scene with a man caught red-handed, and another who holds his fate in his hands (see my previous post). Previously it was Valjean held by the police, standing before the bishop. Here it is Javert held by the students with Vajlean assuming the bishop’s place. But how will this variation on a theme end? Recall that it was Javert who oversaw the brutal and excessive imprisonment of Valjean and has been relentless in his merciless pursuit of him all the years following that time. Will Valjean avenge himself or will he offer the same grace the bishop showed to him? Valjean picks up a knife and walks towards the helpless inspector. As he approaches his captive, Javert cries out:
You’ve hungered for this all your life
Take your revenge
How right you should kill with a knife
Contrary to what we might expect, in Valjean’s hands the knife becomes a means of freedom rather than an instrument of death. Valjean cuts Javert’s bonds and bids him to escape with haste. Javert, lacking the categories of grace and forgiveness and so unable to comprehend this act, assumes this is Valjean’s attempt at bargaining. The man of law only knows an eye for an eye. Valjean must be hoping to earn his own freedom by granting Javert his, and Javert will not stand for it:
Once a thief, forever a thief
What you want you always steal
You would trade your life for mine
Yes, Valjean, you want a deal
Shoot me now for all I care
If you let me go, beware
You’ll still answer to Javert
But Valjean is not trying to bargain, and he takes the opportunity to explain grace and mercy to the confused constable:
You are wrong, and always have been wrong
I’m a man, no worse than any man
You are free, and there are no conditions
No bargains or petitions
There’s nothing that I blame you for
You’ve done your duty, nothing more
If I come out of this alive, you’ll find me
At number fifty-five Rue Plumet
No doubt our paths will cross again
This grace shakes Javert to the core, as it had previously done to Valjean. With Valjean, we saw the transformative power of grace. Will Javert turn over a new leaf? Will he realize that he has neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness? The same musical score that accompanied Valjean’s soul-searching soliloquy begins to play, and Javert offers us a glimpse inside his head as he wrestles through these issues:
Who is this man?
What sort of devil is he
To have me caught in a trap
And choose to let me go free?
It was his hour at last
To put a seal on my fate
Wipe out the past
And wash me clean off the slate
All it would take
Was a flick of his knife
Vengeance was his
And he gave me back my life
Damned if I’ll live in the debt of a thief
Damned if I’ll yield at the end of the chase
I am the Law and the Law is not mocked
I’ll spit his pity right back in his face
There is nothing on earth that we share
It is either Valjean or Javert
How can I now allow this man
To hold dominion over me?
This desperate man whom I have hunted
He gave me my life
He gave me freedom
I should have perished by his hand
It was his right
It was my right to die as well
Instead I live… but live in hell
And my thoughts fly apart
Can this man be believed?
Shall his sins be forgiven?
Shall his crimes be reprieved?
And must I now begin to doubt
Who never doubted all these years?
My heart is stone and still it trembles
The world I have known is lost in shadow
Is he from heaven or from hell?
And does he know
That granting me my life today
This man has killed me even so?
I am reaching, but I fall
And the stars are black and cold
As I stare into the void
Of a world that cannot hold
I’ll escape now from the world
From the world of Jean Valjean
There is nowhere I can turn
There is no way to go on…
Tragically, the proverb “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” becomes literally true for Javert, for as he comes to the end of his soliloquy, he casts himself off a bridge to a watery grave. The same grace that proved to be Valjean’s salvation was a deathblow to Javert.
The life of Javert serves as an ominous warning to those who would choose a life of Law. He reminds us that while Law (in whatever form it may come) can serve a number of good purposes, it was never intended, and hence cannot be relied upon, to bring life (Galatians 3:21-22). It takes a work of grace to do what the law, weakened as it is by the flesh, can never do (Romans 8:1-4). If relied upon, the way of law will always be a way of curse leading to death. If Les Mis were written in the first century, I’m sure the apostle Paul would have frequently alluded to Javert in the Book of Galatians. In fact, Paul may have used Valjean and Javert in his playful allegory in Galatians 4:21-40 instead of Sarah and Hagar.
Through Javert, those with ears to hear can discern Paul exhorting us, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery… You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace” (Galatians 5:1,4 ESV). His fall from the bridge is the final conclusion of his fall from grace.
The juxtaposition of the outcomes of the lives of Valjean and Javert calls to mind another story, told by one whose life was also depicted in a popular stage musical:
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14 ESV)
Matt Weinstock is finishing up a PhD in biochemistry and hopes to participate in the engineering of biological systems to develop green solutions to many of the problems facing our world. He enjoys playing guitar, reading good books, spending time with his lovely wife, and defeating his two young sons in impromptu wrestling matches.