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Choosing The Way of Love over Judgement and Law

Here’s a question for you: Do you like musicals?

I must confess that they are a “guilty pleasure” for me. I know they are a bit cheesy — but I love the whole experience.

Sandy and I have seen many over the years — most of the well-known ones. We always have a wonderful time — a couple of hours of escapism from the cares of life.

My favourite is Les Miserables, based on Victor Hugo’s sprawling, meandering 1862 novel of the same name.

It is one of the most successful musicals ever created. From its premiere in Paris in 1980 through many productions and variants — including an Oscar-winning 2012 film adaptation — Les Miserables has become a musical behemoth.

Yet, despite a five-month residency in my hometown in the late 1990s, it completely escaped my attention until I saw the 25th Anniversary Concert version on TV a few years ago.

I enjoyed it so much that we committed to seeing the live stage version as soon as possible. Sure enough, we saw the performance in London a few months later. We’ve subsequently seen it twice more — and we intend to see it a fourth time when it goes out as a touring Arena show next year.

The novel itself has many layers. But you’d expect that from a book that’s 655,478 words long — one of the longest books ever published.

Its core theme is the stark contrast between the characters of Jean Valjean, a rehabilitated criminal-and Javert, an ex-prison guard who is now a police officer.

Valjean is a good man, caught up in petty crime when he falls on hard times. His life turns

unexpectedly when a Bishop pardons him for stealing silverware from the church.

This is a pivotal moment. It motivates Valjean to become a humble, remorseful, and honourable man committed to making amends for his past crimes by helping others.

Javert is his adversary and polar opposite in terms of character. He is a zealous police officer preoccupied with the capture of Jean Valjean, whom he believes must be punished and imprisoned.

‘An eye for an eye’ is Javert’s maxim.

He faithfully adheres to the letter of the law. He pursues Valjean remorselessly — always searching, looking down, and judging.

In the song Stars, Javert focuses on the situation as he closes in on his adversary. When he looks up at the night sky, he notices the stars are silent sentinels, always watching — as he does — bringing order to the world.

As the plot progresses, we reach a climactic scene in which Valjean has the opportunity to assassinate Javert, whom revolutionaries have imprisoned.

Instead of an eye for an eye, instead of retaliation for the lifelong suffering Javert has caused him, Valjean chooses love. He pretends to kill Javert but fires into the air, unties his bindings and releases him into the night.

But this act of kindness is too much for Javert, always the legalist. The predicament puts him into a tailspin.

Who is this man? What sort of devil is he? To have caught me 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! I am the law, and the law is not mocked! I’ll spit his pity right back in his face!

Being offered mercy presents an insoluble puzzle for him.

It contradicts Javert’s moral certainty. ‘A man like you can never change,’ he says.

Valjean’s transformation into a virtuous person highlights his worldview’s flaws, implying an alternative way of love, which Javert utterly rejects.

Javert, unable to face a solution to this quandary, commits suicide by drawing himself in the Seine.

Les Miserables has an awful lot more to offer. There is the maturation of the orphan child Cosette and her eventual love for Marius. There’s Eponine’s unrequited love and tragic demise. And then there’s the way Valjean threads his way through the lives of Fantine, Cosette, and Marius.

It is a spectacular musical event set against the backdrop of the French Revolution and told with dramatic narrative telling, stunning staging, and rollicking musical set pieces.

However, the story’s thread of love versus law holds my attention the most.

As someone who spent his professional life as a priest in the church, this topic continues to fascinate and challenge me.

A benevolent convict — gentle, helpful, doing good in exchange for wrong, offering forgiveness for hatred, and saving the person who had brought him down.

And a formidable foe, seized by a sense of rigidity, with an unwavering view of justice, brought to his knees by acts of kindness, forgiveness, and grace.

What’s particularly intriguing is that BOTH men believe they are carrying out God’s will.

At one point, Valjean ponders how God’s love has transformed him.

Valjean has learned that God’s love is transformative — rooted in mercy, grace and forgiveness. A fresh start. A new life.

Javert’s faith reflects Old Testament thinking. Every debt must be paid, and every transgression must be punished for the sake of God’s justice; otherwise, God is angered.

A thief is a thief, and a prostitute is a prostitute in Javert’s version of Christianity — there are no grey areas; everything is black and white. When circumstances mitigate justice, we compromise “the system”. When you enable robbers to steal bread to feed starving children, you introduce an element of interpretation that Javert despises.

Of course, there are individuals in the Christian world today who believe in a black-and-white view of humanity, which can only lead to a system of brutal punishment for those who cannot meet the arbitrary standard.

Step onto what passes for “Christian” Twitter for a few minutes, and you’ll see this writ large — as so-called Christians harshly judge and condemn anyone who disagrees with their version of the faith.

Valjean — on the other hand — believes that God is loving and merciful after experiencing grace himself at the hands of the bishop.

So, rather than punishing, he does everything he can to ease the problem — opening factories, providing honest-paying jobs and caring for those in need.

Is our faith more like Javert’s than Valjean’s?

Consider what happens after they catch Valjean stealing the bishop’s silver.

If you caught a criminal who stole your silver, would you lie to the police and pretend it was a gift — and, indeed, insist he took other precious candlesticks?

Certainly not! Because the rule of law is the rule of law, a criminal is a criminal.

If you defended someone who robbed you, he might rob someone else. Because, as Javert believes, “a man like that can never change.”

If you tried to argue that allowing a thief to take your belongings without penalty would convince him of the crime and result in a change of heart, they would likely laugh you out of the room.

But the very essence of Christianity is based on the concepts of unmerited grace, unearned forgiveness, and unexpected kindness.

Jesus, in a powerful encounter with the Pharisees, distilled everything in the law down to a simple commandment to love God and love other people.

“You must love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest of the Laws. The second is like it, ‘You must love your neighbour as you love yourself.’ All the Laws and the writings of the early preachers depend on these two most important Laws.” (Matthew 22.37–40, NLT)

How did we come to make the life of faith so much complicated — swaddled with the encumbrance of laws, restrictions and churchiness?

It’s a puzzle that, to be honest, I’m still trying to figure out.


This post is a slightly adapted version of the sermon preached at Brotton Methodist on October 29th 2023


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