I was recently recommended the book Les Misérables by a friend. I’d heard of the movie and the name Jean Valjean but knew very little of the story. When I ordered the book, my first surprise was the size; the version I got is over 1200 pages! I thought to myself, “Matt, what did you just get yourself into.” Well, I’m only a fifth of the way through, but little did I know, I’ve gotten myself into is one of the greatest novels I’ve had the pleasure of reading. You can be assured that this will not be the last post I write inspired by the book.
The redemptive story of Jean Valjean reminds me so much of the gospel story of the prodigal son. Yet, it takes it a step further by showing us who we are to become after we accept the redemptive love of the Father.
In the gospel story, the son takes his inheritance, leaves home, chases after the voices of the world that pull him away from the Father, lives for the world, hits rock bottom, and returns home. As the son returns, he is ashamed and believes he is unworthy, yet, he is received with an immense amount of love from his Father.
It isn’t tough to see ourselves as Christians in the son, but sometimes we forget what it looks like after we have sat in the embrace of the Father. What happens to us, and who are we to become? Jean Valjean is an incredible example of who we are called to become after we encounter the love of God.
Jean Valjean, an ex-convict who the entire world refuses to see as anything other than an unworthy and unlovable ex-convict, encounters God’s love through the Bishop. First, the Bishop invites him into his home and treats him as a human being with dignity and worth. Second, when Jean Valjean is caught stealing silver from the Bishop, the Bishop protects him and even gives him MORE! As Jean Valjean is leaving, the Bishop whispers in his ear:
“Do not forget, never forget that you have promised to use this money in becoming an honest man. Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I buy from you; I withdraw it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God.”
The Bishop poured dignity and worth into a man that no one believed was worthy. Jean Valjean experiences a love he hadn’t experienced in over 18 years, and it calls out goodness within him that he couldn’t see. He was no longer a slave to his own shame.
Becoming the Father
With his new-found dignity and desire for goodness, he goes on a journey of transformation that leads to becoming a successful businessman, and ultimately the Mayor. He strives for goodness and treats people, particularly those suffering, with compassion and kindness. It culminates in the act of incredible grace.
There is a character, Fantine, who falls into desperate times and is forced to enter into prostitution to provide for her daughter. At one point, she gets in trouble with the law for something that was not her fault. Because of her status as a prostitute, she is shown no mercy and charged with six months of imprisonment. Jean Valjean, now the Mayor, hears her story and sets her free. He then says to her,
“…you have never ceased to be virtuous and holy in the sight of God.”
When I read that line, tears filled my eyes. Jean Valjean shows Fantine, a prostitute, the same grace and mercy that was shown to him! With the Bishop, Jean Valjean was the lost son coming home to receive the Father’s love. Now, after experiencing redemption and being transformed, he becomes the Father and shares the Father’s love with another.
While we are all like the lost son in the parable, after we experience the transforming love of God, we begin a journey toward becoming the Father. We are called to become the Father to those around us and share the Father’s love with others who are lost.
I speak from personal experience when I say, becoming the Father and sharing the same unconditional love we receive from Him is not easy. I can show love to those that seem to deserve it, but what about those that I believe don’t deserve it? What about those in society that have made poor choices, leading them to their state of suffering?
It is not my job to judge the decisions they have made without knowing the choices they had at the moment. It is my job to show them the same love that our Heavenly Father has shown me.
In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis writes about what it means to love your neighbor as yourself. Every day I do things I am not proud of, whether they be negative judgmental thoughts, petty gossip, or losing my temper. In almost all circumstances, I am quick to forgive myself and create an excuse. I typically say, “well, you have been doing a lot for others lately and are tired, so it is understandable why you treated that person at that moment. Have some grace on yourself, Matt.” Yet, as Lewis points out, we don’t tend to offer the same grace for others.
Everyone judged both Jean Valjean and Fantine without knowing their stories and the circumstances that caused them to make the choices they made. As readers, we get to see how they became broken and beaten down. The judgment they received was unfair, but everyone did it based on imperfect information. I believe that is why we are called not to judge but to love with an immense amount of grace. We do not know everyone’s complete stories; thus, we are not in a position to judge them. We are called to become the Father and to show them the same love that is shown to us every day by our Heavenly Father.