Originally published as “Jesus in Les Miserables” on December 24, 2012
Jean Valjean had stolen silver from the Bishop and the local authorities had caught him red handed. On his own merits, there was nothing Valjean could do to rectify the situation. He didn’t have the money to pay for it. He was guilty. But then something amazing happened. The Bishop tells the officers that the silver was a gift. He reminds Valjean that the ex-convict had even forgotten to take two silver candlesticks with him. The sacrifice for Valjean was not made by himself but by the Bishop .
He let him go.
Once the officers leave, it would be completely reasonable for the Bishop to say, “Ok, I got you off the hook. Now give me my stuff back.” But he doesn’t. He gives it to Valjean but with the expectation that he use those stolen items to restart his life as an honest man.
This is a life changing event for Valjean. And it’s a great metaphor for grace. Merely canceling the debt of the condemned man would have been mercy. But the bishop rewards him. That is grace.
In the book, over 70 pages are spent developing the Bishop’s character and describing his devotion and piety. In film and musical adaptations, he is always portrayed as a minor character but he profoundly impacts the life of the book’s protagonist. For Valjean, there is his life before encountgering the and everything changes after he experiences true love and grace. In the musical, with limited time, I feel that they do the best job they can to show the Bishop’s grace but it is tough to truly capture the full weight of the transformation that the encounter has on Valjean.
There are so many great themes in Les Miserables which have led to the popularity of this story over the past 150 years. And the Bishop’s grace to Valjean is not the only example of sacrificial love we see in this story. It’s seen in how Fantine desperately tries to do everything she can to support Cosette. It’s seen in how Eponine helps Marius find Cosette despite the fact that Eponine is in love with Marius and she’s sacrificing her own joy (it’s not exactly the same in the book).
But the most moving example of sacrifice is seen in the Bishop. I feel that part of the appeal to this story is the way in which it depicts the gospel. Becasuse we are all condemned with a debt that we cannot possibly pay. While we deserve exile and punishment, a priest has personally sacrificed and taken are debt for us. And for people who know this truth, just as it is with the Bishop and Valjean, this grace is meant to transform our lives. It’s not the end in itself. There is a reason behind it.
But remember this, my brother
See in this some higher plan
You must use this precious silver
To become an honest man
By the witness of the martyrs
By the Passion and the Blood
God has raised you out of darkness
I have bought your soul for God!
Josh Benner is the associate pastor at Cornerstone Evangelical Free Church in Fergus Falls, Minnesota and has a Master of Divinity from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He enjoys writing about faith and culture. He lives with his wife Kari in Minnesota.