The gospel in Les Miserables

Ebcosette

Originally published as “Jesus in Les Miserables” on December 24, 2012

Caught.

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.

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Categories: Christian living, Commentary, Faith, Gospel, Theology

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5 replies

  1. The mercy and grace shown by Valjean by the Bishop is really what puts the story in motion. It begins Valjean’s journey into redemption. All of his actions after that scene is similar to what the Bishop did for Valjean in many ways- Valjean showing mercy, compassion, and forgiveness to others and sacrifice. Les Misérables has this beautiful underlying spirituality. That is part of why it touches people in such a beautiful way

    • Thanks so much for sharing! I love Les Miserables. I appreciate the observation of how Valjean models the Bishop after he is shown compassion. It’s really the turning point of his life.

      • I used to think Les Mis was TOO DEPRESSING: that was from my first experience with Les Mis- the first time seeing the musical the film.

        But something made me watch it a 2nd time and that was a turning point. I began to realize there is something in Les Mis. I started to realize it makes you feel uplifted, but my question was WHY? By summer, I realized it was a story filled with all of these spiritual themes.

        The bishop may be a minor character in the story, but he is a crucial character. Without the bishop, the story wouldn’t have kicked off. Compassion is one of the major spiritual themes in Les Mis. That is part of why Les Mis is so beautiful and inspiring.

  2. Yeah, absolutely. It’s such an incredible and moving musical. I saw it on Broadway when I was 11 and I thought it was just about the most amazing thing I’d ever experienced. And then later in the musical, we see Valjean, a man who’s life has been touched by grace interact with Javert. And Javert is all about the law. He doesn’t believe in redemption and grace. To Javert, Valjean will always just be a thief and so when Valjean shows Javert grace, Javert cannot accept it. He cannot live in a world where Jean Valjean is the one who shows him grace, and where Valjean is actually a good man.

    • I have loved Les Mis for 5 years. Already seen the stage show 5 times. In 2013, I was a student at Central Piedmont Community College, and they were doing a production of Les Mis, and that year I was approved to be an usher for the school year: so I saw it once with family and I signed up twice to be an usher so I saw that production three times.

      2015- I went to England for a Bristol Pilgrimage. My family church choir was in residence at Bristol Cathedral so a pilgrimage was planned- we visited various sacred and spiritual places. Before heading to Bristol, the pilgrims spent some days in London. My family went up two days early. During one of the extra days, my family took me to see Les Mis in the West End- it was my DREAM to see in the West End- since she knew was my DREAM- she wanted to get me the best seats possible- we sat in the 9th row- that night was so special.

      2017- the latest North American Tour was launched. Of course, I wanted to Les Mis again. But I was faced with a major dilemas. Gardner Webb, my university, was taking people to see Les Mis in Greenville or I could see it in my hometown, but I could only choose one. I eventually choose Greenville: I came to that decision because after all it was my last year and I love the Peace Center.

      So my number of times seeing the stage show adds up to 5 times.

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