THE GOSPEL IN LES MISERABLES
Homily for Good Friday 2013
Many people today lament the loss of Christian influence in our society, and that may be justified to some degree — we don’t want to be like ostriches with our heads in the sand, or like Nero, fiddling while Rome practically burned to the ground.
Many people feel that this has become a harsh world in which good Samaritans and good people get the short end of the stick, a world in which nice people finish last, a world committed to winning at any cost, which brings to mind a question Jesus asked: “What does it profit you to gain the whole world if you lose your soul (your essence/your true self) in the process.”
And yet, in the midst of this apparently secular world, people have flocked to see Les Miserables, a story of redemption and grace — a profoundly Christian story. Les Miserables is based on the original story by French author Victor Hugo, and reveals both the depths of human despair and the amazing power of love to redeem. Let me share something of that story with you today, in the light of the cross of Good Friday.
Jean Valjean is the prodigal son, who finds himself alienated from God, distanced from everything honourable and decent, and not belonging anywhere. His life reflects the injustices of the French society of that era that favoured the rich and oppressed the poor, despite all the claims of Liberty, Fraternity and Equality made by the French Revolution. As the ancient people of Israel knew from their years in servitude, iron in the soul is both blessing and curse. Valjean has spent 19 years in prison, after having been charged originally with stealing bread in order to save the life of a child, perhaps an oblique reference to the Eucharist, in which we recall Christ offering himself in the form of bread. Branded as a criminal, forced to carry a yellow card that identifies him as a dangerous man, Valjean is unable to find work, so when Valjean is given shelter by a kindly bishop, Valjean, in his pent-up anger at everything, is able to justify stealing everything of value in the bishop’s house. Caught by the police, and returned to the bishop for reckoning, Valjean is shocked when the bishop, instead of condemning him, treats him like a brother, and insists that he gave him the silverware as a gift. Not only that, he insists that Valjean take the silver candlesticks as well. The police let him go, and this gracious abundance allows Valjean to get established in life once again.
To remind him that redemption is not without cost or purpose, the bishop says to Valjean: “Remember this, my brother. See in this some higher plan. You must use this precious silver to become an honest man.” This is the beginning of Valjean’s redemption. The incident with the bishop is reminiscent of The Gospel of John, which says: “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved …”
Valjean changes his name and puts on a new identity, reminiscent of the
traditional Christian practice of being given a new name at Baptism. (The symbolism of Baptism is suggested elsewhere in the story as well.) Appropriately, Valjean chooses the name “Madeleine.” The Letter to the Romans says: “Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light; let us live honourably as in the day, not in revelling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” This is the gift of transformation the priest gives to Valjean.
The bishop is thus an obvious Christ figure in the early part of the story, but Valjean himself, by virtue of that act of grace on the bishop’s part, becomes a Christ figure himself.
But to the end, Police Inspector Javert is there, hounding and pressuring Valjean, wanting to inflict punishment, much like the older brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son, who, instead of delighting that his younger brother had turned up safe, wanted him punished and shamed instead.
In the Bible, one of the names for the Satan is “The Accuser” or “The Prosecutor” — both terms suggest legal connotations. In Javert and Valjean we see the clash of two very different creeds: one based on law and the other based on love. But the story is not simply one of good versus evil – it doesn’t completely oppose laws/principles with forgiveness/grace. it really shows us two men both trying to do good, but in very different ways.
Inspector Javert lives in a harsh world in which there are only rules and laws and consequences for failure to comply. He has no faith in humanity and keeps his life perfunctory and impersonal by always being in uniform, and by reducing people to statistics. He continues to refer to Valjean by his prison number and won’t let him off the hook. When he is released from prison, Valjean says, “I’m free.” Javert instantly corrects him: “No! … You are a thief.” To Javert, Valjean will always be a criminal, and he wants to make sure that Valjean will never become anything else. Javert never forgets an offense or passes up an opportunity to accuse.
When I was seven or eight a couple of my friends and I were throwing stones, attempting to hit a street sign. One stone – mine – hit the sign and flew off into the schoolyard, and struck a girl on the cheek. It wasn’t a serious injury, but it hurt, and understandably, she was upset. So was I. Years later, I encountered that girl in the shopping mall; I was 17 at the time and she was by then around 19 or 20 I think. I didn’t recognize her, but she remembered me, and immediately launched into screaming and swearing and insults that turned heads all over the place. Pretty embarrassing! You hear occasionally about people who will carry a lifelong vendetta against someone over some minor offense. This girl’s distorted face and exaggerated rage were a lesson to me about how important it is to let go and forgive – of what a ball and chain bitterness can become.
Javert can’t see what people may become – he only sees what they have done wrong. It recalls for me the TV ad which shows homeless kids on the street, and then flashes the image of them as infants – scared, crying – and reminds us that within us all is the child of God we were created to be. The story allows us to see that in the way the bishop treats Jean Valjean and we see it in Fantine, the prostitute. The ability to see beyond the damaged and hardened exterior to the child underneath is part of the grace of God. Fantine’s tragic life reminds us that, for some, the hope of becoming who they are meant to be must be completed in a world beyond this one.
Valjean himself had been in that place earlier in his life, when the priest saved him from being returned to prison, but Valjean had the humility to be able to integrate the gift of divine love, whereas Javert could find no place in his heart that might have allowed him to comprehend the ways in which God bends our rules and love prevails over all. As St Paul said, “Love is the fulfilling of the law.” Valjean becomes the Suffering Servant of God, while Javert never becomes aware that there is a greater law at work, which has a greater authority over human beings than the sometimes petty rules we think up to govern ourselves (like the Arkansas law, according to which it is illegal for a woman being married a second time to wear a white wedding gown).
The Letter to Hebrews leads us toward a much wiser path by reminding us that God said: “I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds” (10: 16, which in turn is quoting the prophet Jeremiah). And it reminds people tending toward associating God with punishment and judgement, that God said: “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more” (Heb. 10:17).
There is no sin which puts us beyond the capacity of God’s love to redeem, which is symbolized in the story by Valjean’s willingness to walk through the dark underground sewers of Paris to save Cosette’s true love. This is at the heart of the Good Friday story, and yet Javert cannot comprehend that it is sacrifice, not retribution, that makes the world a good place. He sees Valjean risking his life for the sake of others, but it doesn’t occur to him that Valjean is the Christ figure and he is merely Pontius Pilate.
Javert’s hope of perfecting the world by policing it is a false hope. Part of the message of the Gospel is that even a man considered to be of divine origin and “without sin” is still found wanting and executed. In other words, no one can live up to a standard of perfection – not even a supposedly perfect man. Life is not primarily about crime and punishment. But Jesus’ words: “Father, forgive them; they have no idea of what they’re doing” falls on deaf ears with Javert.
The voice of the Bishop is the voice of God in this story, and reminds us that one act of kindness can change a life, whereas a lifetime of pursuing perfection and trying to eliminate mistakes is futile and destructive, contrary to human nature and divine law.
You can’t walk around in fear your whole life over some minor thing you did as a child, looking over your shoulder, feeling guilty and ashamed. That is not God’s will for us. Ultimately, justice cannot be served by people like Javert or the systems that they represent – it can only come from God, and the story of Jean Valjean is in part about the way in which God releases us all from prison and washes us clean.
Fantine the prostitute, despite the fact that she has lived a sordid life, is a sympathetic figure in the story. Her song, in the movie, pulls at the heart:
There are dreams that cannot be
And there are storms we cannot weather,
I had a dream my life would be
So different from this hell I’m living.
Ironically, there is little feeling, little sympathy, toward Javert, even though his life also ends in tragedy. Confronted by an act of grace, in which his own life is inexplicably and undeservedly spared by Valjean, Javert cannot reconcile the world of law with the realm of grace; he refuses to receive it as a gift and an opportunity and a new lease on life, and instead he commits suicide. The irony is that Javert is also loved by God, revealed in Valjean’s act of grace toward him – but he is unable to believe it.
Jesus said to the self-righteous nit-pickers of his day, “the prostitutes and tax-collectors are going into the kingdom ahead of you” (Matt 21:32). In Les Miserables, Fantine, like Mary, is the poor single mother who gives birth to new hope – and Cosette her daughter becomes the child of God – redeemed from the gutter of human misery and ignorance and injustice – and through the love and protection of Valjean, both her life and his are fulfilled.
We all know what an incredible difference it makes when we are surrounded by love and appreciation. Valjean is determined to raise Cosette in love – to give her the gift that neither her mother nor he experienced as a child. This is the essence of vicarious sacrifice – offering his life so someone else might live.
Good Friday reminds us that forgiveness and redemption are always at work – that God is among us and within us in countless ways – kindly leading us toward the fulfillment we all – in our hearts of hearts — most deeply yearn for.
Les Miserables is the Gospel story in a nutshell, reminding us of the way God’s love is either received or rejected, depending on the way we choose to see things; the way God’s redeeming love triumphs over evil. Even in our supposedly secular world, we continue to work out, in our collective conscience, the cost and the rewards of choosing a godly or Christ-like path.
People need the story of the Christian Gospel, and it may grieve some of us that people are getting it in a movie theatre instead of a church. I wish it could be both, but as St. Paul wisely said: “What does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice” (Phil. 1:18).
The Rev. Grant Rodgers+
Isaiah 52:13-53:12 See, my servant shall prosper; he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high. Just as there were many who were astonished at him–so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of mortals- so he shall startle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which had not been told them they shall see, and that which they had not heard they shall contemplate. Who has believed what we have heard? And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed? For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account. Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. By a perversion of justice he was taken away. Who could have imagined his future? For he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people. They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth. Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him with pain. When you make his life an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days; through him the will of the LORD shall prosper. Out of his anguish he shall see light; he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge. The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.
Hebrews 10:16-25 “This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds,” he also adds, “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.” Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin. Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
John 18:1-19:42 After Jesus had spoken these words, he went out with his disciples across the Kidron valley to a place where there was a garden, which he and his disciples entered. Now Judas, who betrayed him, also knew the place, because Jesus often met there with his disciples.
So Judas brought a detachment of soldiers together with police from the chief priests and the Pharisees, and they came there with lanterns and torches and weapons. Then Jesus, knowing all that was to happen to him, came forward and asked them, “Whom are you looking for?” They answered, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus replied, “I am he.” Judas, who betrayed him, was standing with them. When Jesus said to them, “I am he,” they stepped back and fell to the ground. Again he asked them, “Whom are you looking for?” And they said, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus answered, “I told you that I am he. So if you are looking for me, let these men go.” This was to fulfill the word that he had spoken, “I did not lose a single one of those whom you gave me.”
Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it, struck the high priest’s slave, and cut off his right ear. The slave’s name was Malchus. Jesus said to Peter, “Put your sword back into its sheath. Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?” So the soldiers, their officer, and the Jewish police arrested Jesus and bound him. First they took him to Annas, who was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest that year. Caiaphas was the one who had advised the Jews that it was better to have one person die for the people. Simon Peter and another disciple followed Jesus. Since that disciple was known to the high priest, he went with Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest, but Peter was standing outside at the gate. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out, spoke to the woman who guarded the gate, and brought Peter in. The woman said to Peter, “You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?” He said, “I am not.” Now the slaves and the police had made a charcoal fire because it was cold, and they were standing around it and warming themselves. Peter also was standing with them and warming himself. Then the high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and about his teaching. Jesus answered, “I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret. Why do you ask me? Ask those who heard what I said to them; they know what I said.” When he had said this, one of the police standing nearby struck Jesus on the face, saying, “Is that how you answer the high priest?” Jesus answered, “If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong. But if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?” Then Annas sent him bound to Caiaphas the high priest. Now Simon Peter was standing and warming himself. They asked him, “You are not also one of his disciples, are you?” He denied it and said, “I am not.” One of the slaves of the high priest, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, asked, “Did I not see you in the garden with him?” Again Peter denied it, and at that moment the cock crowed. Then they took Jesus from Caiaphas to Pilate’s headquarters. It was early in the morning. They themselves did not enter the headquarters, so as to avoid ritual defilement and to be able to eat the Passover.
So Pilate went out to them and said, “What accusation do you bring against this man?” They answered, “If this man were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you.” Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and judge him according to your law.” The Jews replied, “We are not permitted to put anyone to death.” (This was to fulfill what Jesus had said when he indicated the kind of death he was to die.) Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate asked him, “What is truth?” After he had said this, he went out to the Jews again and told them, “I find no case against him.
But you have a custom that I release someone for you at the Passover. Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” They shouted in reply, “Not this man, but Barabbas!” Now Barabbas was a bandit. Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. And the soldiers wove a crown of thorns and put it on his head, and they dressed him in a purple robe. They kept coming up to him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” and striking him on the face. Pilate went out again and said to them, “Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no case against him.” So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, “Here is the man!” When the chief priests and the police saw him, they shouted, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and crucify him; I find no case against him.” The Jews answered him, “We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has claimed to be the Son of God.” Now when Pilate heard this, he was more afraid than ever. He entered his headquarters again and asked Jesus, “Where are you from?” But Jesus gave him no answer. Pilate therefore said to him, “Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” Jesus answered him, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.” From then on Pilate tried to release him, but the Jews cried out, “If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor. Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor.” When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus outside and sat on the judge’s bench at a place called The Stone Pavement, or in Hebrew Gabbatha. Now it was the day of Preparation for the Passover; and it was about noon. He said to the Jews, “Here is your King!” They cried out, “Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!” Pilate asked them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but the emperor.” Then he handed him over to them to be crucified. So they took Jesus; and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them. Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” Many of the Jews read this inscription, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek. Then the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews.'” Pilate answered, “What I have written I have written.” When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his clothes and divided them into four parts, one for each soldier. They also took his tunic; now the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from the top. So they said to one another, “Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see who will get it.” This was to fulfill what the scripture says, “They divided my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots.” And that is what the soldiers did. Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.
After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), “I am thirsty.” A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. Since it was the day of Preparation, the Jews did not want the bodies left on the cross during the sabbath, especially because that sabbath was a day of great solemnity. So they asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified men broken and the bodies removed. Then the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and of the other who had been crucified with him. But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out. (He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth. These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled, “None of his bones shall be broken.” And again another passage of scripture says, “They will look on the one whom they have pierced.” After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews.
Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.