The unbearable mercy of a thief

lesmisI have just enjoyed 3 hours at the cinema, immersed in the musical-film retelling of Les Miserables. I will refrain from passing much judgement on the film or the singing, except to say I thought it was great! But most importantly, I want to say that the story of Les Mis has taught me some new things about grace – and why God’s ‘irresistible grace’ is apparently resisted by some.

First, a quick refresher for those unsure of the basic plot: Jean Valjean (played by Hugh Jackman in this film) is convicted for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s seven starving children and sent to prison for five years. He is paroled from prison nineteen years later – under the watchful eye of prison guard Javert (Russell Crowe). (This release came after four unsuccessful escape attempts added twelve years, and fighting back during the second escape attempt added two extra years). Rejected by society for being a former convict, Valjean encounters Bishop Myriel, who turns his life around by showing him mercy and encouraging him to become a new man. . . which he does, a man of honour and grace.

Years later, police inspector Javert recognises Valjean (now a respectable factory owner) as the parole breaker and his most unfavorable prisoner.  Yet Valjean extends to him the grace he once received. He refuses to report Javert for his ‘false accusations’. Later, when the opportunity arises for Valjean to end Javert’s life, he chooses to let him go free. But for Javert this indebtedness to the mercy of a thief is a cage, a burden too great to bear. He hurls himself into the river, after proclaiming (and I quote here at length):

Who is this man? What sort of devil is he
To have me caught 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!

Damned if I’ll live in the debt of a thief!
Damned if I’ll yield at the end of the chase.
I am the Law and the Law is not mocked
I’ll spit his pity right back in his face
There is nothing on earth that we share
It is either Valjean or Javert!

How can I now allow this man to hold dominion over me?
This desperate man whom I have hunted
He gave me my life. He gave me freedom.
I should have perished by his hand
It was his right.
It was my right to die as well
Instead I live… but live in hell.

Is this precisely what makes Jesus so unpalatable to the lost? It seems they would rather be damned than live in the debt of a thief, one who was rejected, despised, crucified. If they accept grace and forgiveness through his death, they would be forever indebted to him, to his mercy. He would have dominion over them. This mercy is too great for some to bear and sadly they turn away.

I have never really thought about rejection of Christ as a rejection of his unbearable mercy. But this is what Les Mis has shown me. So for us who live in the lightness of Christ’s mercy, might we find ways to express to the lost the immense freedom that comes from being indebted to this innocent yet condemned God-man, Jesus Christ. His yolk is easy and his burden is light.

Matthew 11

28 Then Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.”

Nb. If you are up for more Les Mis action, check out the Liam Neeson/Geoffrey Rush/Uma Therman/Claire Danes film version from 1998.

4 thoughts on “The unbearable mercy of a thief

  1. Valjean or Javert? Thanks Ros; I went away from the movie wondering, among other things, what Victor Hugo might have thought about the subtle changes (I tend to think for the better) that have been made to his views of both God and man in the course of the various adaptations of his work. Depending upon the sources, Hugo himself died resisting the ‘orthodox’ view of Christ and His Church and apparently unconvinced that there was a God who offered Grace at all. Now I am no scholar and am happy with and even hopeful of correction regarding this. That Christ did not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it also seems too important an aspect of our Life in Him to dismiss the Law in our rush to emphasize His Grace. NOT that I am suggesting this was your intention; rather that I wonder if the grace Valjean showed to Javert, man to man, is at all adequate to reflect the costly Grace offered to us dead sinners by our Living LORD. Apologies for perhaps too long a comment. If I have broken the law in this regard, I am hopeful of your gracious patience!


    • Ha ha – long comments fine. Yes I was wondering what Hugo actually thought about God – and i could have researched it some more – but thankfullly there are intelligient people like yourself who will make comment. Have you read the book? Seems like a good thing I should do.


  2. Thanks Ros for another gracious post 🙂 Now I’d like to pick up on the theme of freedom and testify my own story – I hope Biblically – and make a couple of points along the way. When I gave myself to Jesus in a millisecond I felt peace and freedom fill me that I never knew existed. Freedom cannot be lost but the sense or experience of freedom can (I know this too well). Jesus tells me to live and share the news of this freedom that comes through faith in Him. Tell people who have never believed in the gospel and surrendered to Jesus. The “people” also include Christians. From pastoral care and counselling of Christians I have encountered many who have lost the sense or experience of freedom (quite complex we Christians can be). From my angle this is one of the major reasons why there is weakness in sharing the gospel of grace. If the sense of freedom is not there the intention to share the gospel is usually absent. It seems to me the church has a long way to go in communicating this to its own flock. I am indebted to and forever grateful of Jesus my Lord, Saviour and Friend! This is why I’m compelled and determined to see Christians enjoy their freedom. Praise God for the family and friends I have who are not Christians – they are the God’s field given to me.


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