Grace in the face of legalism

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Last night Lindsey and I saw Les Miserables here in Austin (with an oh-so-fancy, but crazy yummy, dinner at Torchy’s beforehand).

It was fantastic, as always. I’ve seen it in the West End in London and previously on tour and it is my favorite musical. The only other show that comes close for me is Little Shop of Horrors, but because of my relationship with the novel Les Mis is by far my favorite.

The story is a marvelous illustration of grace and legalism. Jean Valjean is shown remarkable grace by an elderly bishop who lives as true a Christian life as possibly anyone in Western literature. When he is caught stealing, instead of accusing him the bishop literally empties his silver cabinet into the hands of Valjean. This act of mercy and grace prompts Valjean to turn his life to good and live for others, most notably his adopted daughter Cosette.

I don’t think there is a clearer picture in literature of living a life in response to the grace of Christ.

In contrast to that we have Javert, the viciously legalistic police inspector. He hunts Valjean for years, only to have his life saved by Valjean. With Javert’s life in his hands and with the ability to end his flight from the law with the quick use of the knife in his hands, Valjean shows even greater grace than he once received and lets him go. Javert cannot stand to live anymore in a world where this kind of grace exists. He is driven to suicide by the thought that a criminal could show mercy.

As Javert is about to kill himself he shows us the spite that those who love the law above grace have for those that would extend mercy:

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!

A world with this Jean Valjean in it is a reality he cannot face.

I love this story for so many reasons, but this dichotomy is at the heart of it. If we learn to live in grace as Jean Valjean did we can have a joyful life and a massive impact on others. Or, we can stick to legalism, clinging to rules and the “way it should be”. We wont ‘t show love or grace to those around us. Like Javert’s story, it will lead to an unhappy life and an intolerance towards true grace.

Sadly, I think there are many around us who see the world this way, I know I used to.