On Friday night Cathryn and I spent a miserable evening with friends at the Signature Theater, located in a chic urban village near Washington D.C. It’s not what you think. We had a great time with our friends, but we went to see a musical called The Miserable Ones. How’s that for a catchy title? Actually, you probably know this play by its French name, Les Miserables, or Les Mis for short. It was my first time to see the musical, Cathryn’s second. She’s twice as cultured as I am.
We thoroughly enjoyed the play. I was blown away by the talent. The music was everything people said it would be and more. Our friend’s daughter had a coveted role. She was outstanding. I was also struck by what the Atlantic Monthly calls the “sentiments abstractly Christian” found throughout the famous musical based on the 1300-page book written by Frenchman Victor Hugo.
“The Miserable Ones” is an appropriate title to a play that explores how humans find grace, mercy and justice in a world filled with darkness, injustice and the haunting shadows of one’s past. Though Hugo lived his life on the periphery of Christianity, he touched masterfully on themes such as despair and hope, condemnation and redemption, works and faith, legalism and grace.
Jean Valjean, the story’s main character, serves 19 hard years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving children. When finally released on parole, he finds life as an ex-convict hard and dissatisfying. A tattooed number on his chest reminds him of his past, a past from which he is running. Furthermore, a rigid, rule-keeping prison guard named Javert plays Valjean’s parole officer and nemesis, vowing to track him closely all the days of his life.
For a while Valjean lives the life of a starving outcast until a kindly old bishop named Myriel takes him in. Against the warnings of his sister and housekeeper, the bishop gives Valjean a room and a warm bed.
That night Valjean does something truly evil, seemingly for the first time. He steals all the fine silverware in the bishop’s kitchen and makes a run for it. When caught, Valjean is broken but surprised when Myriel extends to him something he had never experienced before, certainly not from Javert, grace and mercy.
Bishop Myriel turns to Valjean and says, “Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good. It is your soul I buy from you; I withdraw it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition and I give it to God.”
Valjean embraces his second chance at life. He assumes a new identity, becomes a successful factory owner and ultimately mayor of a city. He spends the rest of his life doing his best to extend to others the same favor he received.
The dark, merciless world in which Valjean lived reminds me of the After Eden world found in Genesis 6. Scripture records that evil and corruption began spreading on the earth faster than technology changes in today’s world. God was grieved in his heart that he made man from the earth. He was ready to wipe the slate clean and start all over again. But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord like a man named Valjean.
A righteous and blameless man who walked with God by faith, Noah “prepared an ark for the salvation of his household” (Heb. 11:7). Like wasn't easy for this man who walked alone before God.
Has life been hard for you? Are you running from the dark shadows of your past? Like Valjean and Noah, you can find God's favor through faith in Jesus Christ. And when you do, remember this lesson from Les Mis: you no longer belong to evil, but to good.