Cindy and I went to see Les Miserables last week and have high hopes for it this weekend at the Oscars. What a powerful message of grace and forgiveness. Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is a model of redemption, an ex-con guilty of a crime of survival in a corrupt society. No one should be imprisoned for stealing bread to feed a starving sister. The character Javert (Russell Crowe) is the epitome of unyielding law that cannot reconcile the juxtaposition of punishment and pardon. My hope this Lent is to be more like Jean Valjean than Javert. Valjean used his freedom to set other prisoners free. So should we.
Collective humanity is the Les Miserables, “the Poor Ones,” who need new lives. A nameless novel from years ago was repeated in a recent devotional by Marvin Williams. Someone sent it to me because I’m a potter. There is a scene in which four village men confess their sins to one another. One of the men named Michelis exclaims, “How can God let us live on the earth? Why doesn’t He kill us to purify creation?” “Because, Michelis,” one of the men answered, “God is a potter; He works in mud.”
God weighs law and grace in the balance like Victor Hugo’s plot in Les Mis. God then shifts the weight of sin from us and carries it upon God’s own back through Christ. The first messenger of grace in Les Mis is the kindly priest, Bishop Myriel (Colm Wilkinson) who claimed Valjean for God. Grace is unburdened by constraint so that we are given freedom through Jesus. We cannot save ourselves no matter how altruistic our Valjeanic efforts might be. It is grace upon grace, initiated by a loving God and fulfilled through our willingness to forgive others as we have been forgiven and see in them the face of God as Valjean does in Fantine (Anne Hathaway). Valjean lived a life reconciled by God and offered grace to others. More than his hounding by Javert, he was hounded by the unfettered love of God. The quotes of the memorable lines of the movie are heralds of God’s love. Google them and don’t miss their message of grace. One line sums it up: “To love another person is to see the face of God.”
John Wesley, United Methodism’s founder, lived in the milieu of a similar society that was conflicted by the tension between law and grace, poverty and excess. Poor Houses and jails abounded. Women sold their bodies to buy bread for their dying children. Child labor and abuse was rampant. Addiction to gin was a devilish tonic to the society’s disparate treatment of the poor while the rich went largely unscathed. Wesley’s visits to the jails of Oxford broke his heart of privilege, and the lack of grace in his theology was replaced by personal salvation and social holiness through God’s mercy.
Someone quoted Wesley as saying of the clergy of his day: “The Church recruited people who had been starched and ironed before they were washed.” That was not the case with Bishop Myriel in Victor Hugo’s novel of a century later. He was no Elder Brother type looking down his nose at prodigal Valjean. The Bishop freely gave the silver and the candlesticks to boot to would-be thief Valjean. In Wesley’s day the priests were more like Javert of Hugo’s novel, keepers of the law and the status quo. Thank God, Wesley experienced grace, and became a Bishop Myriel or a Valjean who offered grace to every class of people. Wesley started a movement for those who tried to divide society into the haves and have-nots, conservatives and liberals, Javerts and Valjeans. Wesley’s class meetings were an amalgam of British society’s extremes.
Read some quotes from Wesley that reveals his heart for Jesus and all people:
“Do you not know that God entrusted you with that money (all above what buys necessities for your families) to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to help the stranger, the widow, the fatherless; and, indeed, as far as it will go, to relieve the wants of all mankind? How can you, how dare you, defraud the Lord, by applying it to any other purpose?”
“’Holy solitaries’ is a phrase no more consistent with the Gospel than holy adulterers. The Gospel of Christ knows no religion but social; no holiness, but social holiness.”
“When I have money, I get rid of it quickly, lest it find a way into my heart.”
“When a man becomes a Christian, he becomes industrious, trustworthy and prosperous. Now, if that man when he gets all he can and saves all he can, does not give all he can, I have more hope for Judas Iscariot than for that man!”
“Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.”
“Give me one hundred preachers who fear nothing but sin and desire nothing but God, and I care not whether they be clergy or lay, they alone will shake the gates of hell and set up the kingdom of Heaven upon Earth.”
“Light yourself on fire with enthusiasm for God and people will come from miles around to watch you burn.”
My prayer is that the UMC will be a messenger for the God who works in the mud and muck of human life and brings gracious redemption. Elder brother and younger brother were both prodigals in Luke 15:11-31. Jean Valjean, and Javert both needed grace! My Oscar vote goes to Les Mis!