By Nate Burns
As we continue our pursuit of “Finding the Gospel in Les Misérables,” one of the characters central to this powerful story is Javert. Javert is a prison guard when he is first mentioned in this story. Later he is a police officer in a small French town and after that an inspector in Paris. The inspector position would be much like a high level detective in our context. All of which are promotions for Javert. We never learn Javert’s first name. His pursuit always is justice.
At the beginning of this story Javert is the police officer that gives Jean Valjean his parole paper. Javert does not use Valjean’s name when he addresses him; rather, he addresses him as 24601, insinuating that Valjean is just a prison number and not a human being. He tells Valjean his “time” is up, and asks “do you know what that means?” Valjean says, “Yes, it means I’m free.” Javert says, “No, it means you get your yellow ticket, you are a thief.” Javert cannot see Valjean as anything other than a law breaker. Valjean breaks his parole, because of this Javert vows to hunt, track, and bring Valjean to justice regardless the cost.
What Javert doesn’t realize is the encounter that Valjean has had with the Bishop of Digné. Some background surrounding Valjean’s encounter with the Bishop. “The Bishop took Valjean in when no one would, he fed him and cared for him, but in response Valjean stole from him. Yet when Valjean is presented to the Bishop “red-handed”, the Bishop lets Valjean off the hook, and lets him off the hook in two ways. First, the Bishop literally does not hold the crime against Valjean and, second, the Bishop protects and rehabilitates Valjean’s reputation (which is badly damaged) by telling the authorities that Valjean didn’t do the crime. It is this encounter with grace that radically redefines Valjean’s entire identity and allows him to pursue a new life.” (Brandon Wilson Discussion via Email June 6, 2012) The words from the Bishop to Valjean that I love so much are, “I have bought your soul for God,” Valjean has had his pardon purchased. Sounds familiar doesn’t it? “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.” (1 Cor 6:19-20) But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Rom 5:8) The same radical grace the Bishop received from Christ is the same radical grace he extends to Valjean. But Javert has never encountered such grace, only judgment, shame, and the people who offer him nothing but the law. Javert’s thirst for justice comes from his youth, his mother was a prostitute and his father abandoned them. For Javert there is no rehabilitation or reconciliation for prisoners, once a thief always a thief. Even in the Nazarene Manual paragraph 903.3 (I’m paraphrasing) suggests that prior behavior is an indicator of probable future behavior. In the song, “Stars,” we see this mission that rages inside of Javert the need for judgment, justice and the natural order that there can be no other way. The way of Javert is righteous, and the way of Valjean is the way of Lucifer and the fallen. “And so it has been and so it is written On the doorway to paradise That those who falter and those who fall Must pay the price! Lord let me find him That I may see him Safe behind bars I will never rest Till then This I swear This I swear by the stars!.” (Lyrics from “Stars”) Javert’s mission in life is to make right the wrongs of this world and to put law breakers behind bars (I am not suggesting that we have no laws or prison system) to keep them from society because for law breakers there is no redemption, rehabilitation or reconciliation. For Javert his father never was redeemed and never came back to display the radical grace of God to he and his mother. His mother was left in prostitution and the gutter, living a life completely destroyed.
There is only one option for Javert, to pursue 24601 to the ends of the earth because 24601 is not worthy of redemption. Javert is convinced he is pursuing righteousness and the way of the Lord. That pursuit will send Valjean back to prison and eventually Hell because that is where all law breakers are destined to be. Javert of course will be in heaven for doing the right things, the right way, and always living according to the law.
We read in Romans, “Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord.” Romans 12:9-11 (TNIV)
Javert himself is tragically lost. He has never seen the unconditional love of God, that grace that redeems what was broken and makes it whole. “Let me give you a new command: Love one another. In the same way I loved you, you love one another. This is how everyone will recognize that you are my disciples—when they see the love you have for each other.” (John 13:34-35 MSG) We cannot fault Javert for this. He has not seen this kind of grace in action. His pursuit is quite admirable to bring a fugitive to justice. Valjean understands because he received true grace from the Bishop, but not Javert, Javert has never received it. No compassion! He knows only the law and the rules.
Isn’t it interesting when we come to faith in Jesus Christ, we are so overwhelmingly undone by the grace and mercy of God that we repent of our sins and He reconciles us to himself? We become grace-filled and graciously embrace those who were like us and we cannot rest until they too know this gracious Christ that we have encountered. But something happens to us, the longer we live in grace the more grace-less we become towards those who find themselves without Christ. We become more like Javert. Our identity becomes the rules of religiosity versus the embrace of grace, in which our identity is in Christ. Tim Keller defines this position as religious moralism.
When I was growing up, being a “good Christian” was defined by what we were not, instead of to whom we belonged. I tease occasionally that we don’t… “Drink, smoke, and chew, or run with girls who do.” We become a church defined by what we didn’t do instead of whose we are. Valjean belonged to God because of the Bishop, we belong to God because of Christ. The Bishop is Valjean’s redeemer, and Christ is ours. There is no redemption at all without the Bishop for Valjean, he would still be a thief. There is NO redemption without Jesus Christ; we would still be slaves to things we were before without him. “Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6 NIV)
Even in the earliest church even as early as the earliest emergent church, in Antioch, and Antioch’s conflict with the church in Jerusalem. The church became an institution of people keeping a set of rules instead of those abiding in deep relationship with Christ and His Church. Rule keeping has plagued the people of God since Moses came down from Sinai with the Ten Commandments. Beyond the Ten Commandments, there were 613 additional commandments according to the Talmud. Over time, the leaders of every group proclaiming the name of God added their particular brand of rules that are to be kept and later possibly discarded.
In our tribe, the Church of the Nazarene, there were once rules about jewelry, and it was frowned upon to wear any, including wedding rings. The Church of the Nazarene has a rule about not going to movies in movie theaters; however, watching the same movie on VHS from the video store at home was perfectly acceptable. I recently learned that my parents received flak for allowing me and my sister to attend our separate Proms. I understand the intent, but my parents who are also ministers in The Church of the Nazarene, have found that some of these rules may have been great adventures in missing the point. There have been rules over time that have gone the way of antiquity, but there is something within each of us that cries out for a list of rules to keep. Why? Because we want to know who is “in” and who is “out.” It might even be because we sometimes think that people like me should be “in” and people like them should be “out.” If you keep our rules you are “in”, if you break our rules you are “out”. This legalism becomes a lot of doing things to keep being “in” rather than being in Christ and He in you.
I am reminded of an encounter Jesus had while dining with friends. Please note the parenthetical references are mine.
“When one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. A woman in that town who lived a sinful life (probably a prostitute) learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume. As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them. When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.” Jesus answered him, (Just a thought here…Jesus answers out-loud, what Simon was thinking. I love that.) “Simon, I have something to tell you.”“Tell me, teacher,” he said. “Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii,and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.” “You have judged correctly,” Jesus said. Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.” Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” The other guests began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” (Luke 7:36-50 NIV)
I wonder are we like Javert and Simon the Pharisee? Standing back with our arms folded and crossed, looking down our nose at the world, saying if Jesus knew who these people were and what they had done he would not welcome them. We cannot honestly show Christ like love if we refer to people as “them” or “they.” In the Kingdom of God we should all have yellow cards of parole, or scarlet letter “A’s” not one of us is exempt. But thanks be to God, because of Jesus, we do not have to wear any identity other than a child of God. What we once were we no longer are or have to be ever again. Our earlier text in Romans reminded us to “love with sincerity.” We know the difference, when people genuinely love us no matter what and when it is based on our performance or a condition. We make statements about people, “Thank God I’m not like them.” Or, “I can’t believe they have been asked to do that, doesn’t the Pastor know who they are?”
In Javert’s view, Valjean will always be a thief. There is no hope of redemption; the only hope of redemption is through doing good works and keeping the law. “There is probably no possibility of true transformation either. It is almost certain that Javert knows of sentimental grace, at least in the cursory sense, for all of us have experienced the kind word or touch of a gracious person. Perhaps as a child he was treated nicely by someone when he was deserving of punishment, etc. But beyond the sentimentality, Christ calls us to radically gracious living that, in myriad ways, actually transforms people. The Bishop demonstrated that by creating an alternate reality. In reality, Valjean stole. But the Bishop never associated Valjean with the identity of thief; rather, he created a new identity by ignoring the past and suggesting that he had given Valjean the silver. And, then, in his ear the Bishop whispers that Valjean belongs to God now. The Bishop could have said: “Well, yes, Valjean stole, and yes he is a thief, but I don’t want to press charges.” This would be remarkable itself, and laudatory, but it would not have freed Valjean from his criminal identity. The Bishop went much further. We believe that people can change. We believe that dead people (and souls enslaved to sin and destruction) can be raised. Javert does not.” (Brandon Wilson Discussion via Email June 6, 2012)
For Simon, the Pharisee, it was about keeping the 613 extra laws added after the commandments. There had to be a rule to keep, a day to follow, a way to be good enough to inherit the Kingdom of God. Jesus comes and he turns it all upside down and says no there is a new way. “Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their lifewill lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.” (Matt 16:24 & 25) We read these passages of scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mk 12:31) “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matt 5:44)
We frequently become like Javert and don’t even realize it. We look with judgment and condemnation. They don’t look like we do, talk like we do, vote like we do, or dress like we do. So if you want God you have to be like us because we are “in” and you are “out.” Our way is the way of the Lord and your way is the way of Lucifer and the fallen. How sad, Jesus reminds that if anyone would come after Him they must deny themselves. Love must be sincere, hate what is evil. We land on hate, and we begin to hate anything that is not like me. Christ is clear there is only one way to the Father, it is through Christ alone. We however keep people “out” because they don’t fit our idea of the kingdom and we sit in judgment in the place of God. Instead of being like the Bishop of Digné that Valjean encountered and from whom he received grace, we become like Javert and we offer no grace at all, we offer no hope unless you become like us. I am not saying that we should embrace what is evil. I am saying we should embrace all people with open arms and allow the Grace of God and His Holy Spirit to redeem them from their lives all that was broken and lost. So they can be found in Christ and made whole again in Him. So we don’t look at others with disdain, but we look at them with the eyes of Christ through the lens of grace that we have also been given. We offer hope and forgiveness. We say to the Valjean’s of this world that we do not care where you came from or what you have done wrong in this world. We want to lead you to Christ and let Him make the difference in you because Jesus did this for us. Now we extend it to you.
What would happen Church, if we would come to understand that God loves people, ALL people more than anything else? What would happen if we would extend forgiveness to the ones who have done us wrong, and offer mercy and grace where the world says they deserve none? What would happen if we would stand with those who do not get it right all the time, but are learning to live in Christ and by His standard and not our own, hearing the Spirit’s conviction and not our words of condemnation? Allowing God to redeem, repurpose, and retool, that which was deemed hopeless, lost, and eternally damned. Because we are good at hating what is evil, and we neglect loving with sincerity, and honoring others above ourselves.
There is hope for the Javert’s too. For when we have not experienced grace, we often don’t know how to give it. For some of us we may not have ever encountered the real Jesus Christ. We have just emulated the rules and become good law-keepers instead of leaning into the embrace of Almighty God Himself. So I say to the Javert’s, there is hope for you as much as there is hope for the Valjean’s around you.
The question is will we be stubbornly religious? Or will we be bearers of God’s grace and embrace?