By Nate Burns
During our journey “Finding the Gospel in Les Misérables,” the theme that has been masterfully woven into the fabric of this story is self-sacrifice. Character after character, we have seen this remarkable gospel truth.
As a young man, I thought I understood what sacrifice and giving oneself completely away meant. I thought, when I got married, “I love this woman more than anyone else on earth; I am willing to do anything for her. I might do the dishes, take out the trash, and pick up my underwear.” That was sacrificial love at 21. Over the years, there would be times of sickness, when I would do my best to care for her, times when I would listen and do my best to not try and fix her problem. Other times, I would give up what I wanted so she could have what she needed. I thought I really understood this sacrificial living for another. Then came the day my wife found out she was pregnant October 25, 2004. For the next nine months, we began preparing for our baby to arrive. Our son, Bryce, was born on July 18, 2005; and on that day, our lives changed forever! Life was no longer about us. It was about this little boy, whom we would protect with our lives if necessary. When the nurse handed Bryce to me, I finally began to understand the love of God in a Fatherly way. I would do anything I could to protect my son.
The story of Les Misérables tells the tale of a thief (Jean Valjean) on the run who encounters a Bishop who gives Valjean a second chance. The only way to start over is to run from his former identity, he breaks his parole and begins a new life as an “honest” man. He becomes the Mayor of a small French town in which he owns a factory. In his factory works a young lady (Fantine) who has an illegitimate child and is working as a prostitute on the side to provide for her care. The forewoman finds out about the child and fires Fantine. She sells her hair, teeth and body to make enough money to send to her daughter’s caretakers. She becomes desperately ill and Valjean finds out the true story and takes her into his own home. He promises Fantine as she is dying that he will care for her daughter Cosette, and she will be like his own daughter and want for nothing. After Fantine’s death, Valjean pays 1500 francs to buy Cosette. They make their way to Paris and live in relative quiet, until Cosette, a young lady probably late teens to early twenties meets a rebel named Marius. Valjean refuses to allow his daughter to be involved with Marius. However, because of Cosette’s love for Marius, and possibly even his own care for the young man, when Valjean learns of Marius’ plan to fight on the barricades against the French Empire, Valjean goes to plead with him to not fight and come home to Cosette. He refuses and stays to fight. Valjean stays up all night, and while Marius is sleeping he sings “Bring Him Home” a prayer. It is after the Barricade falls that Valjean takes a wounded Marius to the sewers and saves his life. Marius does not find out that Valjean was his savior until the end of Valjean’s life, at a death bed confession where Valjean pleads with Marius to care for Cosette.
As a parent, I often go to the bedroom of my children and observe them while they are sleeping. I pull up the covers and make sure they are not falling out of bed, and as I do this almost every night, I breathe a prayer over my children, “Lord, Jesus please protect my children.” I would give everything to protect my children! We recently sold some baby clothes from the attic in a consignment store, and as I looked at those items, I could not believe my son Bryce is almost 7 years old. I want to keep him a little boy that I can always defend and protect, and that is seemingly slipping away through the passing years. I identify well with Jean Valjean, as he prays for his daughters’ love, Marius, a son he might have possibly known. Valjean loves Cosette so much that he would give his life for his potential son-in-law so that his daughter might be spared terrible grief and loss. Jesus said, “There is no greater love, than a man who would lay down his life for his friends.” I would die for Bryce and Addie!
As we journey through the Scriptures there are a multitude of stories that come to mind about a parent’s love for their child. Abraham and Isaac, Jacob and Joseph, A Mother and Moses, Hannah and Samuel, Jesse and David, Mary and Jesus, The Father and his Two Sons, but one comes to mind the story of Jairus and his daughter. “When Jesus had again crossed over by boat to the other side of the lake, a large crowd gathered around him while he was by the lake. Then one of the synagogue leaders, named Jairus, came, and when he saw Jesus, he fell at his feet. He pleaded earnestly with him, “My little daughter is dying. Please come and put your hands on her so that she will be healed and live.” So Jesus went with him. A large crowd followed and pressed around him. And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years. She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse. When she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, because she thought, “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.” Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering. At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him. He turned around in the crowd and asked, “Who touched my clothes?” “You see the people crowding against you,” his disciples answered, “and yet you can ask, ‘Who touched me?’ ”But Jesus kept looking around to see who had done it. Then the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell at his feet and, trembling with fear, told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.” While Jesus was still speaking, some people came from the house of Jairus, the synagogue leader. “Your daughter is dead,” they said. “Why bother the teacher anymore?” Overhearing what they said, Jesus told him, “Don’t be afraid; just believe.” He did not let anyone follow him except Peter, James and John the brother of James. When they came to the home of the synagogue leader, Jesus saw a commotion, with people crying and wailing loudly. He went in and said to them, “Why all this commotion and wailing? The child is not dead but asleep.” But they laughed at him. After he put them all out, he took the child’s father and mother and the disciples who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha koum!” (which means “Little girl, I say to you, get up!”). Immediately the girl stood up and began to walk around (she was twelve years old). At this they were completely astonished. He gave strict orders not to let anyone know about this, and told them to give her something to eat.” (Mark 5:22-41)
“While Jesus was still speaking, some people came from the house of Jairus, the synagogue leader. “Your daughter is dead,” they said. “Why bother the teacher anymore?” Overhearing what they said, Jesus told him, “Don’t be afraid; just believe.” Jairus has come to Jesus in desperation to save his daughter’s life. I cannot imagine the fear and despair coursing through his body, and yet he knows the only hope of saving his daughter’s life is Jesus. The crowd discourages him and tells him all hope is lost, she is dead, even Jesus can’t save her, but Jesus knows that death is not the final word, and he tells Jairus, “Don’t be afraid; just believe.” Often we are like the crowd, thinking and saying don’t bother Jesus, all hope is lost. Many times we have been Jairus and we desperately need to hear the words of Jesus, to not be afraid and just believe. We tell our children to never give up, and we keep pushing them to keep going. But, when it comes to matters of faith beyond our control, we are quick to give up, and declare that it is utterly hopeless.
Jean Valjean sings a prayer that I can hear Jairus pray over his daughter, and me over my children. “God on high, hear my prayer, in my need you have always been there;” In the time that has progressed in Valjean’s life since his encounter with The Bishop of Digné, God has proven faithful; and Valjean comes to the only one he can turn to in this circumstance to save Marius’ life. Just like Jairus, and I imagine just like you and me. I would also contend that God was even faithful to Valjean before he learned of God’s faithfulness.
Valjean has spent his entire life paying forward the Bishop’s gift, and he becomes like the Bishop to Cosette, Marius, and later even Javert. We began this story with a self-centered hardened man who steals from the only person who genuinely cares for him, and over the 800 pages and three hour musical he is transformed into the selfless person the Bishop saw within him. “If I die, let me die. Let him live, bring him home, bring him home.” Valjean has become Christ –like, and is willing to give up his life for this boy whom his daughter loves.
Isn’t this how it is with us and Jesus? Romans 5:8 reminds us, “While we were still thieves, prostitutes, liars, swindlers, and all that was bad, Christ died for us.” (Nate Burns paraphrase) Our encounter with Jesus Christ radically reshapes our future, and over time when practicing His presence in our lives we become like Him, giving our lives away for His Kingdom.
The words of Jesus ring throughout the prayer in “Bring Him Home” and our own, “Don’t be afraid, just believe!”