The opening scenes are riveting, as the prisoner Valjean strains to haul a gigantic ship into dock, his face a mask of animal misery. The brutal egomaniac Inspector Javert taunts him, threatening a lifetime of persecution even as the convict is about to be released after 19 years at hard labor for stealing bread to feed his starving nephew.
Finally free but broken and rejected by all, the filthy, hopeless man stumbles into a church where the priest gives him a good meal and a bed. But Valjean repays this kindness by running off in the middle of the night with the church’s precious trove of silver. He’s caught by the local law, dragged back to the church and bashed in the head a few times as punishment for claiming that the priest actually gifted him with the valuable silver. But the priest smiles and tells the gendarme that yes, he did give the silver to this cowering bundle of rags -- he was only surprised that Valjean neglected to take the best of the lot. And he puts into Valjean’s dirty hands the elegant silver candle holders adorning the table.
Next we see Valjean alone in the chapel, tears flooding his face as he confesses his entire being has been consumed with hatred. Now struck with this thunderbolt of the priest’s outrageous love, he vows to transform his life, to break free from the psychological bondage that has crippled him and to treat his fellow man with love.
When we see him again, years later, he’s literally unrecognizable. The “miserable” has become triumphantly successful; “the last has become first” as Jesus promised. Now a town mayor and prosperous entrepreneur, he seems invincible, beloved because of his kindnesses to all. But he’s unaware that his lecherous foreman has fired the lovely Fantine, a worker who’s resisted his advances.
Now Fantine, another miserable, is reduced to prostitution and selling her own teeth for a few coins to support her small daughter. Discovering this tragedy, Valjean blames himself for failing in his Christian duty, rescues her and takes her to the hospital. But it’s too late and as Fantine dies, he promises to care for her little girl, Cosette. When Valjean takes off to find the child, he’s pursued by the evil Javert who has tricked him into revealing his true identity.
As the years pass and Cosette grows into a comely young woman, the two are constantly on the run, still hounded by Javert. Cosette falls in love with a young revolutionary whose pals are intent on overthrowing the King. Moved to protect the life of this Marius because Cosette loves him, Valjean joins them at the barricades and is handed the opportunity to execute Javert who has been captured as a spy. But instead Valjean lets him go in a dramatic gesture of forgiveness. But Valjean’s mercy just refuels Javert’s savagery, and the Inspector spits out his pledge to keep trying to destroy the man who has just spared his life.
As the French troops charge the barricades and slaughter the revolutionaries, Valjean carries the wounded Marius into hiding in the sewers of Paris. Emerging into the light, he encounters Javert; Valjean begs his nemesis to let him take the unconscious Marius to the hospital and the Inspector grudgingly agrees. But when the two have left, Javert agonizes, trying to make sense of why this man he had so cruelly pursued didn’t kill him when he had the chance. In Javert’s world, the normal human eye-for-an-eye world, such behavior is simply incomprehensible.
Javert realized that he deserved death, not mercy, even as we know we deserve the same fate at the hands of a just and holy God. But many of us have great difficulty accepting God’s life-giving mercy, unearned as it is, just as Javert found it impossible to accept Valjean’s gift of life. Such boundless, irrational love just doesn’t fit the ordinary scheme of things. The Inspector puts it in song:
And my thoughts fly apart
Can this man be believed?
Shall his sins be forgiven?
Shall his crimes be reprieved?
And must I now begin to doubt,
Who never doubted all these years?
It’s impossible for Javert to live in a world governed, not by punishment and vengeance, but by radical love and forgiveness. Refusing to accept this terrifyingly new irrationality, he throws himself into the Seine, with the majestic shape of Notre Dame hulking meaningfully in the background.
Jean Valjean’s entire life, following his conversion in the chapel, is a skin-in-the-game demo of the Christian way that Jesus laid out for all of us to follow in Matthew 5:38: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you not to resist an evil person…. whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also….If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also.” Christ’s instruction turns the ME-first law of humanity upside down and replaces it with “everybody else first.”
And it’s not just about slaps and cloaks. Even worse, he instructs us to “Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven…” (Matthew 5: 44-45) Jesus is saying: do the exact opposite of what you would ordinarily do. This is the near-impossible mission of forgiving grace to which Christians must aspire, and which Jean Valjean extends to his mortal enemy, Javert. As Valjean was inspired by the priest’s godliness to emulate his loving example all his life, so are we asked to follow the all-forgiving example of Jesus Christ. Valjean gave Javert’s life back to him, knowing he was risking his own life to do so; Jesus gave us our lives back, knowing it would cost him his own.
This loving forgiveness is so hard to do because it’s the reverse of what comes naturally to us. But think how less miserable the world would become if we all really tried it, day by day.