The story of Les Misérables is such a powerful parallel with the teachings in Galatians. The rest of the story is all about the contrast between the law and grace. For twenty years after Jean Valjean was released from prison, Javert – who represents the law – relentlessly pursued him, seeking justice. But something happened after Valjean’s release from prison. After three days of wandering, hungry, jobless (no one will hire him because of his past) and homeless, he goes to a village. However, because of his past as a convict, he was refused a place to stay either in the inns or the homes of the people in the village. Worn out with fatigue, and no longer entertaining any hope, he lay down on a stone bench in town to go to sleep when a woman approached him. After hearing his story, she encouraged him to go and knock on the door of the church – and he does.
In his book, Victor Hugo vividly describes the scene when Jean Valjean meets the bishop:
“As Valjean entered the house, he said: “See here. My name is Jean Valjean. I am a convict from the galleys… I have been walking for four days since I left Toulon. I have travelled a dozen leagues to-day on foot. This evening, when I arrived in these parts, I went to an inn, and they turned me out, because of my yellow passport, which I had shown at the town-hall. I had to do it. I went to an inn. They said to me, `Be off,’ at both places. No one would take me. I went to the prison; the jailer would not admit me. I went into a dog’s kennel; the dog bit me and chased me off, as though he had been a man. One would have said that he knew who I was. I went into the fields, intending to sleep in the open air, beneath the stars. There were no stars. I thought it was going to rain, and I re-entered the town, to seek the recess of a doorway. Yonder, in the square, I meant to sleep on a stone bench. A good woman pointed out your house to me, and said to me, `Knock there!’ I have knocked… I am very weary; twelve leagues on foot; I am very hungry. Are you willing that I should remain?”
The bishop, who was sitting near him, touched his hand gently and said, “You need not tell me who you are. This is not my house, it is the house of Christ. It does not ask any comer whether he has a name, but whether he has an affliction. You are suffering, you are hungry and thirsty; be welcome… What need have I to know your name? Besides, before you told me, I knew it… your name is brother.”
With that simple act of grace and kindness, Valjean’s heart began to soften and change. It was the start of a transformation in his life, but it didn’t happen overnight. After the bishop fed him, he put him up in a bed – the first real bed he had slept in for nineteen years.
“That night, Jean Valjean rose from bed, rummaged through the cupboard for the family silver, and crept off into the darkness. The next morning three policemen knocked on the bishop’s door with Valjean in tow. They had caught the convict in flight with the stolen silver and were ready to put the scoundrel in chains for life. The bishop responded in a way that no one, especially Jean Valjean, expected. “So here you are!” he cried to Valjean, “I’m delighted to see you. Had you forgotten that I gave you the candlesticks as well? They’re silver like the rest, and worth a good 200 francs. Did you forget to take them?” Jean Valjean’s eyes had widened. He was now staring at the old man with an expression no words can convey. Valjean was no thief, the bishop assured the police. “This silver was my gift to him.” When the policemen withdrew, the bishop gave the candlesticks to his guest, now speechless and trembling. “Do not forget, do not ever forget,” said the bishop, “that you have promised me to use the money to make yourself an honest man.” (Philip Yancey, What’s so Amazing About Grace?).
The power of that act of grace transformed Jean Valjean’s life. Had the bishop followed the letter of the law, he could have demanded that Valjean be sent back to prison for stealing. But because the bishop extended grace instead of the law, Jean Valjean was forever changed. He gave up his life of crime, became a hard worker, became the mayor of a town and started using his money to help people in need. He helped of a woman named Fantine who had previously worked for him but ended up living on the streets, selling her body in prostitution. After the death of Fantine, Valjean helped care for her daughter Cosette. He went from being a hardened convict, to a good, godly, generous man. But even though he had become a new man, the law – Javert – pursued him, demanding justice.
Pastor Chris Jordan