One of the most enduring works of art over the past two hundred years is Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. Rarely does a decade go by without a fresh film adaptation or staging of the classic musical it inspired. Les Mis has stood the test of time for good reason; it is an incredibly moving story of redemption, one that deals with the deepest themes of human life: mercy and guilt, justice and inequality, God and man, men and women, parents and children, forgiveness and punishment, and yes, the relationship of grace and law. It is also a notorious tearjerker. Like a true artist, Hugo burrows inside the ribcage and plays a symphony on our heartstrings. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that the entire story hinges on a stunning act of one-way love.

Out on parole after nineteen years in a French prison, protagonist Jean Valjean is denied shelter at several respectable establishments because his passport identifies him as a former convict. He is finally taken in by a kindly bishop, Bishop Bienvenu. Valjean repays his host by running off in the middle of the night with the church silver. When the police catch up to him, Valjean lies and claims that the Bishop had given him the silver as a gift. They drag him back to the bishops house, where Bienvenu not only validates Valjean’s deception but chastises him for not accepting the candlesticks as well. Jean Valjean is utterly confounded. His identity up until that point has been that of thief, prisoner, number, sinner. Now he has been “seen” as human and shown mercy. But it is more than mercy, isn’t it? Mercy would involve simply dropping the charges, but the bishop goes further—he actually rewards Valjean for his transgression! Bienvenu acts, in other words, in the polar opposite way than what would be expected of him. He is not wise or responsible. He treats Valjean recklessly, overruling what the law—literally standing in front of him—demands. He takes a major risk and blesses this criminal who has shown no ability to act in a non-shameful way. His love has everything to do with the sacrifice of the one doing the loving rather than the merit of the beloved. Needless to say, when I first saw the scene portrayed on the screen I fell to pieces.

This one surprising act throws Valjean into complete breakdown mode, causing him to question absolutely everything in his life and the world. In the musical, his bewilderment at the goodness which has been shown him is made plain when he sings:

One word from him and I’d be back
Beneath the lash, upon the rack
Instead he offers me my freedom
I feel my shame inside me like a knife
He told me that I have a soul,
How does he know?
What spirit comes to move my life?
Is there another way to go?

There is another way to go, thanks be to God, the way of Grace as opposed to Law. It is this way that Valjean takes from this moment forward—or I should say, the way that takes him. He doesn’t become a superhuman or even any less of a broken vessel, but from here on out, his life is fueled more by gratitude than greed, giving than receiving, love than fear. This one moment of grace changes him in a way that a lifetime of punishment never could. In fact, Valjean’s heroic, self-sacrificing actions in the rest of the novel flow directly from the word he hears from the bishop, which is the word of the Gospel.

Just as it is difficult to experience forgiveness without some knowledge of what you have done wrong, so it is difficult to understand the Gospel apart from the Law. If the Law is God’s first word, the Gospel is His last.

Listen closely: the law exposes Valjean (and us), while grace exonerates him. The law diagnoses, but grace delivers. The law accuses, the gospel acquits. The law condemns the best of us, while grace saves the worst of us. The law says cursed, the gospel says blessed. The law says slave, the gospel says son. The law says guilty, the gospel says forgiven. The law can break a hard heart, but only grace can heal one. Which is precisely what happens to Valjean. He may be a fictional character, but our response to his predicament is not fictional. The tears come because each one of us is dying to be treated this way. The scene gets us in touch with that one time that someone did show us a little sympathy when we deserved reproach.

It points us, in other words, to the truth at the very heart of the universe, the one-way love of God for sinners.

Originally published March 18, 2013.