My favorite scene in Les Miserables is also the most important scene: the interaction between Jean Valjean and Bishop Bienvenu. It is the scene where Victor Hugo sets in motion the driving issue of his great novel. It is a picture of redemption as both death and new life — a demanding, imperfect, complicated new life.
The paroled convict Jean Valjean finds himself an outcast, and seeks food and shelter from a saintly bishop. Valjean repays the bishop by stealing his silver and sneaking away. Police catch him with the goods and bring him back to face the bishop — who turns the tables by saying that he freely gave it all to Valjean. The bishop then goes well beyond the second mile, forcing Valjean to also take the candlesticks he “forgot.” The police leave, and the criminal is left with the one who has every right to be his accuser.
The bishop faces the one who stole his most precious possessions and says in the book
“Do not forget, never forget, that you have promised to use this money in becoming an honest man.”
Valjean hadn’t forgotten it. This is the first he’d heard about it. The bishop goes on:
“Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I buy from you; I withdraw it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God”
Even the film version got me all weepy, though I’m not sold on their cheery portrayal of the bishop.
Valjean spends the rest of the story living with the consequences of grace.
- It is not just the simple grace of being forgiven.
- It is the complicated grace of being forcibly placed under new ownership.
That should remind readers of the Heidelberg Catechism of the essential nature of Christian faith. In Question 1 we say that our only comfort is
“That I am not my own, but belong–body and soul, in life and in death–to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.”
It drives Valjean to truly strive to become an honest man — to live a life worthy of the calling that came to him though a loving man’s personal sacrifice. In every situation, even when he must risk his own life, he is compelled by this new identity bought with a price.
This is what, in Romans 12, the Apostle Paul calls being a “living sacrifice.” The old is as dead as if our bodies were on the altar, a whole burnt offering in ancient Israel; and yet we live with that life dead. As a sacrifice we are now devoted to God — so how will we live?
The Heidelberg Catechism calls this “conversion.”
88 Q. What is involved in genuine repentance or conversion?
A. Two things:
The dying-away of the old self,
and the rising-to-life of the new.
I’ve read the story of Jean Valjean’s dying-away and rising-to-life for God. I’ve seen it on Broadway. Now I’ve seen it on film. Makes me want to live more truly for Christ every single time.
If you’ve seen Les Miserables, what do you think of it as a portrait of conversion?
What do you think marks the reality of Christian conversion?