Tuesday, January 29, 2013

On "Stars", Les Mis and the Elder Brother

"Stars/ In their multitudes/ Scarce to be counted/ Filling the darkness"

I saw Les Miserables three times in the theatre last month. It blew me away for many reasons (which may become the subject of multiple blog posts), but there is one character in particular that gave me a lot to think about.


Javert is one of my favourite characters in Les Mis.  He is an officer of the law with a flawed view of God, a man with the law in one hand and a inability to see grace as he dispenses what he really believes is just in the eyes of God.

Literally all that Javert can see is the Law.  This is why the contrast between Javert and Valjean is so strong.  The highest good, in Javert's mind, is that the Law is maintained.  That Justice is served.

Whether or not you agree with how he goes about fulfilling these things, you can't deny that Justice is good.  So Javert's intentions aren't evil.  They're based on a desire that God has- that justice would be throughout the land.

The problem with Javert is that he can't see the relationship between Law and Grace. 

As I was thinking about Javert, I really started seeing him as the elder brother in the story of the prodigal son.  It's not a perfect parallel, but I saw some striking similarities.  

So at the beginning of the story, Valjean becomes a thief.  His motives are good, but he ends up in jail for his actions.  When he is released, Valjean is wretched, lost and poor, ruined in the finest sense of the word.  He steals a set of silver.  He's caught. 

And then he's shown mercy.  Valjean is welcomed into both the arms of the priest and into the arms of God.  Forgiven for his crimes. Welcomed back into grace. This mercy begins to transforms the way Valjean sees his entire life.

Javert doesn't know these things about Valjean.  But Javert has lived a life of law-keeping and law-enforcing.  Javert has obeyed the law to the letter.  And all he can see in Valjean is a man who stole bread and broke parole.  All he can see in Valjean is a thief deserving punishment. 

But Valjean has experienced mercy, a mercy that has coloured his future and made him into a man of mercy.

To Javert, Valjean is the one who didn't deserve anything yet was given everything.  He sees the prisoner who has slipped through the grasp of the Law again and again.

In the song "Stars," Javert sings this verse:

"And so it has been and so it is written
On the doorway to paradise
That those who falter and those who fall
Must pay the price!"

What Javert doesn't understand is that grace (and paradise), unlike law, cannot be earned. 

That is also what makes Javert tragic, in my mind.  He is so captivated by fulfilling the Law that he has closed his eyes to seeing grace.  He can't imagine a world where mercy could overcome law.  So when Valjean doesn't kill him, granting him life, it cracks the whole way that Javert has seen the world. 

In his last scene, Javert sings these words:

"Damned if I'll live in the debt of a thief!
Damned if I'll yield at the end of the chase.
I am the Law and the Law is not mocked
I'll spit his pity right back in his face
There is nothing on earth that we share
It is either Valjean or Javert!

And must I now begin to doubt,
Who never doubted all these years?
My heart is stone and still it trembles
The world I have known is lost in shadow.
Is he from heaven or from hell?
And does he know
That granting me my life today
This man has killed me even so?"

We would do well to think of Javert more complexly, I think.  Because there is more of the Javert in us than we may realize.  He has the heart of the elder brother who was more concerned with keeping the law then celebrating with a redeemed brother.  Javert is a drastically painted picture of law without grace, justice without mercy, and perfection without a changed heart.

I've seen a lot of Javert in myself.  And I think we all can act like little Javerts, valuing perfection and law-keeping over the grace that is given in the Gospel.  We make our lists- believe me, I've done this- and we try to live a perfect life in the hopes that we will receive favour.  In the hopes that we will earn paradise and that God will think well of us.

In our Javert-like hearts, we value outward perfection over a heart that has been transformed by grace.

That's been one of the biggest struggles of my Christian journey.  Does God's favour come through living rightly or through being granted mercy in my sinful state?   Do I earn grace?  Once I have been given mercy, do I have to keep on doing good things in order to keep that mercy?

Valjean had a heart that had been broken by sin and mended by grace, a heart that was washed and given grace.  That grace spilled out of Valjean, making him into the man that rescued Cosette, pulled Marius through a sewer.  It made im into the man who even forgave Javert.

And Javert, ruined by the knowledge that his law keeping didn't buy him grace, jumped off a bridge.

In the end, it is "either Valjean or Javert."   Because these two men- Javert and Valjean- are two ways of seeing the world- two ways of seeing the Gospel, Christ, and what it means to be forgiven.


  1. I think this is a pretty sound parallel. This was a really good post and a really good point. So much we do shows reliance on the law, rather than reliance on God's love. But without love, all of our deeds are worthless.
    Thanks for this post!

  2. Wow how did I not comment on this before.

    You sum this up SO WELL. Another thing I find interesting, that isn't in the movie as much because of a song they cut, is how Thenardier, Javert, and Valjean are set up as a sort of triangle--three opposing views of God (Thenardier believes that God doesn't exist). Javert's not the true villain, but the way the three of them contrast and how their beliefs feed their actions all the way through is pretty great.

    And it's fascinating how Javert does let Valjean go. He shows Valjean grace that he doesn't deserve, according to the law, and THAT is why Javert's world shatters. He realises the truth, but jumping off a bridge is easier than living with it.

    Gah. So good. Could talk about this forever...as you know. XD Fantastic post, as usual!