Nineteen years of hard labor in prison, and now he was on the run again. Less than a week on parole and Jean Valjean was already fleeing into the countryside, consumed with paranoia as the bishop’s expensive silver jostled in his bag. While the bishop had welcomed Valjean into his home and treated him as an honored guest, Valjean had chosen to reciprocate by stealing the most valuable items in the bishop’s house.
Soon enough, however, Valjean is captured by the French authorities and brought back to the bishop. Here, we might expect the bishop to enact retribution. Perhaps scold the criminal for his wrongdoing, and then throw him back behind bars. After all, the silver was not simply a prized collector’s item; they were the last remnants of the bishop’s familial ties.
Instead, the bishop makes a powerful and unexpected decision. He welcomes Valjean back into his home with sincerity and gladness, and defends Valjean in the face of the authorities by insisting that the stolen silver was actually his free gift to Valjean. The criminal is utterly dumbstruck, and unable to fathom the undeserved clemency he has just received. Valjean has no framework for understanding the bishop’s actions, much less his words, “I have ransomed your soul, and given it to God.”
Through the bishop’s actions, Valjean directly experiences the power of godly grace, and is confronted with a serious question: How am I to respond? Should I reap the rewards of this grace and move on with life? Or should I allow it to transform me—my thoughts, my actions, my very existence—as the bishop intended?
Valjean quickly realizes that he cannot simply walk away unchanged by the bishop’s radical display of grace, and his life thereafter bears evidence of a genuine transformation of the heart. Beyond adopting the orphaned Cosette and performing other numerous acts of charity, Valjean best displays the power of grace by the way he treats his enemies—namely Javert, the officer who has relentlessly pursued Valjean for violating parole. Confident that his legalism is the Lord’s work, Javert hunts for Valjean across the country, but eventually ends up a prisoner at the mercy of Valjean himself.
In setting Javert free, Valjean has given him new life, essentially paralleling the role of the bishop. The gift of godly grace shatters Javert’s legalism, as he has no way of comprehending the enormity and the sheer senselessness of what Valjean has done for him. Valjean’s grace has disarmed Javert, forcing him into a position that is entirely unfamiliar to him—a position of vulnerability. Here, Javert is confronted with the same question posed to Valjean in the face of grace: How is he to respond?
Unlike Valjean, Javert cannot accept the implications of this gift of grace. Javert resists what he knows to be the inevitable conclusion: that there is no way he can freely receive Valjean’s grace and not be utterly transformed. Indeed, Javert cannot surrender his pride. He knows that it would cost him too much to change his life in light of the grace he has encountered, and he is unprepared and unwilling to make this change. In an all-consuming act of resistance, Javert commits suicide by drowning himself in the river immediately after Valjean has allowed him to go free.
A tremendous dilemma arises for the one who is fortunate enough to experience godly grace—the grace of the bishop, for instance, or that of Valjean towards Javert. The dilemma, of course, is the same question that confronted both Valjean and Javert: How is one to respond?
Both Valjean and Javert are overwhelmed by the power of a grace that is wholly undeserved but freely given, and they offer us two viable but opposite ways to respond. One is to allow this grace to completely redefine our lives. The other is to reject it and try living with the knowledge that we have been loved but yet refuse to love, forgiven but yet refuse to forgive, graced but yet refuse to give grace.
We are put in the same position as Valjean and Javert. We were confronted with an ineffable grace, displayed by a God-man hanging on a cross for the redemption and restoration of all people. We are therefore posed with the same question every day of our lives: How will we respond?
The invitation of Christ is to experience the grace offered to broken people like you and me. While the gift of grace is freely given, it demands a response. It refuses to be dismissed or ignored, for it is of utmost importance to our lives however we decide to respond. We can either be fully renewed, like Valjean, or fully consumed, like Javert, in our attempt to deal with the dilemma posed by godly grace.
Our hope in emulating Valjean’s response to grace is not that our lives will be perfect, or that we will always make the right decisions. Rather, it is that in the midst of the brokenness and struggles of life, Christ is ever-present with us. Often in these difficult moments, Christ reveals himself to us through others, just as he had appeared to Valjean through the bishop.
The invitation has been made, the grace extended. Now, the response to accept or reject this gift is entirely on us. In Valjean we see the transformative power of grace and the new life that it brings, granted we are willing to accept it. In a very real sense, the grace of Christ puts us at a crossroads, and ultimately the decision is no one’s but our own