Monday, December 3, 2012
Day 3: Jean Valjean: A Sinner
The priest. The legendary priest of Les Misérables. Christians love this guy. He represents grace in such an understandable way. But what really is the magnitude of the symbolism behind the priest’s actions?
Continuing from yesterday, if you were Jean Valjean and were given a chance to change your circumstances, would you?
I’d be crazy if I said no. However, Jean Valjean as a sinner, me as a sinner, we’re incapable of making the right choice. When Jean Valjean tries to save himself, he ruins it—big time. It takes an act of God to save him, to deliver him from himself.
In the first meeting of the priest and Jean Valjean, the priest says:
There's a bed to rest till morning,
Rest from pain, and rest from wrong.
The priest acknowledges Jean Valjean’s sinfulness. He doesn’t placate him and blame society for all the wrong it had done him. It’s almost like he’s saying, “I know you’re going to rob me, but I am going to love you anyway.”
Valjean—the sinner—incapable of making a right decision on his own, falls into his own trap, confirming what society has been saying about him all along. He robs the priest, the only man who dared to show him compassion, and runs away.
If I’d been there, I’d want to grab Jean Valjean’s shoulders and shake him. I’d want to scream “Why?! Why did you do it? You just proved that you are exactly what everyone is saying you are. You just proved you’re a thief and that you can’t change.”
What Jean Valjean did was prove the truth.
The problem with the society is not in saying that Jean Valjean is a vile person. He is. The problem with the society is refusing to believe in its own vileness. That’s where the hypocrisy begins.
The priest, on the other hand, treats Valjean in a way he doesn’t deserve. He shows him compassion in the beginning and mercy in the end. When Valjean is caught and brought back with the silver he stole, the priest confirms Valjean’s lie by agreeing that he had given the silver to Valjean. The constables have no choice but to let him go. Valjean is suddenly, undeservingly free and suddenly, undeservingly, a very wealthy man.
It would take an enormous amount of trust in God to give the silver to a convict not knowing if this sinful man would use it for good. By this act, the priest proves he believes his own words:
And remember this, my brother,
See in this some higher plan.
You must use this precious silver
To become an honest man.
The priest sees a higher plan unfolding, even if Valjean doesn’t. He represents a power given to Valjean to change who he is. He represents an ability given to Valjean to truly shed the chains of slavery and become free.
With the opportunity to become a different person, what sort of a person does Jean Valjean become?
I love the following clip from the 1998 film version with Liam Neeson. It's a beautiful portrayal of this scene.
First performance: October 8, 1985
Composer: Claud-Michel Schönberg
Adapted from: Les Misérables by Victor Hugo
Playwrights: Alain Boublil, Claud-Michel Schönberg
Lyricists: Herbert Kretsmer, Alain Boublil, Jean-Marc Natel
Quoted: Valjean Arrested/Valjean Forgiven