This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun! [2 Corinthians 5:17 (NLT)]
For I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners. [Matthew 9:13b (NLT)]
We recently saw a stage production of Les Miserables (“Les Miz”), a musical based on Victor Hugo’s novel. Set in France in the early 1800s, it tells the story of Jean Valjean, a man who spent 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving family. When Valjean, known as “Prisoner 24601,” is released, he is issued a “yellow passport” which he’s required to present to the police in any village he passes through. Stating he has been released from prison but listing his crimes, this yellow piece of paper marks him as a criminal forever.
Almost immediately upon his release, Valjean steals from the Bishop of Digne, the only person who shows him any kindness by offering him food and shelter. When the ex-convict is caught by the police, the bishop refuses to accuse him and even gives him more silver. The astonished Valjean then commits his life to virtue and service. Realizing he can’t start life anew as a convict, he breaks parole by tearing up his yellow passport and changing his name.
Valjean becomes a model citizen but, to an unrelenting policeman named Javert, Valjean remains Prisoner 24601 and a criminal. Even after Valjean saves his life, Javert remains wholly dedicated to enforcing the law by arresting Valjean and punishing him for breaking parole. He sings these words about Valjean: “Once a thief, forever a thief. What you want you always steal.”
While hardly a Christian story, Victor Hugo’s tale depicts the way Christian love can transform a person. We see how the bishop’s love and forgiveness affects Vajean and how his new personality positively impacts the lives of others. When we accept Jesus, like Valjean, we become new people and the old is gone. The “yellow passport” identifying us as sinners is torn and tossed and we are new people with a new purpose.
While we identify with Valjean, we also can resemble the unrelenting Javert or the merciful Bishop of Digne. Like Javert, do we ever act as judge and jury and insist that “a man like that can never change”? Are we people who can’t forgive: people who believe justice is more about retribution than mercy? Like Javert, are we more interested in being right or, like the bishop, is our concern doing what’s right? As did the bishop, do we truly believe in redemption, forgiveness, love and mercy? To give someone a new lease on life, would we lie to the police or give even more to a thief? Would we follow the letter of the law or the word of God? When I ponder this question, I think of the advice given to a young man by his minister father: “Don’t just do what is legally right, do what is morally right!” Let us remember that, as Christians, we are not called just to do things right; we are called always to do the right thing!