The book Les Miserables by Victor Hugo is a classic novel from the 19th century. Its complexities and twists and turns remind me of a traditional Hindi Bollywood movie with the intense emotion and complex story line. In fact, Les Mis (as it has colloquially come to be called) is now internationally famous as a sing through musical. It has been seen by more than 70 million people in 44 countries and in 22 languages around the globe. It is still breaking box-office records everywhere. The original London production celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2015 and is the world’s longest running musical. There are also two film of the same name released in 1998 and 2012. The most recent one has also become a widely acclaimed with three oscars and a further four nominations.
The film and book follow the life of Jean Valjean who has spent 19 years in prison. This was made up of 5 years for stealing bread for his starving sister and 14 years for numerous escape attempts. On becoming a free man he is turned away by innkeepers because his yellow passport marks him as a former convict. He sleeps on the street, angry and bitter.
However, the local Bishop Myriel gives him shelter. At night, Valjean attacks and runs off with Myriel’s silverware. The local paramilitary police officers (gendarmes) bring Valjean back to the Bishop. Valejan is expecting to be convicted and to return to prison. This is the point of radical transformation in Valjean’s life. Here is how the 2012 movie in song describes what happens when the gendarmes arrive with Valjean:
Monsignor, we have your silver
We caught this man red-handed
He had the nerve to say you gave him this
That is right
But my friend you left so early
Surely something slipped your mind
You forgot I gave these also
Would you leave the best behind?
Monsieur, release him
This man has spoken true
I commend you for your duty
And God’s blessing go with you
But remember this, my brother
See in this some high plan
You must use this precious silver
To become an honest man.
By the witness of the martyrs
By the passion and the blood
God has raised you out of darkness
I have saved your soul for God.
Valjean is the recipient of radical undeserved grace and realises he cannot live the way he did before. The Bishop’s mercy in not convicting Valjean but by giving him candlesticks in addition to the stolen silverware changes something deep within his soul.
Here is how the book describes the scene from when Vlajean realises the undeserved kindness of the Bishop to him:
The door opened. A singular and violent group made its appearance on the threshold. Three men were holding a fourth man by the collar. The three men were gendarmes; the other was Jean Valjean.
A brigadier of gendarmes, who seemed to be in command of the group, was standing near the door. He entered and advanced to the Bishop, making a military salute.
“Monseigneur–” said he.
At this word, Jean Valjean, who was dejected and seemed overwhelmed, raised his head with an air of stupefaction.
“Monseigneur!” he murmured. “So he is not the cure?”
“Silence!” said the gendarme. “He is Monseigneur the Bishop.”
In the meantime, Monseigneur Bienvenu had advanced as quickly as his great age permitted.
“Ah! here you are!” he exclaimed, looking at Jean Valjean. “I am glad to see you. Well, but how is this? I gave you the candlesticks too, which are of silver like the rest, and for which you can certainly get two hundred francs. Why did you not carry them away with your forks and spoons?”
Jean Valjean opened his eyes wide, and stared at the venerable Bishop with an expression which no human tongue can render any account of.
“Monseigneur,” said the brigadier of gendarmes, “so what this man said is true, then? We came across him. He was walking like a man who is running away. We stopped him to look into the matter. He had this silver–“
“And he told you,” interposed the Bishop with a smile, “that it had been given to him by a kind old fellow of a priest with whom he had passed the night? I see how the matter stands. And you have brought him back here? It is a mistake.”
“In that case,” replied the brigadier, “we can let him go?”
“Certainly,” replied the Bishop.
The gendarmes released Jean Valjean, who recoiled.
“Is it true that I am to be released?” he said, in an almost inarticulate voice, and as though he were talking in his sleep.
“Yes, thou art released; dost thou not understand?” said one of the gendarmes.
“My friend,” resumed the Bishop, “before you go, here are your candlesticks. Take them.”
He stepped to the chimney-piece, took the two silver candlesticks, and brought them to Jean Valjean. The two women looked on without uttering a word, without a gesture, without a look which could disconcert the Bishop.
Jean Valjean was trembling in every limb. He took the two candlesticks mechanically, and with a bewildered air.
“Now,” said the Bishop, “go in peace. By the way, when you return, my friend, it is not necessary to pass through the garden. You can always enter and depart through the street door. It is never fastened with anything but a latch, either by day or by night.”
Then, turning to the gendarmes:–
“You may retire, gentlemen.”
The gendarmes retired.
Jean Valjean was like a man on the point of fainting.
The Bishop drew near to him, and said in a low voice:–
“Do not forget, never forget, that you have promised to use this money in becoming an honest man.”
Jean Valjean, who had no recollection of ever having promised anything, remained speechless. The Bishop had emphasized the words when he uttered them. He resumed with solemnity:–
“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.”
There are lots more twists and turns to the story (and the novel at 1500 pages in English is one of the longest ever written), but this is a pivotal scene in which the Bishops’s act of grace to Valjean transforms him from a criminal to a new man.
This radical inside out transformation is also echoed by Ezra Taft Benson:
The Lord works from the inside out. The world works from the outside in. The world would take people out of the slums. Christ takes the slums out of people, and then they take themselves out of the slums. The world would mould men by changing their environment. The world would change human behaviour, but Christ can change human nature.
For more on the the power of money to transform also see Podcast #011: Money