The Bishop and Jean Valjean

As I mentioned in my last post, the musical Les Miserables has a lot of good theology woven into its plotline. To make my next point, I need to immerse us in the story.

The first character we meet in the musical is Jean Valjean, working on a chain gang while serving a nineteen-year prison term for breaking a window pane to steal a loaf of bread for his sister’s child who was close to death and starving. He is released on parole only to be rejected at every turn by the wider world. The first person to not reject him is the Bishop of Digne. The bishop takes him in, feeds him and gives him a place to stay the night. Valjean repays the bishop’s loving kindness by stealing the silver and running away in the middle of the night. Two policemen bring him back to the Bishop’s home the next day. Valjean has lied and told them that the Bishop gave him the silver. The policemen rightly think this is a lie and they expect the Bishop to confirm that it is a lie. Instead, the Bishop confirms Valjean’s story and goes further, telling Valjean that he departed in such a hurry that he left the best (two silver candlesticks) behind. [1] The Bishop gives Valjean the candlesticks, blesses the policeman, and sends them on his way. He then speaks (actually, it’s a musical, so he sings) to Valjean saying:

“But remember this, my brother, see in this some higher 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 bought your soul for God.”

Now, I could quibble with the Bishop’s theology, but the critical thing is that he recognizes Valjean as a human being made in the image of God. He has shown Valjean that he is beloved of God and has infinite worth. This provokes in Valjean a spiritual crisis that becomes the turning point that changes his life and causes him to show loving kindness throughout the rest of the musical. The Bishop touches Jean Valjean’s life with the love and grace of God, and then Jean Valjean spends the rest of his life doing the same for others.

That’s the plot summary, now here’s the point: a lot of people lead lives in which they are bogged down by past mistakes. They have found themselves so rejected and despised by the world that they feel like they are worthless. It is the church’s job to do what the Bishop did. To tell them that they have a soul, that they are beings of infinite worth and beloved by God. I believe that doing so will make all the difference in the world.


[1] Technically this is a lie, but I’m assuming the Bishop saw that a great deal more harm would have come from telling the truth. Matters of faithful living are not always completely black and white.