Branded by Grace: a reaction to Les Miserables

Jean Valjean - Branded by GraceWhen I lived in Northern Nevada, I had an opportunity to participate in the branding of calves at the ranch owned by some friends. When the ranch hands would rope a calf to separate it from its mother, it was my job to wrestle the calf to the ground and hold it there. While I held it the calf was branded and subjected to other indignities.

The result is that the calf becomes marked for life by that event. The stamp of ownership is put upon that cow by the brand being burned into it’s hide.

In the recently released movie, Les Misérables, two characters were touched by Grace and were not the same as a result. They were branded by Grace.

The first is Jean Valjean, a convict who is shown grace by an elderly bishop. The bishop had it in his power to have Jean Valjean thrown back in prison but instead gives Jean two silver candlesticks. The candlesticks serve as a constant reminder to Jean of the grace he had been shown. They were a symbol of the brand of Grace upon Jean Valjean’s life. The bishop demonstrated that grace is superior to the law in that it changes men from the inside whereas the law constrains from the outside.

In response, Jean Valjean became a dispenser of grace to others. The movie gives several examples of grace in action in Jean’s life.

The second character to be branded by Grace is Javert, a policeman who has made it his obsession to pursue Jean Valjean and put him back in prison. Javert does not believe that men can change and is certain that Jean Valjean is worthy of additional punishment.

Javert experiences grace at the hands of Jean Valjean who saves Javert’s life by pretending to shoot him. Javert struggles throughout the story. While Javert has been touched by grace and compelled to respond to it, he still holds the law as superior and cannot reconcile his actions with what he knows of the law.

Javert’s response to grace caused him to forbear when his had the opportunity to shoot Jean Valjean. Javert reluctantly dispensed grace to Jean Valjean, a grace that he could not dispense to himself. In the end, Javert is so troubled by his failure to uphold the law that he commits suicide because he cannot forgive himself. He held the law as superior to grace, but could not live up to the law’s demands.

I would think that all of us have experienced grace at one time or another. If we have not experienced it in our human interactions, we certainly can experience it from Jesus as he is portrayed in the Gospels.

The question is, how will you respond to it? Will you accept the grace and then become a dispenser of grace, or will you become stubborn in our adherence to the law refusing grace to any who fall short?

It seems to me that Jean Valjean found the better way.