After watching the movie version of the musical Les Miserables, I began to divide things—songs, sound bites of chapel messages, Facebook posts—into “Javert would agree with that” and “That’s more like Jean Valjean.” It was pretty easy to do. The two characters give us a striking, black-and-white dichotomy of justice and mercy.
Except that what seems to be a dichotomy is actually a paradox. In God’s view of the world, it’s justice and mercy, not justice vs. mercy.
This is one reason why Micah 6:8 is one of my favorite verses. What does the Lord require of you? Seek justice. Love mercy. Walk humbly with your God.
So, if Javert was an example of someone completely devoted to one of the defining characteristics of God, why did his story end so hopelessly? Faced with a wrong on both sides—turning Jean Valjean in or letting him escape—Javert resigned his commission in a final way.
And I cried. I cried for how close he was, for one scrap of missing doctrine that is the key to the whole Christian faith, for those few inches between his head and his heart that his strict pursuit of righteousness would not allow the truth to travel. I spent the last seconds of the closing song scanning the mass of people transformed in paradise, looking for his face. But it wasn’t there.
There’s one Bible story that affects me in the same way, leaving me with a heavy “almost” in my gut, wishing things had been different. It’s the story of the rich young man in Mark 10:17-22.
The fact that this man was so close, that the Bible said that Jesus “looked at him and loved him,” makes it all the more painful when he walks away, unable to give up the useless things of life to follow Jesus.
But the line that really gets me is right at the beginning. The rich young man says, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
And Jesus replies, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.”
Most of the time, I’ve heard pastors and camp speakers assure everyone, “Now, Jesus wasn’t saying he wasn’t God. He was testing the rich young, asking him, ‘Do you really know what you’re saying when you call me good teacher? Do you believe I’m God, or just another rabbi?’”
That’s probably true. But that might not be the only thing he was trying to accomplish. One writer, Steven James, had a different take on Jesus’ cryptic answer. In his story, the rich young man is looking back on his choice to walk away, and he remembers Jesus saying, “No one is good except God alone.” Of course, being a good Jew, he believes this.
But he still wonders, But…I’m good too, right? At least a little bit. I’ve followed all the commands, ever since I was young. Sure, God is good. But so am I.
And that’s the lie. Right there. Javert’s lie. Once, I thought he refused grace because he couldn’t understand it, because it didn’t fit in with his legalistic personality. But I’ve come to realize that he refused grace because he didn’t think he needed it, up until the moment when he let Jean Valjean go.
Then things changed. Letting Jean Valjean escape was a sin. Maybe the first he had admitted to himself. A terrible, unforgivable sin. He had promised to do justice, and he had let a criminal go free. There was no other choice but to kill himself, to admit before God that he had done wrong.
For most of his life, Javert didn’t think he needed grace, and when he finally realized that only God is good, he didn’t think he deserved grace.
He didn’t deserve it. That’s the whole point. All of us need it, none of us deserve it. Paradox.
Jean Valjean missed the first struggle: he knew he was a sinner in need of grace. It was painfully obvious, from the rub of the chains around his wrist, the weight of the bishop’s silver in his bag, the familiar ring of “24601.” When faced with the second struggle, his desperate need overcame any hesitation about accepting grace. It was all he had to cling to.
Some of us understand Javert better than we do Jean Valjean. There are rules to be kept, truths to be defended, and order in the world to praise God for, consistent and reliable as the stars. There is good and evil. There is justice.
But there is also mercy.
The chapel after I watched Les Miserables, we sang a song with these lines: “I have a shelter in the storm when all my sins accuse me. Though justice charges me with guilt, your grace will not refuse me.”
If someone had told Javert this, would it have made a difference? Or would he, like the rich young man, have walked away anyway?
I don’t know. The “almost” stories are powerful because they’re so unresolved. But I know what I can do.
Seek justice. Love mercy. Walk humbly with my God.