Conversely, Javert is the legalist who adheres strictly to the letter of the law. He serves in Valjean’s story as both a prison guard and the police officer who is always watching Jean Valjean with a keen and cruel eye. Javert is always looking for Valjean, chasing him, and seeking to arrest him after he breaks his parole.
An eye for an eye
is also Javert’s law. He believes there is only one way to treat others, and it is by strict justice.
The story builds to a climactic scene in which Jean Valjean has the opportunity to kill Javert. But instead of an eye for an eye, instead of retribution for the lifetime of pain Javert has inflicted on his life, Jean Valjean shows him mercy, cuts his bound hands loose, and sends his enemy away as a free man.
But receiving such grace plunges Javert, the legalist, into a quandary he cannot resolve within himself. Mercy does not compute in him equation of right and wrong; life and death.
Who is this man?
What sort of devil is he?
To have caught me in a trap
And choose to let me go free?
It was his hour at last
To put a seal on my fate
Wipe out the past
And wash me clean off the slate!
All it would take
Was a flick of his knife
Vengeance was his
And he gave me back my life!
Damned if I live in the debt of a thief!
Damned if I yield at the end of the chase!
I am the law and the law is not mocked!
I’ll spit his pity right back in his face!
There is nothing on earth that we share!
It is either Valjean or Javert!
How can I allow this man
To hold dominion over me?
This desperate man that I have hunted . . .
He gave me my life! He gave me freedom!
I should have perished by his hand
It was his right . . .
It was my right to die as well . . .
Instead I live . . . But live in hell!
And my thoughts fly apart
Can this man be believed?
Shall his sins be forgiven?
Shall his crimes be reprieved?
And must I now begin to doubt
Who never doubted all those years?
My heart is stone and still it trembles . . .
The world I have known is lost in shadow
Is he from heaven or from hell?
And does he know
That granting me my life today
This man has killed me even so?
Hugo writes of Javert “He saw two roads before him, both equally straight, but he saw two of them; and this terrified him. . . . Jean Valjean’s generosity toward him, Javert, devastated him.”
This road of mercy, freely offered, is often incomprehensible to a legalist and can even harden the soul of one who is unwilling to be broken open by the gift of unmerited love. In the perplexing face of such a conflict — the face of unmerited mercy — Javert the legalist jumps off a bridge and kills himself.
Grace, God’s mercy is redemptive beyond our imaginings, and it is that Grace that is the major them of Hugo’s work. To the sinner who is willing to confront his own sin and self-insufficiency (and who among us is not a sinner) and who is willing to be humbled, it give life anew. But to the legalist who refuses to confront his own sins and self-insufficiency, this same offer of mercy becomes an inescapable problem that hardens the soul. It might remind you of the tales of Jesus’ parables of the tax collector and the prodigal son and the older brother.
The journey of Lent toward the love of Good Friday and the gift of Easter invites us to examine our own hearts, our own willingness to gratefully receive and graciously offer grace and mercy. We will continue to explore this and so much more about God’s love on Sunday mornings during Lent and on Wednesday evenings from 6-7pm in Apple Corps beginning tonight.
Won’t you join us? Do you hear the people sing?
May grace and mercy be yours,
aka “The Vicar”