A More Merciful World image

A More Merciful World

The other morning I read two articles talking about grace and the law. One was focussed on parenting, the other was a thematic review of the musical, recently remade on film, Les Miserables.

The first, by Mark Galli, editor of Christianity Today, suggested - in fact, stated outright - that Christian families should ‘focus on grace not control’, arguing that “the New Testament message is about freedom from law”. In support it quoted Paul’s assertion that “For freedom Christ has set us free”, but somehow seemed to miss the fact that Jesus explicitly said: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”
Galli continues: “The fact that even some Christians fail to grasp the radical nature of God’s unconditional love suggests just how deeply we humans are embedded in a world ruled by law, expectations, duty, control and obedience.”
Love and obedience, though, are not mutually exclusive. Again, Jesus himself told us, “If you love me, you will keep my commands”. It’s easy for us rebellious human-types to hear that as an oppressive statement of control, rather than as a prediction of the plain facts. Love, grace and mercy don’t stand in conflict with the law, but, as the second article, by Dr. Jason Hood at Mere Orthodoxy pointed out, bring it to its true fulfillment.
If you’re not familiar with the plot of Les Mis, well, nothing beats going to see it (except possibly reading the book, but that will take considerably more commitment!), but the central storyline revolves around a prisoner, Jean Valjean, who has served his time - and then some - on a work crew in revolutionary France. We join the story as he is being given his parole papers by Inspector Javert. Only rather than being declared free, he finds himself branded forever as a convict, for the crime of stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving family (then, worse, attempting to escape from prison).
After days of seeking work, cold and hungry, he finally finds sanctuary in a church and is fed and treated with great kindness by the priest but, in desperation runs away in the night, stealing the priest’s silver as he goes. The police quickly catch him and take him back to the church. Valjean has told them that the priest gave him the silver, and the police relate this lie, whereupon the priest not only backs up his story, but gives him even more silver saying/singing:

But my friend you left so early
Surely something slipped your mind
You forgot I gave these also
Would you leave the best behind?

“Valjean is reformed and transformed,” Hood explains, “Yet…Javert, hunts Valjean down ruthlessly, as he is convinced of his own righteousness and Valjean’s depravity. The common approach is that the story presents a sharp contrast between the law (Javert) and the gospel (the priest and Valjean).” He argues, however, that “there’s another way to look at the narrative”:

Rather than seeing Javert as a law-riddled villain and Valjean an anti- or post-law hero, perhaps we should see two different approaches to law: one fueled by grace and the pursuit of mercy and true righteousness, the other fueled by anger and self-righteousness. When the priest and Valjean depict grace, they are in fact keeping the law. The priest is obeying the commands of Jesus: loving his neighbor, turning the other cheek, doing mercy, and forgiving freely as he has been freely forgiven by God. In other words, the picture of grace and gospel in Les Miserables is also a beautiful portrait of law and commands.
Conversely, Javert might sing “Mine is the way of the Lord” while he ruthlessly pursues Valjean, but he’s wrong. His desire for justice and order is right, but his practice doesn’t represent law in any sort of biblical sense. Javert didn’t need to ditch the pursuit of law and justice; he needed grace and redemption that led to new law, a godly law that wouldn’t imprison a man for five years for stealing bread. He needed to discover merciful justice that wouldn’t imprison the poor inhumanely or treat the at-risk with ruthless contempt. In other words, he needed a law more like the law of Moses and Jesus.
Of course, any command can be used cruelly. But a healthy approach to law–an approach infused with beauty and grace–is possible, and helps us contribute to the creation of a more merciful world.

Now that is something worth making a song and dance about.

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