Les Miserables: A Word on Christian Charity for Today

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Lately I’ve been reading Victor Hugo’s epic masterpiece, Les Miserables. While I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the movies and musicals, they really don’t do justice to Hugo’s 1,300-page novel with its biting social commentary, Christian perspective on charity and piety, or the way Hugo forces you to think about the sufferings of others through the lens of the gospel.

I think Les Mis—like so many other great written works in history—is as timely today as it was when Hugo published it in 1862. In many ways I think Hugo was writing to people who call themselves Christians but, perhaps unknowingly, act against the law of Christ when it comes to their fellow man.

They attend church and seek God in prayer, but they refuse to make eye contact with the people suffering all around them. They run businesses that overwork, underpay and dehumanize their employees. They drive past abortion clinics everyday on their ride in to work without even a second thought.

Their money is their money, valuable for the sole purpose of indulging their own pleasures, never thinking about those who literally have nothing. The truth, of course, is not that wealth is bad, but it’s a gift from God to enjoy and to serve those who have needs around you. It’s meant to start businesses, provide fair employment, care for your workers and give generously to those who have need. Without a certain degree of wealth and an entrepreneurial spirit, charity would be impossible. When Monsieur Madeleine made a fortune with his textile business, Hugo writes,

In less than three years [he] had become rich, which was good, and had made all around him rich, which was better (159).

Hugo’s overarching message is this: True Christianity necessarily leads to compassion and righteousness in the societal arena. Those who love the Father expend themselves in love to their neighbor (1 John). Genuine faith must display itself in works of justice, love and mercy. As followers of Jesus, we have the responsibility to see those suffering in the gutter of life on the other side of the street and come to their aid.

In Isaiah 58, God lowers the boom on Israel because of their hypocrisy. They seek him continually and “delight in approaching God” through fasts and prayer, but at the same time they exploit their workers (v. 3). They ignore the hungry and refuse to clothe the naked (v. 7). Rather than freeing those under their authority from oppression and wickedness, they are agents of that injustice.

In today’s world that’s like saying everybody does their morning devotions, goes to church on Sunday, says their prayers before a meal and fasts twice a week, but then as bosses they pay their employees a wage you can’t live on, work them too many hours, prohibit them from Sunday worship, or turn the other way when they see they can’t even pay their bills.

So what does God tell Israel? Unless you repent of these things and do righteousness according to his law, God will not hear your prayer, you will remain in darkness, you will be cursed and not blessed, and you will perish in the day of adversity. God has given authority and wealth for the purpose of doing justice and mercy to those below us. If we fail to execute, he will execute us with the curse of his covenant. If we are deaf to the poor, God will be deaf to us.

On the other hand, if we would repent and do justice like Jean Valjean, God would repair the ruins of our society (Isaiah 58:12). Prayer and fasting, as well as religious duties, are meant to make us more like God, who having made the world also cares for it with compassion and justice. If we fail here—if we turn a blind eye to the unborn, the trafficked sex slave, the handicapped, the elderly, the autistic, or any other “undesirable”—then we are nothing (1 Cor 13).

Speaking on the good of loving others in their pain, Hugo wrote,

The supreme happiness of life is the conviction that we are loved; loved for ourselves—say, rather, loved in spite of ourselves; this conviction the blind have. In their calamity, to be served is to be caressed…Light is not lost where love enters (Les Miserables, 167).

My prayer is that today we’d see and repent. If God has given you authority—and he has given us each our portion—are you using it to dole out mercy and righteousness according to God’s standard? Maybe it’s the needy, whiny kid who needs the rod of correction and a good, gracious snuggle. Maybe you have the opportunity to feed the hungry today and clothe the naked; maybe your own kids need your mercy and justice. Maybe it’s a spouse or friend who needs encouragement. Maybe a lonely, oppressed heart just needs the dignity of being treated like a made-in-the-image-of-God person. Today is the day.

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