My wife and I finally made it to the new production of Les Miserables with Hugh Jackmon, Russell Crowe and Anne Hathaway, a cinematic version of the longest running musical on Broadway. In 1998 Liam Neeson starred as Jean Valjean in a dramatic movie version. Having read Victor Hugo’s book, written in 1862, I have long believed it is one of the greatest stories ever written.
If you’re not familiar with the story, here’s the gist. Jean Valjean, recently released from a French prison after serving nineteen years for stealing bread, is a hardened, bitter and desperate convict. But, his life is transformed when a priest gives him the silver he has stolen from him. This act of kindness sets his feet on a path of grace and mercy with a heart devoted to God. Valjean changes his identity, invests the silver and becomes a wealthy factory owner who transforms his village with fairness and generosity. He is eventually elected mayor. But, he is hunted by the law and his past catches up with him. Fleeing as a fugitive, he rescues the orphan child of a prostitute whom he has previously saved from the streets.
The story reveals the power of living out Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount: “I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. ... Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5:39-42,44).
When I turned fifty, I set two goals that I wanted to pursue for the rest of the life. The first was to encourage the younger generation to do greater things than I ever dreamed or imagined. Many of them are doing that. The second was to memorize the Sermon on the Mount and live it out. Memorizing it is not that difficult, though I keep forgetting. But living it out is a life-long challenge and I continue to fall far short.
But I am in good company. Victor Hugo brought to life the characters of Jean Valjean, Javert, Fontine, Cosette and Marius to help us see what living out Jesus’ teaching could look like during the French Revolution. Leo Tolstoy, after writing Anna Karenina and War and Peace committed himself to a literal interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount and wrote The Kingdom of God is Within You, a work that strongly influenced Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr.
The reason many in our day believe Christianity and Christian churches are impotent and irrelevant is simple. Most professing Christians have never seriously sought to live by the instructions that Jesus gave us. Living out the Sermon on the Mount is a story any of us, and every one of us, can write every day by the choices we make.