To me, the most attractive aspect of this book is the devotion of Jean Valjean to Fantine and her daughter. He finds a driving purpose to love and serve sacrificially. He offers himself to God hourly, for the remainder of his life, by serving them in this manner. He speaks the beautiful vow to Fantine in this moment of compassion: “I take charge of your child and you.”
This powerful theme forces me to ask myself: Where is my time and energy devoted? What matters most to me as revealed by the urgent matters occupying my mind? What am I willing to sacrifice in order to obey what I say is God’s calling for me?
Ironically, the biggest problem of this book is found in this same chapter where Valjean says to Fantine: “I declare to you from this moment, if all is as you say, and I do not doubt it, that you have never ceased to be virtuos and holy before God. Oh poor woman.”
The problem I find is in the idealism of a noble and deserving object of his devotion. When Valjean received succor from the Bishop, it was unmerited favor, although now that I think about it, there is an overtone that his abject situation had been unjustly thrust upon him, and that he might have deserved the compassion. So the whole model of “grace” in this story sort of reduces to a works-based reward scheme with a conditional love. I question the existence of such a deserving person, and the starkness of the beauty of agape love is bout out in proportion to the undeserved-ness of it’s object. So by implication, the sacrifices of Jean Valjean are not so noble after all, and he is relegated to a fictitious moral situation that is irrelevant to real life. His acts of compassion are owed to Fantine as a satisfaction of justice based on this fictitious set of circumstances.
We could look our whole lives for the noble poor and never find one, but if I love like I have been loved, then I don’t have to look far. For I know that I do not deserve the love and forgiveness lavished upon me by the kindness of my Heavenly Father through Christ. And His work of raising me to eternal life rests purely on His goodness and unilateral lovingkindness.