Ethos Education

Les Miserables: Why can acts of grace have such significance in the lives of individuals?

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Learning Objectives:

  • Awareness of Christian teaching on forgiveness.
  • Awareness of the importance of forgiveness and repentance in Jesus’ earthly ministry.
  • Understand the concept of grace.

Learning Outcomes:

  • Reflect upon a number of statements concerning consequences.
  • Analyse a clip from Les Miserables to understand the impact of acts of grace in people’s lives.
  • Analyse Matthew 18:21-35 in order to understand the idea of a debt that is too large to pay off.
  • Reflect upon the differences between the Christian concept of grace and the idea of wiping out wrongdoing by one’s own efforts.
  • Reflect upon the role of the Holy Spirit in helping Christians not to keep on doing wrong things after receiving God’s grace.
  • Synthesise learning by writing an account of the events in the film that explains the role of grace in transforming Valjean’s life.

STARTER:

Ask the students to all stand up, and only to sit down if they disagree with the statement you are about to read out (make sure to stand everyone up again between statements). After each one, invite one or two students to give reasons for their agreement or disagreement. Here is a selection of statements, use at least three or four, making sure to finish on the last one listed:

  • People who commit murder should be executed for their crime.
  • If my boyfriend or girlfriend cheated on me, I could never forgive them.
  • A footballer who misses a penalty shouldn’t take his team’s penalties any more.
  • Politicians caught cheating on their expenses should be barred from public office.
  • It is possible to avoid the consequences of our own actions.
  • If someone does something wrong, they deserve to be punished.
  • If I do something wrong, I deserve to be punished.
  • Everybody deserves a second chance.

Explain that in today’s lesson you are going to be thinking more about second chances, and in particular about the Christian concept of grace.

MAIN ACTIVITIES:

Introduce the clip from Les Miserables (Universal, 2012, certificate 12). Click here to buy the DVD online.

Explain that Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) has been released after twenty years in prison. Ask the students to pay particular attention to how Valjean is treated by the various people he encounters.

  • Start time: 0.05.15 (in chapter 1 of the DVD)
  • End time: 0.13.58
  • Clip length: 8 minutes and 43 seconds

The clip starts with Valjean (Hugh Jackman) walking on a hilltop. The first line is him singing, ‘Freedom at last, how strange it is.’ It ends with Valjean ripping up his papers. The last line is, ‘another story must begin.’ If you want a slightly shorter clip, you could start at the beginning of chapter two of the DVD, at 0.07.05, although this shorter clip loses the examples of how badly Valjean is treated by society at large following his release from prison.

Ask the students if they expected the priest (Colm Wilkinson) to react the way that he did when confronted with Valjean and the stolen silver.

Read Matthew 18:21-35 with the students. Ask them what the first servant could have done to wipe out his debt to his king. Draw out that his financial debt was the equivalent of millions of pounds and that there was no way he could ever have paid it off himself. Ask the students to imagine what it would have felt like to try paying off that kind of debt without any help.

Christians believe that everybody – including themselves – are sinners and that everybody has fallen short of God’s standard of perfection (see Romans 3:23-24 for example). This sin is perceived to have consequences in people’s lives today and also far-reaching eternal consequences. In the here and now, sin corrupts people and spoils their character. It creates bad habits and guilty consciences which have an impact on the day-to-day lives of people. Sin also separates people from God, preventing them from enjoying the relationship with him that they were made to have. If the problem of sin is not dealt with, Christians believe it will keep someone separated from God for eternity.

Although the main point of this parable is one of how forgiven people should treat those who seek forgiveness from them, it also serves to illustrate another important concept: grace. Remind students of the earlier discussion about sin. God’s response to the problem of sin was to allow Jesus to take the punishment that everybody else deserved, so that by putting their trust in him anybody can be forgiven. Christians believe that forgiveness is not earned but is a free gift that God offers to everyone despite the fact that nobody deserves it. Valjean did nothing to deserve the hospitality the priest offered him, and he repaid this kindness by stealing the church silver. Despite this, the priest told the police that he had given Valjean the stolen silver, and gave him even more. This is grace – God’s undeserved favour, freely and abundantly given. Students might like to remember the concept using the mnemonic God’s riches at Christ’s expense (although this mnemonic doesn’t include any mention of ‘undeserved’).

Bono, the lead singer of U2, gave an interview in 2010 where he talked about his understanding of grace. Read the following exchange to the class:

  • Bono: ‘You see, at the centre of all religions is the idea of Karma. You know, what you put out comes back to you: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, or in physics; in physical laws every action is met by an equal or an opposite one. It’s clear to me that Karma is at the very heart of the universe. I’m absolutely sure of it. And yet, along comes this idea called Grace to upend all that “as you reap, so you will sow” stuff. Grace defies reason and logic. Love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of your actions, which in my case is very good news indeed, because I’ve done a lot of stupid stuff.’
  • Interviewer: ‘I’d be interested to hear that.’
  • Bono: ‘That’s between me and God. But I’d be in big trouble if Karma was going to finally be my judge. I’d be in deep s—. It doesn’t excuse my mistakes, but I’m holding out for Grace. I’m holding out that Jesus took my sins onto the Cross, because I know who I am, and I hope I don’t have to depend on my own religiosity.’

(You can read more of the interview at http://noapologizing.wordpress.com/2011/02/24/u2s-bono-interview-about-christ/

Ask the students whether Bono’s description of grace interrupting the consequences of your actions and defying reason and logic fits with what they saw in the film clip and read in the Bible passage.

Ask students what is to stop someone who has received God’s grace from going out and doing lots of bad things again, knowing that they can always be forgiven again. Remind them of Valjean’s consternation after the priest’s act of grace. What made him decide to follow the priest’s instruction to, ‘use this precious silver to become an honest man.’?

Look at John 14:15-17 and 25-27 with the group. Ask the students (in pairs or small groups) to look at these verses and see what they suggest would prevent a Christian from simply going back to doing whatever they wanted.

Draw out from the students that Christians believe that forgiveness and grace happens in the context of a relationship. Christians believe that God sends the Holy Spirit (the third part of the Trinity) to live with Christians (v17). The Spirit’s role is to help Christians to become better at recognising the things in their lives that need to change, and to be better at living the way God wants them to (v26).

SUMMARY AND ASSESSMENT OF LEARNING:

Ask the students to do one of the following tasks:

  • Write a newspaper article telling Valjean’s story and explaining the actions of the priest.
  • Write a television chat-show interview (they can use a real television presenter or a made-up one, as they prefer) where Valjean and the priest talk about the events shown in the clip.
  • Write a blog entry for either Valjean or the priest, talking about what happened and why.

Whichever task the students choose, tell them to ensure that their work demonstrates their understanding of the Christian concept of grace.

YOU WILL NEED:

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