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The Soul of Les Miserables: Why It Touches Us

12/31/2012 05:23 pm ET | Updated Mar 02, 2013

The epic musical Les Miserables, now portrayed on the big screen, contains elements so rarely seen today and yet so sorely needed. But, what is it about this grand story that captures our imagination and touches us so deeply?

Les Miz is the story is of Jean Valjean, a peasant man who finds himself at the end of a prison sentence but chained to the status of an ex-con. Wandering into another village as a fugitive, he happens upon the home of a pastor and asks if he might have a place to sleep. The pastor and his wife graciously open their hearts and home to the stranger, of whom they know little, and afford him a fine meal and a night's stay.

In the night, Valjean awakens and does what he knows best, fills his traveling bag with valuable silverware before leaving. The accidental noise he makes awakens the pastor who gets up to take a look. When the pastor finds him, Valjean strikes him hard on the head and knocks him out and runs away with the stash.

The next scene of the play shows Valjean has been arrested by the local police. Once they find the silverware in the suspicious-looking character's sack they identify the engraved initials and take him back to the church and to the pastor. When the officer says, "We found this silverware and he says it belongs to him. But it must be yours, Reverend, isn't it? It has your initials on it." The pastor walks over to the officer and, much to everyone's surprise, says, "No, he's right. This is his. It is my gift to him."

The pastor then does something quite memorable. First of all, he adds to Valjean's treasure trove by giving him the candlesticks he "accidentally left behind." Then, something truly powerful takes place. The clergyman approaches the thief, already stunned by the unexpected kindness, and says, "Jean Valjean, with this silver I have purchased your soul. Now go and make something redeeming out of it."

In this one act, Valjean was given more than a gift of silverware, he was given something for which every person longs, many search, but perhaps many never find. It is something God intended for every one of us to feel, experience, and give to each other -- the bestowal of grace and the gift of honor. This soul-altering force continues to have a penetrating effect upon Valjean throughout the course of the story.

A Forceful Word

The word honor evokes thoughts of kings, brave knights, damsels in distress, and chivalry. Some associate honor with Asian cultures that generally show more respect for their elders and for one another than do western cultures. The word also reminds me of the military, the Marines in particular with their famed "code of honor." Certainly, honor still exists to some measure in certain pockets of our society, but for the most part it has gone A.W.O.L. being poorly replaced instead with the shallow substitutes of "self-actualization" and "self-talk" and "self-esteem".

But how does the Bible define honor?

In the Old Testament most occurrences of honor are some form of the Hebrew word kabod, which means "heavy" or "weighty." It is a word also translated as "glory." It suggests the magnitude or greatness of someone or something, especially the "glory" of God. In the NT, the Greek word for honor means to value highly, to esteem, and to not take lightly. "Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves." (Romans 12:10, NIV)

The idea of honor in the Bible is also deeply relational. It reflects how people in a society, group, community or team relate to God and to one another. It is the glue of true community; the right stuff of true teams. The Bible not only teaches the importance of honor, it gives us what could arguably be referred to as The 10 Principles of Honor. A closer look at the 10 Commandments reveals that each one has to do with one of two things: honoring God and honoring our fellow man.

The Honor Deficit

An honoring culture is one that is always flowing with regular praise and recognition. It is characterized by consistent mutual support and affirmations.

In their book, The Carrot Principle, Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton cite a report (from HealthStream Research) which says that 69 percent of North American workers reported that they were not recognized at all in their jobs last year. And, if that is not alarming enough, 79 percent of the top performers who change jobs reported that one of the main reasons was a lack of recognition for the work they had done. Perhaps most amazing was the discovery that organizations that effectively recognize and praise their employees are three times as profitable as those who do not.

Not only are we living today in a culture that is losing its way in affirming and honoring people, it has at the same time become more adept at sarcasm and criticism. In such a world, circles of honor stand out like "stars in the midst of a darkened generation" (Phil. 2:15). Circles of honor are rare and much needed finds.

Central to the Bible and its message is the fact that God is the God of honor. God is so much the God of Honor that whatever he makes is also honorable, including you and me, his creation. Every person on this planet has been designed to be a person of honor -- to honor God and to live honorably. When we honor one another, we treat people the way God wants them to be treated -- with dignity and respect.

In the case of Jean Valjean, the kind pastor had his best interest in mind and chose to even honor someone who had taken advantage of him, who had acted dishonorably. He did so for one reason; Valjean though a criminal in his behavior was still someone made in the image of God. He was someone with a broken life and a soul deeply in need of grace and honor; in other words, someone like you and me.

This column was adapted from a new book by Robert Crosby, The Teaming Church: Ministry in the Age of Collaboration (Abingdon Press).

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