If you’re not familiar with The Little Peasant, I recommend clicking here to read the story before proceeding to my commentary.
Two marvelous truths seep through the pores of this story. First, this tale is a wonderfully creative expression of the Great Reversal, the reality that though we’re guilty of breaking God’s Law we get Christ’s reward and though He’s innocent, having never broken the Law, He suffered the corporal punishment we deserve. The innocent punished, the guilty set free (Is. 53:5).
This theme is woven throughout the story from beginning to end. In the first sentence the contrast between the guilty multitude and the innocent individual is firmly established in terms of rich and poor: “There was a certain village wherein no one lived but really rich peasants, and just one poor one, whom they called the little peasant.” At the conclusion of the story the final sentence, a summary sentence, brings the reader back to the main point, the Great Reversal: “Then the entire village was dead, and the small [poor] peasant, as sole heir, became a rich man.”
The second truth, relating to the first, is that by having faith in Christ we become little Christs – Christians – still sinners, yes, but sainted sinners, those who are both saint and sinner at the same time, simil iustus et peculator. (see Rev. Snyder’s blog post, “Luther, Lewis, and ‘Little Christs'” for more on this.)
Throughout the narrative we gain insight into the behavior of our two main characters, the little peasant and everyone else, which gives depth to the magnitude of the reversal and reveals that the little peasant is a unique Christ figure, a little one who lives in “a certain village wherein no one lived but really rich peasants.” The little peasant is not a representation of Jesus like the Frog is in The Frog-King, but is rather a depiction of a Christian, a little Christ. He is you or me – a sinful being – who is, through the work of Jesus, at the same time innocent, one who is simultaneously in need of Christ’s Great Reversal gift and the enfleshed means by which it’s shared with the other sinners in his life. It’s a great privilege to be a little Christ and being one, as we shall see, has a real impact on the lives of those around us.
At this point the critical reader, especially if he is a Christian with skin in the game, may feel compelled to argue that the actions of the little peasant (e.g. how he deceives the miller with the raven and tricks the shepherd to take his place in the barrel of death) hardly represent Christian behavior. However, this same critical reader, if he is indeed a Christian, may want to pause for a moment and consider just how sinful he truly is, and yet he himself is, despite his sinfulness, a little Christ to those in his life. If this is not enough to allow the little peasant to stand as a picture of the Christian, then perhaps it will help to keep in mind that we’re dealing with a fairy tale wherein certain facts are given by the storytellers.
Our protagonist remains untainted when we fasten our view of his actions to the authors’ declaration that when “the peasants were vexed that the small peasant should have thus overreached them, [they] wanted to take vengeance on him, and accused him of this treachery before the Mayor. The innocent little peasant was unanimously sentenced to death…”
We may wish to find fault in the little peasant’s behavior, however, according to the Brothers’ Grimm, to do so would be to bear false witness against their poor innocent peasant. We’re to read his actions as being without sin. Like Christ before the Sanhedrin (Matt. 26:57-67), he was innocent and yet sentenced to death. Any other view of the little peasant numbers the reader among the rich peasants who would have the small peasant “rolled into the water, in a barrel pierced full of holes.”
Though we may not understand exactly how it can be (just as it can be hard to see how I, a poor miserable sinner, can be a little Christ in real life), by trusting the authority of the authors, we’re free to see the peasant as a picture of what it looks like in fairyland to be a “sheep in the midst of wolves,… wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matt. 10:16), to see how the Great Reversal declares us innocent.
But before the peasant is sentenced to death, the richness of the Great Reversal is further revealed. His gossip, the carpenter, equips him with what he needs to ultimately become a truly rich heir. When I read this I was reminded of something Richard Lischer wrote in his book Open Secrets:
“The word gossip originally implied a spiritual relationship. A gossip was a sponsor at a baptism, one who spoke on behalf of the child and who would provide spiritual guidance to the child as it grew in years. A gossip was your godmother or godfather. Gossiping was speech within the community of the baptized.”
A Christian, the little peasant, is served by Christ through the gossiping carpenter. It is not hard to make the connection between the carpenter and Christ (Mark 6:3), especially one whose business is “speech within the community of the baptized,” that is, the proclamation of the Word! And wouldn’t you know it, the ultimate result of receiving the Carpenter’s work is nothing less than a rich life, not without suffering, but a rich life indeed, one that is set in motion by the work of a gossip (baptismal speech), through the midst of water, and that is strengthened by a feast distributed by the miller, a man who makes flour for bread.
But perhaps you missed the sacramental undertone of the mill scene. After the gossip carpenter blesses him, the little peasant finds himself seeking shelter at a mill. The way the miller’s wife interacts with him and the parson is reminiscent of both the beginning of the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luke 16:19-21), and a parable told by Jesus to people like ourselves who have a tendency to treat others with contempt while trusting in our own righteousness (Luke 18:9-14).
In the parable two men, a righteous Pharisee (the parson) and a sinful tax collector (the little peasant) go up to the temple (the mill) to pray (seek shelter from the storm). The Lazarus-like peasant has to lay on straw and eat only a slice of bread with cheese while the parson is received with a feast of “roast meat, salad, cakes and wine.” The story reveals just “who went down to his house justified” (Luke 18:14) by the wife’s husband and who, in the words of the miller, is “the Devil.”
“For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:14).
That the blessed peasant has been justified is recognized by the other peasants who conclude that he “has certainly been to the place where golden snow falls, and people carry the gold home in shovels,” a fairyland description of heaven to be sure.
And indeed he had been! In the sense that he had received a foretaste of heaven. Having entered the mill (where flour for bread is ground) through the wet and windy (Spirit filled?) waters of a storm he found shelter and a feast, which he ate in haste (like the Passover, which Jesus celebrated in the upper room where He instituted the Lord’s Supper: Exodus 12:11, Luke 22:11-13) with the miller Himself after receiving only simple bread from the miller’s wife.
In this scene the little peasant is being served by the miller in a way that again, like the carpenter, calls to mind how Christians are served by Christ. In Communion we receive a simple piece of bread, but what we eat leads to a feast (Rev. 19:9)! The bread – the very body of Christ – is the foretaste of the feast to come for us little Christs. This whole sacramental meal is further highlighted by the words of the miller when the peasant pinches the raven’s head.
The first time, immediately before finding the wine, the miller says, “Bless me!” A simplified version of what Paul wrote about the Eucharistic wine when he penned, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ?” (1 Cor.10:16)
“Upon my word!” the miller says as the roast meat is revealed. The flesh, if you will, upon which he and the little peasant eventually dine inspires thoughts of the incarnation of Jesus, namely that it’s His very flesh we’re given to eat in the Lord’s Supper.
Sadly, the world doesn’t understand what occurs in the sacramental meal, how it delivers to the Christian his treasure, a truth that the Grimm brothers cleverly convey when the village peasants misunderstand how the little peasant came into “three hundred thalers.” This prompts them to go through the same outward motions he did (killing their cows and going into town to sell the skins), but to no avail. We could say that what was a blessing to the little peasant is a curse to the other peasants. Consequently they are vexed (1 Peter 2:7-8).
After the little peasant is sentenced to die we come across another example of the Christian being served by Christ, lest in the midst of our suffering we forget that our Lord knows our pain firsthand and is with us to the very end (Gal 2:20; Hebrews 3:14; 13:5-6; John 15:18). This time it’s not Jesus as the carpenter or the miller, but rather Jesus as He describes Himself in John 10:11-18, “the [good] shepherd who was willing” to take the little peasant’s place in the barrel. The little Christ is served by Christ through the Great Reversal. The shepherd takes the place of the little peasant and the little peasant “took the shepherd’s flock for himself, and drove it away.” The Grimm Brothers were even mindful of the fact that the Great Reversal was carried out by the hands of sinners. The Innocent is not only crucified in the place of the guilty, but by the guilty. In other words, “the peasant shut the top [of the barrel] down on [the shepherd].”
I was the one who killed my Lord!
That no one takes Jesus’ life from Him, but that He lays it down of His own accord (John 10:18) comes through in the story “when the barrel began to roll [toward the water and] the shepherd cried, ‘I am quite willing to be Mayor.'” Indeed, Mayor of mayors (Rev. 19:16)!
True to God’s Word (Matt. 27:27-31) the Brothers Grimm tell us that those charged with carrying out the death sentence “believed no otherwise than that it was” the peasant they were killing and they mocked the man on the cross, that is, in the barrel, saying that they intended to make him Mayor – “Hail, King of the Jews!” – “and they rolled him into the water,” or in the words of Matthew 27:31, “and led him away to crucify him.”
God’s Word teaches that, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me” (Gal. 2:20). This is made perfectly clear in the story’s conclusion. The rich peasants, in their astonishment, ask the little peasant, “from whence comest thou? Hast thou come out of the water?” To which he replies, with a perfect and confident understanding of Baptism, “Yes, truly, I sank deep, deep down, until at last I got to the bottom; I pushed the bottom out of the barrel, and crept out, and there were pretty meadows on which a number of lambs were feeding, and from thence I brought this flock away with me” (Rom. 6:3-11).
The village peasants again want the blessings revealed to them through the life of the little peasant, and they push forward with sinful clumsiness. Interestingly enough, we don’t see their demise – not at all – we see their salvation, their baptism. It can be argued that the ultimate message conveyed in this story is that if you’re not like the little peasant, you’ll die. This is true. Those who are not little Christs will die eternally. But that is not the full measure of the message. The story doesn’t end with the Law, but with the Gospel. The death of the peasants is not as dark as one may think. I understand the end of The Little Peasant to say, be like the little peasant and die. Die to sin, die to self. This is what the village peasants do. They see the life of the little peasant and follow in his footsteps. He leads them to Christ!
They look down into the (baptismal) waters, and what do they see but the wonders of the heavens above. There is obvious misunderstanding at play on the human level, but that doesn’t nullify the mysterious divine truth that’s evident as well. They drown in pursuit of the heavenly treasures; everything they did was in reaction to seeing what the little peasant had. The life of the Christian is appealing, people want our heavenly treasure – Christ crucified for the forgiveness of sins. Not everyone believes, but those who do, like “the whole crowd [that] plunged in after” the Mayor “as one man,” are baptized and become Christians.
This fairy tale ends, well… happily ever after. Not just for the little peasant, but for everyone in the story, for they were all baptized, everyone died in the waters of Baptism as one man. “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body,” (1 Cor. 12:13) the body of Christ (Rom. 6:4), the shepherd who died willingly to become the Mayor. Yes, the rich lost everything, even their lives while the poor gained it all, but Jesus “came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17), the peasants. The truth of the matter is, Jesus called the little peasant and He called all the rest. Why, you might ask, then is the little peasant said to be the sole heir? Consider the words of 1 Peter 1:3-4, “[Jesus’] divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us to His own glory and excellence, by which He has granted to us His precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.” The little peasant, as he led the the other peasants to the waters of Christian Baptism, is positioned as inspiration to do the same for anyone who may read his story.
Next week’s Finding Truth in The Story will be on The Golden Key. Click here to read the fairy tale in advance.
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