If you’re not familiar with Tom Thumb, I recommend clicking here to read the story before proceeding to my commentary.
Tom Thumb immediately establishes itself as a pro-life story, to use today’s terminology. The opening scene is the story of a married couple who cannot conceive and are plagued by the quietness of a home without children, a home that isn’t “noisy and lively.” The beginning of the tale calls to mind the women of Scripture who struggled with infertility. We certainly hear echoes of all the Biblical couples who battled barrenness, such as Sarai and Abram, Rebekah and Issac, and Rachel and Jacob to name but a few.
One Biblical account echoes louder in my mind than the others. Hannah and Elkanah, the couple that would eventually conceive Samuel. Tom Thumb’s mother was sad to have no children as was Hannah, you can almost hear Hannah’s lament in the her voice, “With us all is so quiet, and in other houses it is noisy and lively.” Hannah was provoked by her husband’s other wife who had children. The peasant’s wife lived in a similar state of comparitive torment.
Like Hannah, vowing what she would do should the Lord give her a son (1 Samuel 1:11), the peasant’s wife says with a sigh, “even if we had only one, and it were quite small, and only as big as a thumb, I should be quite satisfied, and we would still love it with all our hearts.” It doesn’t matter to her if the child isn’t like other children, she would love it just the same. Let the baby be what it will be, she will be mother. In a day and age where prenatal testing is often abused so that a mother can murder her child if an abnormality is discovered (it’s been reported that 92% of all children with Down syndrome are aborted), a tale of a mother’s love no matter what the circumstance is a breath of fresh air.
Let me pause for a minute to suggest to you the work of Katie Schuermann on the topic of barrenness. I cannot recommend it enough. Her Lutheran Witness article, Why Am I Barren? is fantastic, as is her book on the subject, He Remembers the Barren.
In Tom Thumb we have the story of life emerging from the place of death. Like Hannah, the peasant’s barren wife eventually gives birth to a son, though he is as small as a thumb. Big things come in small packages. The life of the world came into the world (John 1:1-10) in the form of an infant born of Mary, the Son sent from the Father to save the world (John 3:16-17). Jesus was the Father’s only Son and yet He was given to do what only He could do. And what He did, dying on the cross to forgive sins, He did willingly (John 10:18). In the same way, Tom was willing to go into the world. “Father,” Tom Thumb said, “do give me away, I will soon come back again.”
Christ’s willingness to go to the grave is found all throughout His earthly life. He faced insult and injury at every turn, yet He pushed forward, continuously focused on His task of removing the hurt from the world, of establishing the means by which death would be swallowed up forever (Isaiah 25:8). He set His face toward Jerusalem, toward the cross (Luke 9:51). In the words of Tom’s adventure, “he had other things to go through. Truly, there is much affliction and misery in the world!”
The entire story of this little thumbling is the story of Jesus going into the tomb as an act of sacrificial service. This point begins to surface when Tom goes with the two strangers. At dusk (Mark 15:42) he says, “Do take me down, I want to come down.” Is it merely down from riding atop a hat, or is it down from heaven to save the world, which is ultimately down from the cross to be buried in the tomb for three days before being resurrected? Tom is let down and slips into a mouse-hole. He goes deep into the darkness of the hole. Christ went deep into the darkness of the grave as well. As we confess in the Apostles’ Creed, He descended into hell (1 Peter 3:19-20). Like Jesus, Tom doesn’t stay entombed in the earth, but “crept back out of the subterranean passage.”
From here we’re immersed in the sign of Jonah, “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:40). And just as Jesus was indeed three days and three nights in the heart of the earth Tom Thumb was in the belly of a cow and a wolf.
If you will permit me, for but a moment, to consider what the Father might have asked Jesus when He ascended into heaven, there is a splendidly comforting connection to be made between this story and the truth of Scripture. To do so we will have to pretend God doesn’t have all His divine attributes. But if it is permissible we will uncover a way in which the imaginative words of the Brother’s Grimm attempt to paint a picture of Jesus and heaven and life immortal. Imagine the conversation Tom has with his dad to be that of Jesus and His Father.
“Ah,” said the [F]ather, “what sorrow we have gone through for thy sake.”
“Yes [F]ather, I have gone about the world a great deal. Thank heaven, I breathe fresh air again!”
“Where hast thou been, then?”
“Ah, [F]ather, I have been in a mouse’s hole, in a cow’s stomach, and then in a wolf’s [that is to say, I was killed, laid in a tomb, and descended into hell]; now I will stay with you.”
The Christian reader knows that our Father in heaven wouldn’t have been ignorant of what Jesus went through while living on earth. Allowing the imagination to work with such a notion enables us to read the reunion conversation in the story of Tom Thumb the way we read Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son, which has similar elements, namely new clothing and eating in celebration (Luke 15:22-24) that the son who was dead is alive again. The father in Jesus’ parable embraced his son and kissed him. These words are used by the Grimm brothers of Tom’s parents before they “gave him to eat and to drink, and had some new clothes made for him, for his own had been spoiled on his journey.” Exactly what happens to the lost son in Jesus’ parable.
The Biblical truth that emerges from Grimm’s words is that of heaven, which we, even now, experience when we celebrate Communion, the foretaste of the feast to come after our bodily resurrection, when “the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready;” for as Revelation says “‘it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure’ — for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.” and “blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb” (Rev. 19:7-9).
I love how this story ends. I love that Tom eats and drinks – feasts – and I love how he gets “new clothes made for him, for his own had been spoiled on his journey.” This is what the Christian looks forward to as a believer who, in baptism, has put on Christ (Galatians 3:27; Romans 13:14). Apart from Jesus, what I’m wearing has been spoiled on my journey through life. I’m a sinner living in a sinful world. I need new duds. In Baptism into Christ, into his death and resurrection, into his righteousness, I have them. I have a garment that allows me to sit at the table where I can eat (Matthew 22:2,11-14). The picture of what Tom experiences in the last sentence of his story is a picture of what we’ve been told will happen to the Christian in 1 Corinthians 15:50-58, when the perishable body will put on the imperishable and the mortal body the immortal, or in other words, the spoiled will, in Christ, put on the un-spoilable.
I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:
“Death is swallowed up in victory.” “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”
Next week’s Finding Truth in The Story will be on Tom Thumb, Journeyman. Click here to read the fairy tale in advance.
I’m reading the fairly tales from the Fall River Press publication, Grimm’s Complete Fairy Tales illustrated by Arthur Rackham. Click here to purchase a copy for yourself.
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