If you’re not familiar with The Young Giant, I recommend clicking here to read the story before proceeding to my commentary.
This is a delightfully bizarre tale featuring Tom Thumb. Only this time the thumbling has been nourished by a giant and is large and strong. It’s quite enjoyable, yes, enjoyable to think about his strange desire to deliver blows to those he interacts with, for this story is a creative expression of the theology of the cross.
God chose to save mankind through weakness and shame, through Jesus’ detestable and cursed death on a cross (Galatians 3:13). Is this what the Grimm brothers were getting at when they wrote of Tom being sent from the giant into the forest to “tear up a proper stick”? We’ve already seen how the forest stands in for the world (here) and how a giant is a fitting representation of God (here). Likewise, it’s not hard to come to the conclusion that the strongest oak-tree, which the boy, in a trifle act, tears up from the earth and splits, is a type of crucifixion. Just consider the giant’s reaction to such a feat:
Now that will do,” said the giant, “thou art perfect.
Nothing else will do to save sinful man from his sins, but the perfect death of Jesus on a tree.
Without knowing more about the Grimm brothers, I can’t speak with any certainty on the matter, however, I can’t help but wonder if the 8th century story of St. Boniface chopping down Thor’s Oak, the sacred tree of the Germanic pagans, stirred in the back of the minds of these German brothers (or whomever originally conceived it) when it was penned. It was a mere trifle for Jesus to fell the pagan worship of Thor. Indeed!
Christ bore a cross and His followers do too:
Jesus told his disciples, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it (Matthew 16:24-25).
This is the point of the tale. Tom Thumb, in the role of Christ, comes upon sinful -greedy/covetous – people whom he wants to serve (Matt. 20:28). In exchange for his service he doesn’t want wages, but to give blows. Why? Because he’s standing in for Jesus and they’re not living as Christians, they’re not bearing their crosses. They’re unrepentant sinners. Christ is too much for them!
The journeyman said, “Oh, but I can’t make any use of you, you strike far too powerfully; what will you have for the one blow?”
He has entered an arrangement with Tom (Jesus) but doesn’t want to endure the agreed upon blow (cross). Isn’t that how man thinks? The Biblical Jesus is too much for the unrepentant sinner. We think He’s a hard man (Matt. 25:24). What does Tom say? “I will only give you quite a small blow, that’s all.” Yes, indeed, the yoke of Jesus, the cross we bear in the name of Christ, is light (Matt. 11:28-30). The blow only sends us over four loads of hay! What eternal injury would we suffer if we were not in Christ?
Likewise, the bailiff tried to back out of bearing his cross, that is, receiving his blows, because he was afraid. Isn’t this exactly how we, in our sinfulness, interact with Jesus? We want Him to serve us, to be the head-servant even, but we’re afraid of the consequences He brings. We want the blessings of a strong man, one who can help us when we need it, but we don’t want Him the way He comes, with a cross. We see this in American Christianity all the time. Christians operating with a theology of glory, thinking Jesus is there to be their head-servant, and to bring them success, power, wealth, health, and their best life now. But what of the cross that Christ promised in Matthew 16?
Jesus serves us, for sure (Matt. 20:28). It happens every Sunday in the Divine Service, but how many of us behave like the bailiff when the time comes to bear our crosses in the name of Jesus? We try to negotiate with the Head-Servant and even offer to exchange roles with Him, saying things like, “Lord, just get me out of this mess and I’ll do anything you want… I’ll serve you,” all the while missing the irony that in repentant faith the person who bears His cross is a servant of Christ (2 Corinthians 6:4-10).
When negotiation doesn’t work, as it didn’t for the bailiff, we conspire to rid ourselves of the trouble Jesus and His cross bring to our lives. It was our sin that killed Jesus. It was our rejection of God and His will in our lives. The story of The Young Giant delivers that truth to us as we read of Tom going down into the well, in service to the sinner who has plotted to kill him by rolling a millstone up so that “he would never return to daylight.” But the stone isn’t enough to trap him in the earth and the giant climbs out like Jesus stepping out of the tomb.
Tom continues to serve the sinner who wants him dead, and goes to the haunted mill, a picture of Christ’s descent into hell (1 Peter 3:18-20). Consider Tom undoing the spell of the mill in light of Jesus preaching to the spirits in prison, destroying hell for all who believe, and undoing the power that death and the devil had over us. No man had ever returned from the haunted mill alive. Tom does (1 Corinthians 15:20).
Tom kept his end of the arrangement. He served. He wore death around his neck, he defeated the evil stronghold. Therefore, the story concludes with the bailiff and his wife hovering about in the air, and perhaps, we’re told, they’re still there. They were kicked up there by the young giant. But we must not follow our first inclination and read this as retribution for all the bailiff’s efforts to kill Tom and avoid his blows. This isn’t the bailiff getting his comeuppance. Tom represents Christ who is merciful and loving. We have to understand their being booted skyward as a sweet reward, that which is given to those who, though in their sin they may not want to suffer the cross, nonetheless, by the grace of God have been given eternal life in heaven and have reason to rejoice in suffering (Romans 5:3-5).
Tom and the bailiff had an arrangement, a covenant you might say, and though the bailiff proved to be unfaithful in keeping it, Tom insisted that it be kept, for the young giant (Jesus) knew it was for the bailiff’s good.
As sinners we can become quite frantic in our efforts to avoid our cross and the one from whom it extends: Christ crucified, who tells us that to follow Him we must deny ourselves and take up our cross daily (Luke 9:23-24). Like the bailiff, in our sin we become seriously alarmed and beside ourselves at the thought of suffering the cross. We’ve been in his shoes: “He walked backwards and forwards in the room, and drops of perspiration ran down from his forehead.” But the Gospel of Jesus Christ cannot be disconnected from the cross. There’s no avoiding it. And Jesus knows that the cross brings eternal life in heaven, what the Grimm brothers describe as hovering in the air. In our cowardice, to avoid temporary pain and discomfort, we’re willing to forfeit eternal salvation. However, our Lord loves us too much to let that happen. Despite our efforts, He makes us worthy of Him (Matt. 10:38). After all, He didn’t come to bring peace to the earth, but to go around looking to give blows, to kick us into heaven (Matt. 10:34).
Next week’s Finding Truth in The Story will be on The Elves. 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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