If you’re not familiar with The Elves, I recommend clicking here to read part one of the story before proceeding to my commentary.
In Romans 7 the Christian learns that he isn’t the one who sins, but that it’s the sin within him that does the thing the he doesn’t want to do.
“…it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me” (Romans 7:17)
Like the Brothers Grimm, one might say that the poverty of sin, when it’s experienced in the life of a baptized believer, is “no fault of his own.” How? Because the person who commends himself to God – as the shoemaker is said to have done – lives the Christian life of prayer. He relies on God, living in repentant faith, he trusts (despite his impoverished conditions) that God will continue to take care of him. That person’s sin is no fault of his own, because it is no longer he who does it, but the sin that dwells within him.
Baptism is key. Without it a person cannot make the Romans 7 distinction, for without it it’s impossible to commend one’s self to God. Without it it’s impossible to make the bold claim when you sin that it wasn’t you, but the sin that dwells within you.
The Elves is all about baptism. Here is how I read part one. The baptized shoemaker, perhaps in a state of not understanding his actions, doing what he himself did not want to do, was poor. (Rom. 7:15) Though he was a believer, the sin within him had finally brought him to the point where he had only enough leather for one pair of shoes.
I suspect if we knew his whole story we would see a Christian man who behaves just like Christians do today. Like I do. Like you do. I tend to rely entirely on myself to survive. To my chagrin, I only go to God when the situation becomes dire. It certainly was that for the shoemaker. When you and I finally come to rely on God, we see that He’s always been there, that He already took care of everything, that He did so in our baptism.
Let me ask you, in what was the shoemaker’s livelihood? In making shoes? No. His livelihood, like every believer’s, is found in baptism – in Christ! It’s in our being connected to Christ’s life, death, and resurrection that everything is taken care of. It’s there that we are astounded to find a perfect livelihood “so neatly made that there [is] not one bad stitch… just as if [it] was intended as a masterpiece.” It is a masterpiece. God’s masterpiece. He has done everything for you.
We see this as the story continues. With the first pair of shoes, the man is taken back to his baptism, he is reminded that his life is not in his hands, but in God’s. Not only does God do all the immediate work in his (our) life, as the Brothers demonstrate through the elves (angels perhaps?), but He also has done the work of ordering all of creation so that “for those who love God all things work together for good…” (Rom. 8:28). It’s because of God that “a buyer came in, and as the shoes pleased him so well, he paid more for them than was customary…”
This baptismal blessing prompts us to action. It causes us to want to “set to work with fresh courage,” to live out our vocations, and even then we find that God is the one still actively doing the work. More shoes for the shoemaker! This is the salvation process, it’s what maturing in the faith looks like. The Gospel motivates, creating more Gospel-motivated action, all of it done by God!
Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? (Rom. 7:24)
The answer is Christ Jesus. He delivers us from death as we are baptized in the Triune name of God. In Christ through baptism, we, like the shoemaker, have our “honest independence again,” our freedom from sin, which does truly make us wealthy, for we have the treasures of heaven!
The shoemaker and his wife, having been blessed, want to show their appreciation, so, in an offering of thanksgiving they give back to those who have given them so much, and they do so out of the wealth they’ve acquired from them. There is no need to squabble about their seemingly misplaced appreciation. By giving to the elves, they intend to show their gratitude to that which is the source of their fortune, to God. The elves receive these gifts in a way that doesn’t detract from God and His generosity, but that leads me to believe they were faithful servants. They got out of the way. The shoemaker had matured. He had grown in his reliance on God through the servants the Lord had sent. He was brought to the point where joy and appreciation were pouring out of him and his household. The elves had accomplished what they were sent to do. In service to God they had brought this man back to his baptismal faith. They strengthened him in his true livelihood. Who wouldn’t dance and skip and leap over chairs and benches? The elves were wearing the fruit of their labors! “From that time forth they came no more, but as long as the shoemaker lived all went well with him, and all his undertakings prospered.”
He had been restored to his baptismal life! He had learned that his livelihood was in something beyond himself, something far greater than his misunderstood actions (Rom. 7:15). He was back to living a life of faith in Christ. Remember, this is a story. Stating that “all his undertakings prospered” is the storytellers way of communicating that the shoemaker was no longer relying on himself, but on God. It’s not, as some might conclude, advocating the prosperity gospel. Not at all. Did the shoemaker go on to do the things he did not want to do (Rom. 7:15)? You bet. I do. You do. And should we meet him in his last days, once again in poverty, we could still say that “all went well with him, and all his undertakings prospered” for he was baptized and he could say,
“I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set [me] free in Christ Jesus from the Law of sin and death… For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh [earthly prosperity in this case], but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit… [I], however, [am] not in the flesh but in the Spirit [because] the Spirit of God dwells in [me as a baptized believer in Christ].” (Rom. 7:25-8:2, 5, 9)
Next week’s Finding Truth in The Story will be on The Elves, part II. 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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