If you’re not familiar with the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale, Old Hildebrand, I recommend clicking here to read the story before proceeding to my commentary.
Having just read Old Hildebrand, we’re able to see God’s Word in the words of men (the Grimm brothers) quite easily. Not only do we have before us another story that extends from the Ten Commandments, we have a story that deals directly with the pastoral office. Thank heavens, it is clearly established as a work of fiction, opening with the ever familiar, “Once upon a time.” Otherwise, the reality of the parson’s actions would be unbearable.
Who are we kidding?
Clergymen are sinners like everyone else. This story could very well have been inspired by an actual event. Pastors, though servants of God, are not immune to trespassing against God and neighbor in such an abhorrent manner. We know it happens. This tale reveals the consequences that come with abusing one’s vocation, in particular, that of pastor.
What commandment is most explicitly at play in this tale? The tenth. Exodus 20:17.
You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.
And what does this mean?
We should fear and love God so that we do not entice or force away our neighbor’s wife, workers, or animals, or turn them against him, but urge them to stay and do their duty. (Luther’s Small Catechism)
The parson coveted the peasant’s wife “and had wished for a long while to spend a whole day happily with her.” His coveting was apparently known to the wife for we’re told that she “too, was quite willing.” He was certainly not urging her to stay and do her duty to her husband. This covetous desire took hold of him and manifested into outward sin, not just against the peasant and his wife, but against the entire congregation of saints under his care. It would seem that we have before us an allusion to James 1:14-15.
But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.
The parson acted on his desire, which gave birth to sin. That sin, fully grown, brought forth death, the death of old Hildebrand, who sang, “I ever shall hate from this day.” The peasant trusted the church. He trusted the parson. And that trust was violated, permanently planting hatred in his heart. Not only was he sinned against, but from that day he became a sinner in a particular way. From that day on he would forever break the Fifth Commandment, having murder in his heart. The parson created unrepentant sin in the man he wronged. He brought forth death.
One wonders about the rest of the story. How might it have continued? What ungodly chaos might have ensued among the church as a result of this trespass? The parson’s sinful plot to spend time with Hildebrand’s wife did, after all, involve the fabrication of false doctrine, which was preached to the church on Sunday. He was willing to lead Christ’s people away from true teaching to suit his own desires. Are not all false teachings hatched from the false prophet’s own sinful desires? Indeed they are. He broke trust with the entire congregation. How many would never get over such a violation of office?
Unfortunately, this exact sin happens in real life. When it occurs, it causes real pain. Pain that blots forgiveness from man’s heart and brings about death. It is for this reason that pastors are to take their office seriously, not as an opportunity for self-gain, but as a humble service to neighbor. James 3:1 comes to mind.
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.
Pastor’s are to take their office seriously, especially because they’ve been called to guide people in the truth, which puts them in a position to lead people astray if they’re not faithful to Scripture. Of course, this isn’t to say others shouldn’t take their vocations seriously as well. This tale draws from God’s Word, teaching us to serve our neighbor faithfully.
Just look at the behavior of old Hildebrand. He lovingly serves his wife. Concerned for her health, he insists that she stay home from church so she can rest.
Thou mightest make thyself worse if you wert to get up. Look I will go to the sermon, and will attend to it very carefully, and will tell thee everything the parson says.
Do you see the image of a husband hanging on every word of the sermon, taking notes to bring home to his wife? What loving service! And when this husband hears how his wife can get better, he immediately sets out to do what needs to be done. He is living out his vocation of husband faithfully.
We see another Christian living out his vocation faithfully as well. This tale involves a gossip, the husband’s gossip. Do you remember what we learned about gossips when we considered The Little Peasant? Take a look at it if you want a complete refresher. Otherwise, you’ll have to take my word that the husband meets his godfather, the man who was called to provide spiritual guidance to Hildebrand when he was baptized. He’s on his pilgrimage when he meets “his gossip.” Not a gossip, his gossip.
His gossip, after learning what Hildebrand is up to, asks him if he was so stupid as to believe the false teaching of the parson, and then helps him see the truth. The gossip knew Scripture. He knew God’s Word said nothing about pilgrimages to Göckerli hill in Italy. What a blessed layman.
Dear reader, be like the gossip. Be wise in the Word and know the truth, so that when false teachers try to pull the wool over your eyes, you’ll be able to see through sinful words and guide others back to the truth. If we can speculate for a moment and go where the story does not, I’d like to suggest, based on what we’ve seen in this tale, that though the desire of the parson gave birth to sin, the death that was brought forth was conquered by the gossip. He was Hildebrand’s godfather in Christ, after all. And we see that he carried out his calling faithfully. After Hildebrand cudgeled the parson out of the house, I’d like to think that the gossip began guiding his godchild away from hatred and toward forgiveness, thereby saving him from eternal death.
What do you think? If the story continued, would we see that happen?
The next Finding Truth in The Story will be on The Singing Bone. 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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