If you’re not familiar with The Giant and the Tailor, I recommend clicking here to read the story before proceeding to my commentary.
When reading The Giant and the Tailor, I was immediately struck by the words of Ephesians 2:8-9, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing that no one may boast.” The tailor, “who was great at boasting but ill at doing,” never heard this Gospel truth, yet he illustrates the point brilliantly. He thought he could do for himself, even that which was far beyond his means. He couldn’t even handle doing well the normal tasks of a tailor, yet he bragged to the giant that he could do things that the giant could do. In the end the tailor tries to accomplish something that only the giant could achieve, and it, well, proves to be his undoing.
But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s consider the characters in the tale. The Brothers Grimm introduce the Christian to his old sinful self and to God, whom he erroneously tried, in his sin, to escape. The tailor is the picture of what it looks like when we attempt to live life on our own terms. He is me when I reject my vocation to serve myself instead of my neighbor, when I exchange what I’ve been given to do for what I want to do. As a boaster who shirked his vocational duties, the tailor was dead in trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1). Paul tells the Christian that it was in these sins that he “once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air.” (Eph. 2:2) The tailor, living as an unrepentant sinner, is still walking in the course of this world, he got it in his head to “look about the world. As soon as he could manage it, he left his workshop, and wandered on his way, over hill and dale, sometimes hither, sometimes thither, but ever on and on.”
The way in which he wanders is very telling. It shows that he does, indeed, follow the prince of the power of the air, walking in Satan’s footsteps as it were. In the book of Job (1:7) Satan tells God he had been “going to and fro on the earth”… sometimes hither, sometimes thither… “walking up and down on it”… over hill and dale.
A tailor who is “great at boasting but ill at doing” clothes only himself, dresses up his reputation and leaves his neighbor poorly suited to face the world, naked — his sins exposed. In short, he serves himself when he should be serving others. Throughout the entire story we see him doing what he thinks is best for himself. He’s looking after numero uno, and expresses his self-centered desire to the giant when he says, “I want just to look about and see if I can earn a bit of bread for myself, in this forest.” One may think there’s nothing wrong with the tailor wishing to earn bread for himself, after all what’s wrong with wanting something to eat? And he said he’s wants to earn it. What a stand up guy. It’s not like he’s looking for a hand out. The problem reveals itself when we consider who the giant represents.
The giant is described as “all powerful” (Luke 1:37; Job 11:7-11) and speaks “with a voice as if it were thundering on every side” (Exodus 19:19). He says to the tailor, “thou mayst have a place with me” (Deut. 33:27; John 12:26; John 14:3). The giant is God!
Sinful man tells God, “I want just to look about and see if I can earn a bit of bread for myself, in the forest.” This statement demonstrates the wretchedness of the tailor. He sees himself as an autonomous being able to provide for himself. We will see by the end of the story that his end is destruction, because his god is his belly (himself), he wants his own glory and that’s his shame, his mind is set on earthly things (Phil. 3:19). He tells the Creator of the world, the one who fed Israel in the wilderness, (read Exodus 19 to see some striking similarities between the tailor and Israel) the one who taught believers to pray “Our Father who art in heaven… give us this day our daily bread,” the one who “supplies seed to the sower and bread for food” (2 Cor. 9:10) the one said “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger” (John 6:35) that he wants to earn for himself his own bread.
To which the giant, in his graciousness, responds, “If that is what thou art after thou mayst have a place with me.” That is, God says “If you want bread, I can give you bread.”
But the tailor doesn’t desire to be with the giant, rather it’s something that “must be.” He sees his time with God as playing the hand he was dealt, or as he puts it according to his vocation’s proverbial wisdom, cutting his coat according to his cloth. Either way he is determined to get away from the giant (God) as fast as he can.
His wish to get away ultimately comes true. Being an unbeliever he is cast out, (John 6:36-37) “for such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naïve.” (Rom. 16:18)
We definitely see this run it’s course in the tale. The giant is described as credulous, clownish, and stupid. The tailor is a smooth talker with all his boasting. But the giant isn’t completely fooled –God is never fooled — and discerns that the tailor is a “sorcerer of a servant”, a wizard, wicked within, that he’s no servant for him.
The brilliance of this tale manifests itself in full force at the end. The tailor claims he can do the things that the all powerful giant can do. Like a theologian who demands believers be baptized by nothing less than full immersion, he looks at what the giant deems sufficient and says, “But I can do more!” Why only a jug (a sprinkling of water) when I can bring you the entire well and spring too, or like a critical pew-sitter who looks at the simplicity of the Lord’s Supper — tiny pieces of plain bread and a sip of basic wine (two or three boars) – and says, “does God really feed us with so little? I would make this meal so much more, so much grander!” (a thousand boars) The giant perceives the tailor’s propensity to think he can do what God can do, and so allows the tailor to put his money where his mouth is, to do what man was given to do, but can’t do, what God had to do for us on our behalf (live according to the Law). He asks the tailor to get up on a tree. God says to man, I gave you the way in which to live with me, I made you my servant that you could eat with me and live, but you kept saying you didn’t need my grace, you kept saying you could do what I can do. Well, okay. I lived under the Law perfectly, obedient even unto death. So go on get on the cross.” The giant says, “I long of all things to see if thou art big enough to bend it down.”
And wouldn’t you know it, sinful man has the audacity to actually think he can do it. We begin to believe our own boastful lies, we actually come to believe we’re like God. We believe in ourselves and put our trust in ourselves.
“All at once the tailor was sitting on [the tree], holding his breath, and making himself so heavy that the bough bent down.” We even see some godlike progress in what we do. We can make ourselves pretty heavy with all our boasting, and the things we do even seem to be pretty good. We think we can save ourselves by our works, but when we have to breathe – and there will always come a time when we have to breathe – we realize we’re not as godlike as we thought. We exhale and are flung “so high into the air that [we’re] never seen again,” we’re cast away from the presence of God (Psalm 51:11).
Jesus Christ climbed up on the tree and died for us. He breathed for us, He put his trust not in himself, but in his Father and he breathed out his last breath (Luke 23:46). He didn’t have to hold his breath to be heavy enough to accomplish the task he was given to do on the tree. He was able to do this because “though he was in the form of God, [he] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant (Phil. 2:6-7).
We’re not as big as God. We’re not giants. We’re sinful man, we can’t even breathe on our own or do the tasks of our vocations as well as we ought. When in repentance we recognize this, we see that God knows us and gives us little things to do, things suitable to our vocations, things that serve others as Christ served us. We don’t have to hold down trees — be crucified — “for by grace [we] have been saved through faith. And this is not [our] own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Eph. 2:8-10)
If only the tailor would have considered his place in life, perhaps then he would have remembered he is a sinner in need of grace and remembered to “put his goose in his pocket.”
Rev. Tyrel Bramwell is pastor at Christ Lutheran Church in Murray UT. Grail Quest Books will be publishing the first book in his fantasy series, The Gift & The Defender, later this year. This series is being reposted with Rev. Bramwell’s permission. You can follow the latest writings in this weekly series at his website.