Sharing Joy and Sorrow is not a story for a time such as ours. We, in our postmodernity, cannot begin to get out of it what it’s original audience would have. How can we? It speaks in terms of certainty. We know no certainty. As readers today take in the story of the quarrelsome tailor and his battered wife, some may experience varying levels of sympathy or empathy toward the woman, or perhaps even the abusive husband, but that’s about it. Some may find amusement in the man’s failed attempt at cleverness, and I suspect those who have knowledge of divorce hearings may even recognize just how prevalent his faulty logic is in our world. Perhaps they would testify that there’s a good chance he wasn’t being clever at all, that he was probably — frustratingly — simpleminded but sincere. If that’s the case, then he might find some supporters who wish to champion his position among the twenty-first century audience. But that’s the end of the story’s value for today’s readers, for the rest of it hangs on words having definitions, on authority, on what “people ought to do,” and on truth that is knowable.
Consider the use of the adjective good. In the real world we no longer know what good means, words and their meanings are relative. No one is to cast judgment on someone else, say a wife, to determine if she is good. In light of the given information, that the tailor’s wife “never could please” her husband, a person might say she, therefore, must not have been very good (depending on how we understand good), and if we cannot determine whether or not she was good, how are we to know anything about her being industrious and pious?
Had we been exposed to this narrative by our grandmother, say, over a cup of coffee, we’d have no problem believing it to be about a real life event, perhaps something she saw on the evening news. There is nothing that prompts us to locate this story in fairyland, that is, except for the acknowledgement of authority and life ordered according to the discernable ought. If such things exist today, it must only be in fairyland. While we do still listen to the authorities, to varying degrees, always with a sense of subjectivity — I won’t murder because the consequence is prison and I’d probably get caught, but I will drive ten miles over the speed limit because I could pay the ticket and the odds of getting pulled over seem low — we as a society would never be so presumptuous as to say there is a way people ought to behave.
We understand that the fairyland authorities are brought in merely because we assume, like in our society, that there are laws against hurting people. We expect the authorities to see to the woman’s safety, but on what grounds? Where does their jurisdiction come from? The recent redefining of marriage by the Supreme Court in America reveals the sad truth that we don’t know the foundation of our laws, of law in general (a problem that’s similar and indeed connected to a failure to recognize that all words extend from the source Word – click here and here for more on that). We’ve forgotten where government gets its authority – God (Romans 13:1). The Brother’s Grimm, however, show us that the fairyland courts are not detached from God’s will. Their words and laws rest on God’s Word. It’s the assumption of how “married people ought to” live that is telling. They are to live in peace and share joy and sorrow (Ephesians 5:22-33). Husband and wife share everything. They are, after all, one flesh (Genesis 2:24; Matthew 19:4-6; Ephesians 5:31). Based on the behavior of the judges in this tale, I imagine the citizens of fairyland find it far easier to live according to Romans 13 than do Christians today who are trying to discern just what Acts 5:29 looks like in our American setting.
Interestingly enough, nowhere in this story do we read that the woman went to the authorities on her own behalf. The first time her husband is brought before the magistrates, we’re told that “the authorities at last heard of” her being beaten. It’s not implied that she went to them and reported her husband. It took awhile for them to hear of what was happening. The second time the magistrates get involved it’s because the abuse went on so long that the neighbors finally came to her assistance. This reflects the reality of the situation. How many wives live with this kind of treatment for years in the hope that their husband will change? You don’t have to be a Christian to want to love your spouse and hope he or she will change. This woman lived as real battered wives do. She also lived as real Christian wives do. This poor woman did everything in her power to endure, not only as a wife, but from what I’ve gathered from my journey through fairyland so far, as a Christian wife. It’s pure speculation to be sure, but if she was a Christian wouldn’t her behavior be in keeping with what St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7:14-16:
For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband… God has called you to peace. For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?
Perhaps her endurance was because of her faith and she hoped to save her husband. Not because he deserved it, but because she loved him, because of self-sacrificing grace, because she was a Christian and wanted to lead him to Christ (see my commentary on The Little Peasant). He didn’t live as a Christian husband, and if not a Christian husband, then not a Christian. Our faith permeates all aspects of our lives. It shapes who we are in all our vocations, our behavior providing evidence that we have faith (James 2:14-17). He certainly didn’t love his wife as Christ loved the church (Ephesians 5:25), he didn’t love her as his own body (Ephesians 5:28), defying God’s Word that says, “He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church” (Ephesians 5:28-29) and “Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them” (Colossians 3:19).
The abusive husband tried to hypocritically justify his sinful behavior, expressing to the authorities that he wanted to “bring [his wife] back to her duty,” while he himself demonstrated the rejection of his own. “The judges were not satisfied with his answer, but gave him the reward he deserved.” The authors of the story assume their readers know what the husband deserved. They assume a knowable truth, but how are we to know such a thing in our world of uncertainty? We live in a time where truth is wrongly perceived to be relative.
It seems to me that anyone today who reads this story and concludes that the man deserves punishment for the way he treated his wife must come to terms with how they arrived at such a conclusion. There are two options. A personal judgment based on emotion and what might be considered common sense that inflicting harm on another human being is wrong. To this person I respectively propose that his emotions and common sense operated according to God’s Law as it is written on his heart (Romans 2:14-15). The other option is the general acknowledgment that man’s laws, and what the person who breaks them deserves, is either derived from man and communicated to other men, but then negligence becomes a defense for the guilty as not everyone can be expected to know what the law is unless it was delivered to everyone (like, say, by writing it on everyone’s heart) or from an ultimate authority. To this person I propose that they consider that the ultimate authority is God; man’s laws are based on God’s Law just as man’s words have their origin in God’s Word (John 1:1-3).
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.