The Christmas Spirit: “What Men Live By” by Leo Tolstoy

The 1885 short story, What Men Live By by Leo Tolstoy (Russian, 1828-1910), in times past was much more well-known and even acted out as Christmas-time plays.  I have a wonderfully illustrated little hard cover copy from 1954, published by the Peter Pauper Press (PPP), but the entire text can be read online at The Literature Network (What Men Live By).  Below, I provide a synopsis of the story with some Christian and biblical commentary, although Tolstoy himself prefaced it himself with passages from 1 John (here are two of the six):

“We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love
the brethren. He that loveth not abideth in death.” 3:14

“Whoso hath the world’s goods, and beholdeth his brother in need,
and shutteth up his compassion from him, how doth the love of God
abide in him? My little children, let us not love in word, neither
with the tongue; but in deed and truth.” 3:17-18

Story Synopsis

The story begins with a very poor shoemaker visiting some of his customers who owe him money, with the hope of receiving payment and thereby buying sheepskins for a coat. He and his wife, who remain unnamed in the first section, only have one old coat between them. But the customers don’t pay up.  The shoemaker complains of one who has far more than his family does—a house, cattle, and wheat to make their own flour–yet the customer held back his wages. “If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?” (1 John 3:17; NIV). See also James 5:1-5.  In this state the shoemaker walks near a shrine and notices something very white, which he finally realizes is a man, a naked man. At first he walks by, but then he stops himself (the quote below comes from the PPP translation, not The Online Literature version):

“What ails the man?” said he to himself. “What are you doing, Simon? Here’s a man dying in misery and you take fright and pass him by? Have you grown rich, maybe? Do you fear they’ll steal your treasures? Come, come, Simon, this won’t do!”

Besides the story of the Good Samaritan, this reminds me of what Jesus said to a wealthy young man: “’If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’ When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth” (Matthew 19:21-22).

Continuing on . . . poor that he is, Simon, as we now know he’s called, talks with the young man, puts his coat on him, and takes him home. The shoemaker worries that his wife will be angry, since he didn’t get the money (well, he got a very small amount, some of which he used for a drink), didn’t get the sheepskins, and is bringing home another mouth to feed. Indeed, his wife, Matrena, becomes quite angry. They have so little food, and now this. But after raving some she realized what evil she was living at that moment, and she also became curious about the stranger. She listened to her husband explain what happened, and she listened when he said: “Don’t be so angry then. It is a sin, Matrena. We shall die one day. . . . Matrena! Is there nothing of God in you?” (p 22).

(Simon’s response seems unbiblical, or at least confusing. In the Sermon on the Mount and in other pages of the New Testament, we are told not to curse or hate others, while anger itself is viewed as a normal human emotion. However, it is warned against since it may lead to sin.  In Ephesians 4:25-27 we find, “Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body.  ‘In your anger do not sin’: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.” The passage says not to sin as a result of your anger, not that anger itself is a sin. To read more about anger as a temptation, you can check out Is Getting Angry a Sin?)

So, even though the strange man is not forthcoming with information about himself (he doesn’t even tell them his name yet), Matrena kindly gives him food and clothes. The stranger smiled for the first time. Before falling to sleep that night, Matrena asks her husband a question that many no doubt ask themselves at one time or another, “We give him what we have, but why does nobody give to us?” Her husband didn’t have an answer.

For the next few days Simon teaches the stranger, who we now know is Michael, the cobbling trade.  Michael is excellent at it, and with his help the shoemaker and his family begin to fare better. Michael lived with Simon and his family for a number of years and was a great worker and very quiet, but never smiling.  Then one day a wealthy man came to their shop and ordered a quality pair of boots–boots that would last a year–out of expensive leather he provided.  Though the terms were a bit scary, they accepted the job. As the man was leaving Michael smiled, only for the second time since meeting the shoemaker. Then he set about making slippers instead of boots. Simon was very upset, but as it turned out, the wealthy man died later that same day and his wife communicated to Simon that she wanted slippers instead.

Mother with her babes before her soul is taken.  Illustration by Jeff Hill (What Men Live By, Peter Pauper Press 1954; 45).
Mother with her babes before her soul is taken. Illustration by Jeff Hill (What Men Live By, Peter Pauper Press 1954; 45).

In his sixth year there something happened that made Michael smile a third time, which, oddly enough, was the sign of his parting.  A well-to-do woman with twin girls came to their shop.  One girl walked with a limp, and Michael showed a never-before-seen interest in these visitors. When Simon started taking measurements for the shoes, he asked what happened to the one girl that made her lame, and the woman shared with them their story. The girls’ parents had been neighbors. Right before the girls’ birth, their dad died in a work-related accident, and their mother died right after giving birth.  She had rolled on of the babies, breaking its leg.  The woman had an infant son at the time so she was able to nurse the girls, but her own child died a while later and she was never able to become pregnant again.  She loved the girls and was filled with joy to have them.

The lady and the girls left after the story-telling, but before Michael smiled and began to glow.  Now we will hear from Michael.

What the Angel Learned

Michael glowed because he was an angel, and he had been a man up until then due to God’s discipline.  He had smiled at (only) three different times during his time on earth because, each time, he had learned one of the things God said he needed to understand. What were those things that he needed to know before God’s punishment was over?  Simon wanted to know and learn too.  But before Michael told Simon and his wife the divine lessons, he started at the beginning, explaining how he saw Simon’s spirit before he took him home.

At the shrine, Michael was starving, freezing, and in much pain. When Simon had first walked near, and then right on by Michael, he was concerned with himself and his family only, and Michael felt horror.  But, “Suddenly I heard the man coming back. I looked and could not recognize the man I had seen before. Then there had been death in his face, but now he had suddenly become a living soul, and in his face I recognized God” (p 52).

Michael found Matrena’s initial response to him worse than Simon’s, prompting him to express one of the seeming unbiblical views in the story, “She wished to drive me forth into the cold, and I knew that if she drove me forth, she would die” (p 53).  Our salvation is based on our faith in Christ, not works or mistakes; if Matrena hadn’t been “saved” yet, Michael’s statement would be especially troubling.  In any case, Michael learned from Matrena his first lesson.

  • What is given to men. When Matrena had softened up after her initial anger and gave Michael food, Michael saw God in her. Then he understood what is given to men: love, and it dwells in their hearts.
  • What is not given to men.  Michael learned what was not given to men when he saw the wealthy man who had ordered the boots, and the angel of death near him.  The wealthy man didn’t realize that when he ordered boots to last a year, he would be dead that day and not need them.  What is not given to men is the knowledge of what they need.
  • What men live by.  Michael learned about what men live by through the outcome of the twin girls, that they had been taken in, cared for, and dearly loved by a stranger.  Michael had been the angel ordered to take the soul of the girls’ mother to God, but after the mother’s pleadings Michael disobeyed God and didn’t take her soul.  He did go and talk with God about it, and God’s response was to (1) send Michael back to take the mother’s soul and then (2) make him human until he learned three things about man (the items in this list).  The first two things relate to the last.  Men have love, but men don’t really know what they need, so “all men live, not by reason of any care they have for themselves, but by the love for them that is in other people” (p 56).

At Christmas time, as at any time, may people see God in us as we think of them more than ourselves, and as we give out of compassion rather than hold back out of rash judgment. Lord, may you be in us and your glory be seen by all.

“Whoso hath the world’s goods, and beholdeth his brother in need, and shutteth up his compassion from him, how doth the love of God abide in him? My little children, let us not love in word, neither with the tongue; but in deed and truth.” 1 John 3:17-18

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