Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Third Servant

Ah, my excellent pastor has sent me back to my bible (King James version, blue cover), Matthew 25:14-30, the story of the three servants, which comes right after the story of the ten virgins, five of them foolish and without lamp oil. 

Here is Susan's account of "The Third Servant--Coward or Hero?" at the Reflecting Pool. I very much appreciated her historical reminder that the listeners at this time would not have identified with either master or slave, and would not have approved of "usury," or interest (money making money), or "ursury," as it is spelled in my King James version. 

What struck me on this third reading was that the master gave his slaves each 5 talents, 2 talents, or 1 talent "to every man according to his several ability," an odd reversal of communism: from each according to his ability, to each according to his need. (A talent is a huge unit of money, also important in Cleopatra's time!) 

And also that these verses are followed by the famous sheep and goats verses, which might tempt someone to connect the sheep on the right hand with rich usurious slaves and the goats on the left hand with the poor one-talent slave sent off to weep and gnash his teeth. Watch out for temptation, I'd say. I suspect that this is a contrast, not a comparison, this sheep and goats business, or a completely new metaphor, nothing to do with slaves or virgins!

Anyhoo, Susan pointed out this section of Matthew often shows up during the fall stewardship campaign at a church, and she did not use it that way. Instead, she challenged herself and us to think of it in light of current events (Occupy Wall Street) and local protests (against high interest rates on payday lending) and/or not in light of that, but for its own sake. 

What are we to glean from such a parable?

I glean a warning similar to that of Philip Levine, the current poet laureate of the United States and a champion of the working person. He is a feisty troublemaker, as you can see in this interview in the New York Times Magazine, and a courageous man, not at all afraid to say what he thinks. A "slave" to no one.

"There’s a kind of Protestant ethic that believes that if you’re really a good person, God will reward you with a full table and a garage full of automobiles and a beautiful husband or wife — that we should be judged by what the world has delivered to us," says Levine, and I see that as a typical and problematic interpretation of the story of the third servant, as if 1) we are supposed "create wealth" given to us by an unjust, "hard man," a master of slaves and/or 2) we are to be judged by our apparent privilege, luck, and wealth, by our goods and not our deeds or our intent.  Sigh....  But the parable in Matthew is very rich, and very open to interpretation, however conveniently it may be used by anyone to make a point or justify a particular way of life. Eh?


Kristin Berkey-Abbott said...

Thanks for this post, and the post you linked to! I find this parable problematic, and it was great to get additional insights.

I linked to you on my theology blog:

Kathleen said...

Thanks, Kristin! I will keep pondering this one, for sure. Be sure to read Susan's "five foolish bridesmaids" reflection, too! Maybe next week she'll handle those sheep and those goats!