The Risk-averse servant

This story, recorded by both Matthew and Luke, has been given a lot of different interpretations. I’ve been working/playing with it recently and I have three observations I would like to make.

Before I get into the observation-making business, let me pause for a confession. I have written this essay completely and it wasn’t until I was done that I discovered that the observations I had made could be organized as three main points. I began with a simple grammatical discrepancy—as I will explain below—and followed my several curiosities as the argument flowed from one topic to another. It wasn’t until I was finished writing the essay that I noticed that I had “three observations I would like to make.” I am amazed at how organized it seems to me now, knowing, as I do, that when I first approached the topic, I charged around like a bloodhound with a meaningful scent in his nostrils.

That is the end of my confession, Now on with the observation-making business.

Here’s the story, often called “The Parable of the Talents” but which might be better called “The Risk-averse Servant,” or possibly, “The Servant Who Feared the Wrong Thing.”

Parable of the Talents

To shorten the essay up a little, I am going to presume that you know the general plot. If not, a quick look at Matthew 25 or Luke 19 will fix that. Briefly, a noblemen went away and trusted three servants with some of his funds to make money for him while he was gone. Two of them did. This is about the third one. Here is the clip that dealt with him.

Matthew 25: 24 Last came forward the man who had the single talent. “Sir,” said he, “I had heard you were a hard man, reaping where you had not sown and gathering where you had not scattered; 25 so I was afraid, and I went off and hid your talent in the ground. Here it is; it was yours, you have it back.” 26 But his master answered him, “You wicked and lazy servant! So you knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered? 27 Well then, you should have deposited my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have got my money back with interest. 28 So now, take the talent from him and give it to the man who has the ten talents.

What did the servant know and when did he know it? [1]

risk averse 3I first began to be interested in this passage when I noticed that the New Jerusalem Bible (my favorite) has a translation of “knew” that was new to me. Like everyone other Protestant my age, I grew up with the King James Version, which has: “Lord, I knew thee that thou art an hard man…” [2] The Revised Standard Version has a modern version of the same sentiment: “Master, I knew you to be a hard man.” This is something the servant knows to be true and it attaches to the character of the master and is evidenced by the master’s repeated actions that support it.

But I noticed that the New Jerusalem Bible has “I had heard that you were are hard man.” “Had heard” is not at all the same thing as knowing, so I checked to see what verb is used in the Greek text. It is egnōn, “to know,” a verb widely used in the New Testament to refer to knowledge. But knowing is different than “having heard” so I was puzzled. The New Jerusalem Bible is not given to flights of fancy; it is the work of careful scholars.

But it turns out that egnōn is in a tense we don’t have in English and this is the first of my three observations. It is the aorist tense. (Please don’t give up here; this is the only really technical point in the entire essay.) An aorist verb describes an action that is taken only once although the effects of that action may go on for a long time. [3] So what would it mean to say, “There was a time when I knew a particular thing, but I have not continued to know it?” That formulation represents “past knowledge,” or, in other words, information that came the servants way in the past and which he is still using. If that is what Matthew has in mind, then the translation “I had heard” instead of “I know” is perfectly appropriate. And not only appropriate, but provocative. What does it imply about the servant I am calling “risk-averse?”

Now the servant characterizes himself as risk-averse. “I had heard that you were a difficult master so I decided to minimize the risk of doing anything to make you angry.” But does it seem odd to you to say that a man who makes a crucial decision on the basis of hearsay is really averse to risk? I don’t think so. And this brings us to the second of the three points: what would a risk-averse servant have done?

Risk-aversion and Good Information

So the servant knows the mater to be demanding and he, himself, is fearful of doing something wrong and being punished. It is not his view of “doing something wrong” that matters, of course. It is the master’s view. In order to get current and accurate information about how to stay out of trouble, the servant needs to “seek (information) and keep on seeking it” to use the language Matthew attributes to Jesus eighteen chapters earlier (Matthew 7:7)

Risk Averse 2It would be asking a lot to ask that the servant put his master’s interests ahead of his own and I am not asking that. I am saying only that if “avoiding punishment” is the servant’s own top priority, then information about what kinds of activity the master will punish is very important. Instead of that, the servant relies on “I had heard.” That doesn’t sound like risk aversion to me.

There is one other possibility, though. It may be that asking the question about the master is the risk that most terrifies the servant. The text doesn’t tell us that, but it does tell us that the servant didn’t take the trouble to find out. If wondering what the master will want of him simply terrifies the servant, then gathering information about what the master is like is the scariest possible course of action. So the servant commits himself to denial [4]in the same way and for the same reasons that someone who has a suspicious lump in his neck refuses to go to a doctor and find out what it is.

I think I would be willing to call that behavior risk-averse, even though it is not the behavior the story is intended to refer to.  Which brings us to the third of the three observations. Just what was the story supposed to be about?

Some have said it is a story about the nature of God. I don’t think that’s very helpful as an interpretation and it is really hard to see why Matthew would have chosen to represent God that way. Some have said it is a story about “lending at interest” (forbidden to Jews except to non-Jews) and therefore about capitalism. I don’t think that’s where Matthew’s interest is at all; not the Matthew who recalls that Jesus said it was impossibly hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 19:24).

Being in the Game

So what is the story about. It seems to me that it is about recognizing that you are in the game and that it is useless to pretend that you are not. I’ve slipped into a modern metaphor here—“in the game”—but it’s only to highlight how contemporary the notion is. If you are a Jew living by the Torah you are “in the game.” You have a lot of obligations that pay no attention at all to what you would prefer. You are obligated to help an enemy unload his pack animal, for instance, and to redeem a kinsman from slavery and to produce offspring from your brother’s widow who will be counted as his offspring, not yours.

A Jew could say about any of those, “I wish I weren’t even in this game,” but he or she is anyway. I learned during my time in Ireland last week that the word “lynch” comes to us from Judge Lynch who was obligated to hang his own son because the son had violated a law that required death. I am sure he said, as he saw he has obligated to give the sentence the law required, that he wished he was not even in this game. But he was anyway and pretending he was not would not help him.  I’d be willing to bet that this Utah player had to stop and consider just what “being in the game meant for him.”

risk averse 6The servant is the recipient of his master’s money and the name of the game is investment and profit. I can see that Matthew would have a good deal of interest in that. Matthew would have been troubled by people who “wanted a little piece of Rabbi Jesus’s kingdom” but who wanted to pretend that no obligations went with that “little piece.”

And that, finally, is what I think this story is about. Being a part of the Jesus ministry is a kind of “being in the game.” It may require that you do things that make you uncomfortable or require that you condemn, in yourself, behavior that otherwise you might call justifiable.  Like hating your enemies, for instance. But if you have been given a gift, you are responsible to use it as the master intended it be used.

risk averse 7You could, of course, wish that you had not been given the gift and all the obligations it carries with it. I think about Frodo, who, when he discovered what “Bilbo’s ring” really was and the burden it was going to be to him, said, “I wish it need not have happened in my time.”

I get that. I have felt that way myself. But Frodo said that to Gandalf [5] and this is the reply he got. “So do I,” replied Galdalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.

And I think that’s why Matthew want to tell us this story.

[1] I wrote that line well before the recent firing of FBI Director Comey put the minds of everyone old enough to remember back to the Watergate years. All the coverup questions were set as answers to the question, “What did the President (Nixon) know and when did he know it.” These questions were asked in vain during the Iran/Contra allegations of the Reagan years, but they seem to be making a comeback.
[2] We can leave out the archaisms “I knew thee that…” and “an hard man” and still get the sense of the servant’s confession
[3]It is used this way in other text, as well. When Paul says, “Christ died for us according to the scriptures…” (1 Corinthians 15:4) he uses the aorist tense. He means that Christ died once and the effects continue. On the other hand, when Jesus says “seek and you will find,” he uses the present tense. That verse fragment means “seek and keep on seeking” and you will find (Matthew 7:7). So the implications of the aorist and the present tenses are crucial in some contexts. I think this is one of them.
[4] If you have a “denial” joke, like “it’s not just a river in Egypt,” for instance, feel free to insert it here.
[5] In Tolkein’s world, a “wizard” is a kind of being and there is no question that Gandalf is one of that kind. But in English, the -ard suffix is uniformly pejorative and in the word “wizard,” the -ard ending is attached to “wise.” Looked at in that way, Gandalf really was wise; he was not just a wizard.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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