Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Worthless Slave, Part II

I’ve been stuck this past week on the “worthless slave” of the parable of the talents; the last character that grabbed my attention as much was two years ago, with the mysterious young man in Mark 14, who follows Jesus out of Gethsemane, after the arrest. The man is clothed in linen, but flees naked from the scene, after an altercation. For me, the man was mirrored by the young man in white at the tomb in Mark 16, who tells the women that Jesus is no longer there, that they should all head for Galilee. So much mystery, so much of the deep ecology far beneath the canonical narratives seemed embedded in the simplicity of the mention, the lack of details and the lack of commentary—the silence around that white-clad figure. My initial goal was to uncover and identify the young man, but eventually, I saw him as a figure to meditate upon and within, as if he were one of many ciphers that were portals of access beneath the rubble of our standard interpretations and commentary. A place to go wordlessly into our pre- and post-verbal encounters with all these spiritual fictions.

My anarchic philosophical tendencies made it a sure bet for me to fall for the worthless slave, but what throws the balance of this story off is not so much his thumbing his nose at the master, as it is the master’s brutal response: for me, that brutality constitutes the “tell” that suggests that something is awry with standard interpretations of the third slave as irresponsible, lazy, what have you. The human writer is weighing in heavily with his own axe to grind, siding hard with the “responsible investors,” but the beauty of this parable is that its own subversive intent undermines all attempts to make the theme be so docile. If the ending of the story is a brutal banishment, then the parable itself, whether Matthew is aware of it or not, seems to be saying all bets are off: do not seek the kingdom of heaven in the investment portfolio scenarios or perhaps even the more humanistic “do not hide your own God-given talents” sermonettes—seek the clue in the end, in the banishment.

The epiphany hit me in the shower this morning, and it followed our assistant rector Matt’s axiom that if you get the parable right away, if the meaning seems obvious, then we are most likely off base. “Investing wisely to the master’s delight” or “not hiding, but growing our talents” seem interpretations too easily gained. What hit me in the shower was a return to Jesus’ subversiveness, his laying out the fate of those who will not “take” from their masters (the talent was “planted”), but will instead return that which was given and call out the injustice of the system in which investment for the master is the expected norm—that they will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth…

In this, I see Jesus issuing the pabulum of wise investing to those who would hear it that way, while at the same time giving acknowledgement and solace to those whose paths were/are not that of the righteous denari. And, following Harold Bloom’s frisson of textual misreading as a creative necessity in the development of textual revelation, what dropped into my mental lap earlier this week was the notion that the “worthless” slave was a woman—who better, all possible sexual renderings intended, to have perhaps an entirely different (perhaps even a truer) understanding of the master. No friend to what he considers the aesthetic weakness of the “New” Testament, friend Harold has little affection for anything but the Markan Jesus: the others he finds too bereft of irony to resemble anything close to the Lear-like complexities of Yahweh. I’d like to offer the notion that Matthew’s talents-fabulist tells a tale with the quicksilver ability to resist its own chronicler, that there is irony aplenty in this little tale, for those who need its sobering, and subversive, comfort.



Blogger anno said...

Maybe it's because I am always trying to hit everything I read over the head with Occham's razor, or that I was brought up on heavy doses of "This Little Light of Mine," that I am a little dizzy with the intriguing possibilities you suggest here. Kind of like my students the first time I showed them what it meant to divide a number by a fraction. Interesting ideas here; I've enjoyed your meditations on this text.

1:35 PM  
Blogger murat11 said...

anno: I suppose, like all good mysteries and parables and folklore handed down through millenia, the quicksilver light keeps scuttling just beyond reach. Plenty of dizziness to go around.

1:50 PM  

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