Does the Unprofitable Servant Represent the Pharisees?

At church this morning, my pastor preached about the parable of the talents.  See here to read the parable in Matthew 25:14-30.  In this parable, a master is going on a journey and entrusts to his servants some talents, which was a unit of wealth in Jesus’ day.  Two of his servants manage to increase their talents, whereas a third servant, afraid of his master, buries his talent in the ground.  The master on returning rewards the two profitable servants by entrusting them with more responsibilities, whereas the unprofitable servant is thrown into outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

The pastor was suggesting that the third servant represents the Pharisees.  The third servant had a negative view of his master and was fearful of him, and the pastor thought that this was the sort of religion that the Pharisees promoted, one that was fearful of God.  Here are some of my thoughts about that interpretation:

1.  I read Christian blog posts and literature, and they are pretty down on the Pharisees.  There have been times when I have wanted to share a Christian article or blog post that I found edifying, and I have decided not to do so because its criticisms of the Pharisees might offend Jewish people I know.  The thing is, I identify with what these articles say about the Pharisees, not so much because I think that they get the Pharisees entirely right, but because these articles criticize trends in religion that I find to be oppressive or just plain wrong: putting burdens on people, legalism, looking down on others, being afraid of God, relying on performance rather than embracing God’s love and grace, etc.  Granted, there may have been Pharisees like this in Jesus’ day, but I wouldn’t paint them all with that brush, for there were also Pharisees who emphasized love and grace.

2.  The pastor’s point did get me thinking: Does the parable of the talents relate in some way to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E.?  There are people who argue that, when Jesus talked about Gehenna, he was referring to a garbage dump in Jerusalem where dead bodies would be thrown, and that Jesus was saying that a lot of dead bodies would be there as a result of the crisis in 70 C.E.  On whether I agree with that view or not, I am mixed: I am open to it, but there are texts in the Gospels that seem to suggest that Gehenna relates to the punishment for sinners after Jesus comes back and judges.  In any case, 70 C.E. marked the end of the official Jewish religious cult.  That’s what makes me wonder if my pastor has a point in his interpretation of the unprofitable servant—-as somehow relevant to the Jewish religious system of Jesus’ day.  The problem with this view is, however, that the Pharisees survived and thrived after 70 C.E.: they created rabbinic Judaism.

3.  I have read similar views to what my pastor was saying this morning about the unprofitable servant.  I vaguely recall reading Martin Luther saying that the third servant saw his master as fearsome, and so the master rewarded the servant according to the servant’s beliefs and words—-the master became fearsome.  For Luther, the third servant should have seen his master as good and gracious.  My problem is this: okay, the servant saw his master as fearsome and cruel.  Shouldn’t the master have tried to prove that servant wrong by being kind to him, even after the servant made a wrong decision?  Instead, the master has the servant thrown into outer darkness.

4.  I struggle with the parable of the talents, yet I affirm for myself its message of using what God gives us.  I do that by praying and reading my Bible.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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1 Response to Does the Unprofitable Servant Represent the Pharisees?

  1. Laurie Nichols says:

    I share your thoughts about the master perhaps being a better master and that may have determined a different reaction from the servant and thus a better outcome. A good master should be senitive to their servants’s needs.


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