Sunday, November 12, 2017

Matthew 25.14-30: It's the Dog

The gospel reading for Proper 28(33)/Pentecost 24A is a parable. Specifically, it is the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30). The master entrusts three servants with eight talents before he goes on a trip. When the master returns, he asks for an accounting of the money. Two of the three servants have multiplied the master's money. The third, described as worthless, is cast out.

Various artistic versions of the subject include additional figures (a bookkeeper, for example) and interesting settings (contemporary with the artist's time, for example). Swiss artist Eugene Burnand has used only the four men mentioned in the text and has set the parable in a classic, but timeless, setting. Between the three columns evenly spaced behind the men, are lightly drawn leaves, branches and landscape.

The three servants face the master. One servant holds a fully filled bag in his hands, presumably the original talents given him along with the additional profit he turned. A second servant stands behind him. We don't see his hands or his accounting or much of anything from him. The third servant, however, telegraphs his suspicion - or perhaps resentment? - of the master by watching from under a lowered brow as he stands with his arms crossed over his chest.

The master stands at the left of the composition with his right hand outstretched, preparing to reach for the money that is coming to him. The artist has made the master slightly taller than the first servant, but the gulf in the relationship is painted as horizontal rather than vertical. The composition doesn't reinforce a hierarchical imbalance of power as it would have if the master towered over kneeling servants.

One rather unique detail of Burnand's telling of the story is the dog in the composition. The dog is between the master and the servants. It appears that the dog has walked in with the master, whose left hand rests on the dog's head. The dog has stopped slightly ahead of the master and is looking up and back and the older man. Why is the dog there? Is the dog just another "good and faithful servant" to the master? "Fido" does, of course, share a root with the word for faithful. Is the dog there as a character reference for the master? The dog is looking up at the master with an expression that seems to be one of calmness and trust rather than cowering and fear. Remember the advice to never trust a person who doesn't love dogs, but always trust a dog when they don't like a person. Is this dog there to say that this master - for all his demands for profit and casting out into places where teeth are gnashed - can be trusted?

Image above: Eugene Burnand (1850-1921). The Talents. For Musee-Eugene-Burnand, click here
For thoughts related to the reading from Hebrew scripture, click here.
For an additional image of Deborah, click on the Art&Faith Matters Facebook link below.

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