The spiritual Message of German Fairy tales

The Wise Servant

Tale of the Brothers Grimm translated by M. Hunt [1884]
Interpretation by Undine & Jens in green [2019]

How fortunate is the master, and how well all goes in his house, when he has a wise servant who listens to his orders and does not obey them, but prefers following his own wisdom. A clever John of this kind was once sent out by his master to seek a lost cow. He stayed away a long time, and the master thought, “Faithful John does not spare any pains over his work!” As, however, he did not come back at all, the master was afraid lest some misfortune had befallen him, and set out himself to look for him. He had to search a long time, but at last he perceived the boy who was running up and down a large field. “Now, dear John,” said the master when he had got up to him, “hast thou found the cow which I sent thee to seek?” “No, master,” he answered, “I have not found the cow, but then I have not looked for it.” “Then what hast thou looked for, John?” “Something better, and that luckily I have found.” “What is that, John?” “Three blackbirds,” answered the boy. “And where are they?” asked the master. “I see one of them, I hear the other, and I am running after the third,” answered the wise boy.

Take example by this, do not trouble yourselves about your masters or their orders, but rather do what comes into your head and pleases you, and then you will act just as wisely as prudent John.

The core of this fairy tale was already used by Martin Luther (1483-1546) to interpret a Bible psalm and therefore seems to have originated far before that. We would like to use it to shed some light on a problem that was and is often discussed, especially with regard to the Bible, and not only in the context of the Protestant Reformation. The big question is, how far can we go in interpreting sacred texts like the Bible that are officially considered the words of the Lord, namely God? How far can one differ from the official opinion? Some even say that you are not allowed to interpret anything and have to take every word literally. So without thinking. However, how is that supposed to work? Every word that ears or eyes bring into us can only be interpreted in the way that we have learned in corresponding terms, how we were influenced and understand them for ourselves. We should be aware of this, because in this respect we have a certain responsibility for what we think and do. Of course, we learn from our surroundings and inevitably orientate ourselves towards the opinion of others. Many expressions are already deeply imprinted in our memory in childhood. In addition, the social school system and the public media go to great lengths to ensure that people have relatively uniform terms and that we do not sink into the chaos of Babel. Just as Goethe has Mephisto say in [Faust I]:

So, Friend (my views to briefly sum),
First, the collegium logicum.
There will your mind be drilled and braced,
As if in Spanish boots 'twere laced,
And thus, to graver paces brought,
'Twill plod along the path of thought,
Instead of shooting here and there,
A will-o'-the-wisp in murky air.

This is certainly good and useful for a society, but it also has its downsides. Because in old age, when wisdom wants to develop, it is often very difficult to make such frozen concepts flexible again. But it is precisely this mental mobility that should be our greatest wealth, which can distinguish us from animals and free us from the compulsive rule of nature. Because mental agility is the precondition for true freedom. We are spiritually bound without mental agility and can only think in narrow channels. In this regard, it makes little sense to seek truth in definitions or certain points of view, even if some people even claim they hold the authentic opinion of Jesus or Buddha. It is probably better to crack open these tough nuts and get to the core. This is the way to go if you want to know the message hidden behind the words. It certainly doesn’t work without mental agility.

God gives us the nuts, but he doesn’t crack them. [Old saying]

How fortunate is the master… when he has a wise servant who listens to his orders…

Presumably, our fairy tale here refers primarily to the Bible, the Lord and his word, so to speak. And we should listen, because we are his servants in the human body, which is like the temple of God. In practice, we are all sent as “living beings” into nature to look for something specific. That could be the cow, which is supposed to fulfil our worldly desires and promise certain wealth and happiness in life. This symbol, of course, comes from a long time ago. You can still find it in the Old Testament in the form of the golden cow or in the sacred cows of ancient Indian stories, when people still lived as farmers and ranchers. Before agriculture and cattle breeding, trees were worshiped that could give many fruit. Today it is mainly dead things like machines, which promise us wealth and happiness in life. But even earlier it was known that this worldly happiness is difficult to hold onto:

God gives the cow, but not the rope. [Old saying]

If one regards the servant as a symbol for our self-consciousness, which is based on the worldly mind, then it may make sense to reach for worldly happiness. But if you see the higher reason of mankind in it, you could only see the cow as an incentive to set off in the first place and look for lasting and therefore better happiness.

Something better, and that luckily I have found… Three blackbirds…

The three blackbirds remind us of the three ravens from the fairy tale of the faithful John and could also symbolize messengers or paths that reveal what is in the dark for our worldly mind. Because birds can rise up from the earth into the air, symbolically from the material to the spiritual sphere.

I see one of them, I hear the other, and I am running after the third…

The answer of the servant could thus relate to the three essential principles of knowledge, namely seeing in relation to the world of forms, hearing in relation to the world of concepts and acting in relation to the world of deeds. On the spiritual path, for example, one speaks of seeing a higher truth, hearing the divine word and searching for knowledge and redemption. Similar principles can also be found in the Bible, only in a slightly different order:

Ask, and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and it will be opened to you. For whoever asks receives, and whoever searches will find and whoever knocks will be opened. [Bible, Matthew 7.7]

As, however, he did not come back at all, the master was afraid lest some misfortune had befallen him, and set out himself to look for him.

In addition, the fairy tale also describes how the Lord, so to speak the Spirit of God, not only sends us on a search into the world, but also cares for us and speaks to us on this path. It is important that we become active, and not just on a physical level. A similar subject is dealt with in the Bible in the parable of the three servants with the entrusted talents:

The Kingdom of heaven is like a man, going on a journey. He summoned his servants and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents (money, property or fortune), to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy servant; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy servant; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy servant! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have in abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless servant, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. [Schlachter Bible, Matthew 25.14]

Here, too, it is a matter of using your own skills and actively working with the entrusted goods in order to increase them, and not just remain passive and fear your own initiative. On the other hand, the fearful servant, who does not want to take any risk and only wants to hold onto the entrusted goods, is severely punished, because he is obviously not acting in the interests of his master. Unfortunately, this parable does not mention what would have happened to a servant who had lost the entrusted goods through his actions. But a similar question was asked in the Indian Bhagavad-Gita and answered: “What happens to him who, despite diligence and trust, cannot tame himself in this yoga and remains unsuccessful in his great devotion? ... Neither here nor later does such a person get lost. Because nobody who acts in a healthy way goes into perdition ... [MHB 6.30]”

The famous Christian mystic Meister Eckhart (1260-1328) also used the parable of the entrusted talents in his sermons and spoke in a very profound way:

“Good, loyal servant! Because you have been loyal about little things, that’s why I want to place you over all my possessions.” Well, now pay attention to what the “little one” is about and to which this person was loyal. Everything that God created in heaven and on earth and that is not himself is small before him. Above all, this good servant has been faithful. Why is that so, I want to show you. God set this servant between time and eternity. He was not assigned to either (of both), but was free in reason and in will and also in relation to all things. With his reason he passed through all things that God created; with his will he let go of all things and also of himself and of everything that God created that is not God himself. With his reason he received them and gave God praise and honour for them and handed them over to God in his unfathomable nature and also to himself, insofar as he was created. There he left himself and all things, so that he never (again) touched himself or any created thing with his created will. Truly! whoever were faithful in such a way would have such inexpressible great joy in God that if one took this joy away from him, one would completely take away his life and his being and his divinity.
But I’ll say more - don’t be frightened! because this joy is near you and is in you! - None of you is so rude, no matter how small in comprehension, or so far removed from the fact that you cannot find this joy in yourself with joy and with knowledge as it is truthful, even before you come out of this church today, yes, before I finish my sermon today; you can just as surely find, experience and have it in yourself as God is God and I am human! Be certain of that, because it is true, and the truth itself says it ... [Eckhart, Sermon 27, S275]

With this, Meister Eckhart already shows how deeply one can think about just a single sentence with mental agility and go the whole path of knowledge from seeing and hearing to reaching happiness, as it is also indicated in our fairy tale. Similarly, one could probably write a longer book on the parable of the entrusted talents. Because the symbolism of the servant, to whom the master entrusts his property and then lets him act freely, is really a wide field for reflection. A servant is not the owner, and so he should act in the interests of the Lord without considering the entrusted goods and profits as his property. This selfless action without attachment with the necessary wisdom is not for nothing the essence of all great religions.

Take example by this, do not trouble yourselves about your masters or their orders…

One should be careful with this last sentence of the fairy tale, because this is where opinions differ. Of course, we don’t have to worry about our Lord when it comes to God. He can’t lose anything, not even a cow. And the commandments of the Bible, which one likes to interpret as strict orders, should certainly not become blind dogmas that one follows without hesitation. It would be better to work with the symbolism and work up the content mentally. For one can already guess from the example of Meister Eckhart what we will lose if we only want to hold onto this rich spiritual heritage outwardly and literally like a worldly cow. The Bible in particular is a dynamic work with many levels that can be penetrated layer by layer to the core. And Meister Eckhart also spoke about this profundity:

The writing laughs at young children at first and attracts the child to itself; but in the end, if one wants to comprehend the Scriptures, they make fun of wise people; and no one is so simple-minded that he cannot find in it what is right for him; and again nobody is so wise that, if he wants to comprehend them, he does not find them (each time) deeper and more in them. Everything that we can hear here (in the world) and everything that can be said to us, everything in it has a further, hidden meaning. Because everything we understand here is so unequal to what it is in itself and what it is in God as if it were not at all. [Eckhart, Sermon 24, S263]

…but rather do what comes into your head and pleases you…

This development is a long way, and it is certainly not possible without your own diligence, delight, ideas and intuition. This sharpens the famous sword of knowledge or wisdom in order to cut off the snares of our illusions and to expose the view of the truth. The crux of the matter here is of course our self-awareness. If it develops into a greedy ego that uses and interprets the Bible or similar works for selfish purposes in order to attack others, to sow quarrels and discord, to establish dogmas or to gain personal advantage, the whole thing naturally misses the point and backfires. The selfless path is very narrow, and you cannot take too much luggage with you, be it books, ideologies, party friends, companions or enemy images. Here the democratic principle that the external majority wins, obviously fails, because internal unity wins here.

…and then you will act just as wisely as prudent John.

So you usually walk this path lonely and humbly like a wandering monk without possessions through a temple door that is so low that you have to bow deeply:

“Enter through the narrow gate. For the gate is wide, and the way that leads to damnation is wide; and there are many of them who walk on it. And the gate is narrow and the way that leads to life is narrow; and there are few of them who find it.” [Bible, Matthew 7.13]

Finally, we would like to cite the version of Martin Luther for comparison, who used the parable under the heading “Interpretation of the 101st Psalm of the behaviour of secular rulers especially”. It is from the point of view of a church leader in a more sarcastic and worldly sense, although we with Luther actually suspected that he wanted to give the people a certain spiritual freedom. So he wrote:

“The inconsistent mercury, where you want it to be, there is no left, what they should do, they can’t do that, but what they choose, they have to do it...

So in the household, when servants and maids do what they think is good, but let be what they are called, still want to have done well. They adorn a house nicely, and are quite useful and gracious servants. Yes, like the servant with the three blackbirds, about how his master sends him to look for the lost cow, and he stays away so long that his master runs after him to see where he is. When he almost got close to him, he asked the servant: “Did you find the cow?” - “No”, said the servant, “but I found something better.” - “What did you find?” - “Three blackbirds.” - “Where do you have them?” The servant said: “I see one, I hear the other, and I hunt the third.” - Isn’t that a clever, hardworking servant? Shouldn’t a householder get rich with such servants?

Here belong those who are said to be: They pick up a spoon and crush a bowl ...” (probably: They pay more attention to the insignificant than to the more important.) [Luther Ex S302]

So, rather do what comes into your head and pleases you…

Hans-Peter Dürr, a leading physicist at the Max Planck Institute, spoke briefly in an interview in 1997 on the subject of mental mobility:
Nature plays like a child with a certain premonition ... If you can’t think of anything, you behave like matter and are a bore. Matter is curdled, solidified spirit that can no longer think of anything. That is why we should not take the matter so seriously, but rather people who are always thinking of something new… [Source: YouTube]


... Table of contents of all fairy tale interpretations ...
Little Snow-White and the seven dwarfs - (topic: Ego and passion)
The Six Servants - (topic: Supernatural abilities)
The Poor Man and the Rich Man - (topic: the curse of wealth)
Gambling Hansel - (topic: Delicate game with the world and nature)
Clever Grethel - (topic: Uncontrollable passion)
The Wolf and The Seven Little Kids - (topic: desire)
The Valiant Little Tailor - (topic: a healing way)
The Wise Servant (topic: Search for wisdom, Reformation)
Fundevogel - (topic: path to liberation, spiritual values)
Doctor Knowall - (topic: Science, Spirit)
Spirit in the Bottle - (topic: Mind, School system, Homeopathy)

[1884] Grimm's Household Tales. Translated from the German and edited by Margaret Hunt. With an introduction by Andrew Lang, 1884, Vol. 1/2, London: George Bell and Sons
[Eckhart] Meister Eckhart, Deutsche Predigten und Traktate, Diogenes 1979
[MHB] Das Mahabharata des Vyasa, 2014, www.mahabharata.pushpak.de
[Bible] Luther Bibel, 1912
[2019] Text and Pictures by Undine & Jens / www.pushpak.de