Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Sermon Cliff Note: The Trickster

Read Luke 16.1-8a

Jesus offers his disciples this story of a man and his wealthy master.

The man has squandered his master’s property.  The wealthy master is preparing to fire the man.

Realizing that he’s in trouble, the man calls folks who owe the master and radically reduces their debts in hopes that when he’s on the street, the debtors of the master will be so grateful that they’ll help him.

The wealthy master learns of the trick but instead of yelling at him for cheating, the master praises him.

Is Jesus saying that God appreciates thievery?  Is Jesus telling the disciples to trick people into the kingdom of heaven?

Remember: (1) Jesus and his followers are, for the most part, NOT the powerful in their society; and (2) they know what it is to be on the outside of a society looking in, where the Trickster is often the only one who gets the better of his betters.

The Trickster is a figure in literature who foils the plans of others,  deceives in order to win the day.  The Trickster is the underdog who turns  tables and brings surprise endings.  Tricksters in literature include:  Odysseus and the Trojan Horse . . . Robin Hood . . . Bugs Bunny . . . Sheherazade . . . The Pied Piper . . . Puck . . . Leprechauns . . . Jack in Jack & the Beanstalk . . . Road Runner . . . and Jacob, the best biblical example of the Trickster.

To take the story on its own terms, the first thing we have to do is forget the idea that the wealthy master stands for God.  Nothing in the story suggests this is so.

What changes when we do this?  What do we know about employer-employee relationships?  The first thing we know is where the power lies: with the employer.  That’s magnified in Jesus’ time, as the story points out: without this job, our fellow will be reduced to physical labor beyond his abilities or begging and the same of the streets.

The fact that he probably ‘deserves’ to be out on his ear is of little comfort and no practical help to someone who still needs to eat.  He is desperate.  And out of his desperation comes a creative plan: he’ll buy himself some good will with the folks who owe his boss.

Is he stealing from the boss?  Probably.  But this is not a morality play.  It isn’t about his theft anymore than Jacob’s status as father of Israel is about his theft of Esau’s birthright.

Trickster stories remind us that power is not always where it seems to be.  Tricksters show us how to think outside the box of our own fears and limitations.  Tricksters show us how to come at life sideways.

All well and good, but where on earth is the good news of Jesus’ saving grace in all this?

I don’t know any more than you do.  Really.

But here are a few possibilities to take home:

1. The powerful are not always in charge and will not always ‘win’.

2. Creativity of mind is a gift of God.

3. Maybe, just maybe, rules have to be understood in context.  Maybe, when a poor man takes a loaf of bread, it’s not stealing at all.  Maybe.

Tricksters  make us doubt . . . and in doubting what we were so sure we knew . . . invite us to see things differently . . . upside down differently. . . sideways differently . . .and be changed.

Jesus just finished telling the Pharisees and the crowds about the prodigal son and God’s extreme generosity of welcome when he turns to his disciples to tell them this story.  Like everyone else, the disciples were probably seeing themselves as righteous older brothers and asking why – why would, why should – God welcome such a one as this, to which maybe, just maybe, Jesus is answering, why not?

If the Trickster is about turning the tables, reversing the situation, making upside down right side up, then maybe, just maybe, God is rooting for the underdog, and maybe, just maybe, God is the greatest Trickster of all.

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