Sermon on Matthew 20:1-16 and God as trickster?

The following sermon was preached on 8 November 2022 at Wine Before Breakfast by Brenda Kronemeijer-Heyink.

As I’ve been telling Bible stories to my daughter, Lydia, I’ve remembered how fun it is to tell good stories: stories where there is suspense and surprise. Unfortunately, the way many Bible stories are told to children they clean up some of this suspense and some of the sneakiness of the characters – and I think we are all the worse for that.

So I’ve been naming some of that sneakiness in the Bible, and in my own family we see playing sneaky tricks on each other as a good thing. It is a way for me to practice being child-like, to being naive enough that I can be tricked. It’s a way for us to laugh with each other and to be surprised by each other.

It’s with this understanding of being tricked and tricking others that I want to explore the idea of God as trickster. This image of God who invites us into being foolish and learning to see the Bible, ourselves, and the world in new ways.

I also want to acknowledge that this image of God as trickster is still an image that I’m wrestling with. Few people like being tricked and neither tricking or being tricked are positive images for it messes with our understanding of what is fair. So I want to acknowledge that is not a comfortable image of God, nor is it necessarily an image of God that is or should be all-encompassing. Yet I also believe that it’s an image that is worth exploring.

The image of God as trickster is not one that we associate with Christianity; it’s an image that fits more with other religions, with myths and folktales. Yet, this quote from Byrd Gibbens suggests ways that we might learn from the role of tricksters: “Many native traditions held clowns and tricksters as essential to any contact with the sacred. People could not pray until they had laughed, because laughter opens and frees from rigid preconception. Humans had to have tricksters within the most sacred ceremonies for fear that they forget the sacred comes through upset, reversal, surprise.”1

What if a willingness to be tricked is part of what it means to be a Christian? As 1 Corinthians 1:21 says, “Creator knew that the world through its wisdom would not come to know him. So his heart was glad to rescue and set free the ones who trust in the ‘foolishness’ of the good story we tell.”

To explore this idea of trickster a bit more, the following are several Old Testament examples about tricksters and then move on to the parable that we read.

I’ll start with the story of David and Goliath. David shows up in the army camps, bringing in food for his older brothers. He asks why everyone is standing around while Goliath is making fun of them and their God. When he hears about Goliath’s challenge to fight a champion, he offers to go himself. Instead of intervening when David makes the offer, those in charge agree and offer to lend him armor, which doesn’t fit, kind of like a child playing dress-up.

When David approaches Goliath, Goliath makes fun of him – and probably doesn’t take David seriously. Because of that, David shoots him with a slingshot. Which probably violates all proper rules of combat. As a child I never questioned the unfairness of what David did – after all, God was on David’s side. As an adult, I appreciate how David won also because of how he tricked Goliath. And I wonder what it might look like to live in such a way that we allow God to use our trickery to do good for God – what it might look like to be as wise as serpents and innocent as doves, as Jesus commands us [in Matthew 10:16]

Then there is Joseph, who is introduced to us by his obnoxious habit of telling his family about how his dreams show how they’ll bow down to him. After Joseph is dragged off to Egypt and his dreams actually come true, he meets his brothers again. And while the story eventually ends with a tearful reunion, again and again Joseph plays tricks on his brothers. He returns their money, accuses them of theft and cheating him, takes one of his brothers prisoner, and even conspires to take his youngest brother for himself. As Joseph’s brothers experience his tricks, they are convicted of their sins, arguing that what is happening is God punishing them for selling their brother. The conviction goes even so far that Judah changes from being the person who was willing to harm his daughter-in-law, Tamar, to being someone who was willing to lay down his own life for that of his youngest brother – so that no harm might come to him or their father.

As I hear that story, I wonder how trickery might play a role in my being convicted of my own sins, of the church and society might be convicted of how we need to change.

One last story, the story of Abraham and Sarah. God tells Abraham that he would have a son. Abraham laughs. Abraham and Sarah try to make that promise true by involving Hagar and things get very messy. Then three visitors come and Sarah overhears them telling Abraham that in a year he would have a son. Sarah laughs. What kind of person is foolish enough to believe that someone her age would have a baby?

But babies don’t come from nowhere – and Abraham and Sarah were foolish enough to try to make a baby. And indeed within a year, Isaac is born. Isaac whose name means laughter, a constant memory of their being foolish. And how God was gracious enough to meet them in spite of and because of their foolishness.

In these Old Testament stories we see how God uses trickery and foolishness to convict and to work in and through us humans. Trickery and foolishness also have a place in the New Testament. The parables and Jesus’ very life rearranges our expectations of who God, how God works, and what it means to follow Jesus. How often did Jesus not say – you have heard it said, but I tell you… And then he would tell a saying or parable.

In the parable we read today, many people see it as showing how salvation is about grace and that we can’t actually earn it with all our hard work, no matter how early or late we come to know God. The parable is also seen as a reminder that how God treats people doesn’t necessarily fit with our ideas of justice.

Yet, parables are meant to convict, like tricksters do. While God might need to convict us of our envy of how God treats others differently than me, perhaps the parable has an even harder lesson. After all, if the parable is really about how abundant God’s grace is for the first and the last, then why are people not actually being paid abundantly in the parable? All of the workers in the vineyard get paid only a day’s wages.

Amy-Jill Levine notes that the workers focus on how things are not fair but the landowner instead shows them what is right. She argues that “the point [of the parable] is not that those who have ‘get more,’ but that those who have not ‘get enough.” Furthermore, “If the householder can afford it, he should continue to put others on the payroll, pay them a living wage (even if they cannot put in a full day’s work), and so allow them to feed their families while keeping their dignity intact. The point is practical, it is edgy, and it is a greater challenge to the church then and today than the entirely unsurprising idea that God’s concern is that we enter, not when.2

I think her words are both hard and convicting, especially right now when we in Ontario are surrounded by a conversation around how much education workers are getting paid. And while I don’t know enough about the situation to be able to speak to which degree each party is both right and wrong, I am struck by the truths of this parable. God cares that people have enough to live on. And this parable argues that those in power should do what they can to make sure that happens.3

I hope and pray that people, including ourselves, will use what influence we have to try to ensure that people do receive a living wage – that people can feed their families and themselves, have safe housing, and do so with their dignity intact.

As a final example of God as trickster, I’ll acknowledge that as much as I think it’s important to pick texts that are relevant to today, I’m a little unsettled by how relevant today’s text is. Alongside of all these OT examples of tricksters, I wanted to share a parable. The reading from today seemed fitting because of how it convicts us that our understanding of fairness might be wrong. I wasn’t expecting the conversation of fariness and a living wage to be one that the whole province was having and arguing about. And hopefully Christians have been praying and thinking about.

Even after all these examples, I’m not sure how well this image of trickster will connect with you – and that’s okay. But I do hope that you find joy and hope in God not always working as we expect. That you can find comfort in how God convict those who need convicting. That it will give you hope that people can change, including ourselves, and that the world can change so that more people will have a living wage and more people will have safe and affordable housing.

I pray, too, that you might open yourself to being naive and open to being tricked, so that you can make space for God to work and space to be surprised. And last of all, I pray that you might experience laughter and that this might help you to better know and love God, yourself, and others.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

1 Byrd Gibbens, quoted epigraph in Napalm and Silly Putty by George Carlin, 2001. Taken from wikipedia article on tricksters.

2Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus, 218.

3After all, Jesus “tends to focus less directly on ‘good news to the poor’ than on ‘responsibility of the rich.” Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus, 218. Cf. Deuteronomy 15:11