September 19, 2010


The children of this world are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. – Luke 16: 8

Long before Luke wrote this Gospel, there was an ancient & venerable tradition of what we call “trickster” tales, that is, stories that for the moment neatly reversed the accepted power structure. Kings fell, slaves rose, the powerful with their armies failed, the servant with the quick wit succeeded. Aesop’s fables, for example, told tales of servants who fell into a master’s disfavor & by cleverness & cunning, which the master grudgingly admired, not only restored themselves but gained higher positions & responsibilities.

The Old Testament has its share of trickster stories: Joseph the slave in Egypt who rises to royal position & power by interpreting the Pharaoh’s dreams while the wise men couldn’t, while the shepherd boy who was first passed over becomes King David. In the light of a trickster tale, the storyline here is that the servant has manipulated his master’s money & is summarily dismissed, as he should have been. So out of a job, ashamed to beg, & unable to dig, what does the wily servant do? He adds insult to injury. Knowing that his master’s debtors have not yet heard about his firing, he quickly calls upon them. They in turn, thinking he is still legitimately acting on behalf of the master, are delighted when they are called in to rewrite the terms of the notes more favorable to themselves.

The master, when he finds out he has been tricked, is caught in a bind. Being very much the macho type, he can’t very well lose face & let his debtors know that his dishonest servant pulled a fast one on him, had outfoxed him, had shamed him. He has a reputation to maintain & doesn’t want to be known as a fool who can’t even control his own servant. In a word, he’s been had & he has to live with it. The servant scored one on the master, the lowly over the great. More than that, the master reconsiders it all, looks at his servant with a wry smile, & commends the servant.

In our Lord’s parable, the servant is not necessarily a decent person to be imitated in his moral conduct, but rather as one more example of someone who subverts the normal expectations, & in THIS role he is commended because he sounds a familiar Gospel theme: the first will be last & the last will be first; sinners will enter the kingdom before the self-appointed righteous.

The message is this: in our Lord’s tricky kingdom be prepared to expect & do the unexpected [like drivers in Italian traffic]. Be spiritually clever & live by the surprises of the Gospel where people forgive seventy times seven, go two miles when forced to go one, return good for evil, pray for enemies, choose the last place, wash feet like a slave, & throw banquets for those who can never possible repay. THAT will turn things upside down & unnerve your worldly masters.

Why? Because, to their amazement, you chose the road less travelled. You choose to live the paradoxes of the Gospel & to that degree, in gospel terms, you acted prudently. AMEN!