Sermon preached on Sunday, October 27, 2002 at the Cathedral of St. Philip (Atlanta) by Deacon Thee Smith
In the name of the One who created us, commanded us, and empowers us, to love our neighbors as ourselves: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
When I e-mailed friends across the country that I was preaching on today’s gospel text, my childhood friend e-mailed me back from Washington, D.C.:
Thee [he wrote],
In case I don’t make your sermons . . .
would you mind telling me;
The Pharisees asked Jesus those questions to see if they could “trick” him.
I know that Jesus was not a “trickster” nor was he naive so,
was he facilitating the “furtherance” of his conversation with the Pharisee lawyer
when he asked him about [the Messiah] and David?
Interestingly, there’s a group of liberal scholars — the so-called Jesus Seminar — which includes the trickster character in their portrait of the historical Jesus. This has been particularly interesting to me as an African American because the trickster is a major folk figure in African cultures. For example there’s the animal trickster called Anansi the Spider whom many of our own children can now encounter in American children’s books.
And of course the trickster character has been alive and well among us for generations here in the South, with folk characters like Brer Rabbit–an animal trickster concocted out of the folktales and imagination of African slaves, the anthropologists tell us. The slaves had human trickster characters too, like John Henry and High John the Conqueror. Through stories about High John the slaves celebrated how to outwit their masters and how to survive cruel treatment on the plantations of the South.
Is it proper to connect such trickster figures to the portrait of Jesus that emerges in today’s gospel? Now, I think I understand my friend’s reluctance to think of Jesus as a trickster. But given enough time I think I could also show him a ‘trickster Jesus’ emerging from all the gospel readings that we have been listening to for the past several weeks.
In today’s gospel in particular, when the Pharisees ask their last tricky question — namely, which is the greatest commandment, Jesus does indeed out-trick them. But he doesn’t do it by giving the right answer. He out-tricks them by actually being the right answer; that is, by being the kind of messiah of David whom he invokes in his riddle about David’s son.
For as all the commentaries point out, you can get the right answer just by reading the scriptures themselves; specifically Deuteronomy 6.5 — which reads “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might,” and Leviticus 19.18 — “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Indeed, in Luke’s version of this gospel, in Luke 10.25, it’s the anonymous lawyer who quotes these very scriptures and gives Jesus the right answer!
So the point here is not about getting the right answer. The real point is about who Jesus is and, by implication, who are we as his followers. This deeper issue emerges when Jesus turns the tables on his questioners and goes on the offensive by asking them that question about the messiah: how is he both David’s Lord and David’s son?
Now, generations of Christians from the New Testament period to the present have solved the riddle by acknowledging Jesus as David’s Lord through his identity as God–as the second person of the holy Trinity, and also acknowledging him as David’s son through his father Joseph, who was descended from David, as you can find listed in the genealogy in Matthew chapter one (1). But again, dear friends, the point here is not to solve the riddle and get the right answer. Rather the point is becoming a trickster like Jesus by being the right answer.
It’s precisely at this deeper level that my childhood friend has the right insight about the character of Jesus. For Jesus cannot be the kind of ordinary trickster who simply delights in outwitting and outsmarting people with clever stories and obscure riddles. Rather, as St. Paul told the Ephesians in chapter six (6), “we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (6.12).
From the same perspective Paul wrote the Colossians in chapter two (2), that on the cross Christ “disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them” (2.15). Now this sense of triumph is the same that we find in David’s messianic Psalm 110–the one that Jesus quotes in today’s gospel:
The Lord said to my Lord, sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool. (Ps. 110.1)
Now in our (Anglican) tradition of interpreting scripture it’s not flesh-and-blood human beings who become the messiah’s footstool, but the depraved spiritual powers who have corrupted God’s good creation.
Thus as the messiah of God Jesus cannot have the character of an ordinary trickster, whose targets are flesh-and-blood human beings. Rather his words and actions reveal the character of a ‘trickster extraordinaire,’ who targets cosmic powers and spiritual enemies, and whom we are invited or even required to imitate. Let me suggest a more contemporary example for our initiation as Jesus tricksters.
For 2 years my colleagues and I at Emory University have struggled with how best to deal with the horrific images that came to us (on loan) in the lynching postcard exhibit down at the King Site. As you know, these souvenir postcards often feature small groups or large crowds of spectators and perpetrators, posing or congregating before a camera, with the victim’s corpse in the background or foreground. In 2 years of gazing on these images I’ve struggled as a scholar and a theologian, and as teacher and counselor, how to respond to those flesh and blood human beings in a way that is both realistic and Christian. This is what I now think.
There is a way that we can view the victims that essentially re-victimizes them, because it sees in them only a victim — only an abused object — and not the full human being who lived and loved and shared our dignity and nobility as human beings. The horror of the photograph makes us forget what we must remember and practice as a spiritual discipline: that this was a being like us, created in the image of God, whom we could love as our neighbor and as we love ourselves.
And there is another way that we can view the perpetrators and spectators that victimizes them too — or rather, ‘counter-victimizes’ them. For the challenge here is not to dehumanize them either; not to forget that they too lived and loved, had human dignity and nobility and were human beings like us; beings who happened to grow up socialized by communities of resentment and hate.
For we may be assured of this: To the degree that we’re able to honor the humanity of both kinds of people — victims on the one hand, perpetrators and spectators on the other, to that degree we’ll be able to look each other and ourselves in the face when we too become mere spectators acquiescing in evil, or betray or abuse one another. Then we may be able, at the end of the day, to see in all human beings, of every kind and condition, the image of God shining free and clear of all the tricks that the spiritual powers attempt to use, tempting us to turn us against one another, and to dishonor the image of God that is in all of us by birthright.
Thus, as tricksters in our own right we are being initiated into this discipline of a holy people: neither to re-victimize victims — either as pitiful objects or as occasions for revenge, nor to counter-victimize perpetrators — by demonizing or confusing them with the spiritual powers who are our real enemies.
And so may we manifest the character of the people of God invoked in the words of the Collect [collective prayer] appointed for today:
“Almighty and everlasting God, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity; and, that we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command…” +
+ See the command to pray for our enemies: Matthew 5.44, Luke 6.27; cf. Romans 12.17f., 13.8f.
See the command to love our neighbors as ourselves: Matthew 22.39, Mark 12.33, Luke 10.27.