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The ‘Trickster’ is a figure that appears in stories in many different cultures. Trickster stories are used to teach the next generation about a community’s morals and traditions. As one scholar suggests, “tricksters are associated with rule-breaking. They are . . .  pranksters who frequently cross and challenge boundaries.” Tricksters create social rules and then “deliberately flout them.”

I wonder: what are some examples of tricksters in your heritage? If you have Irish roots, you’ve likely heard of the green-suited, red-bearded trickster called the Leprechaun. 

The leprechaun is a shoemaker who spends most of their time making and fixing shoes. Some say when a leprechaun is near, you can hear the tap-tap-tapping of a tiny hammer as they drive nails into shoes. Every leprechaun has a pot of gold that they hide deep in the Irish countryside [the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow as it’s known in popular culture]. According to legend, the leprechaun must give this treasure away to anyone who captures him. But these little tricksters won’t let their treasure slip away easily. . . . [T]he sneaky leprechaun can fool a person into looking away for a moment. And just like that, they vanish and take their treasure with them.

There are also many tricksters in First Nations, Inuit, and Metis traditions. One of my favourites, which I learned of recently, is Wisakedjak (Wee-sah-kay-jak) as told by Jordan Stranger of Peguis First Nation in Winnipeg.

“This story starts with a family” he begins.

There were three of them, a Son, a Daughter and a Father. This family lived above the sky watching over all of us on earth and their responsibility was to take care of the Sun, to light it in the mornings and turn it off at night. The father of the family always knew one day that he would eventually die, and he knew that day would come soon. So, he told his children that when he passes one of them would have to take care of the Sun. When the day came and their father died they were heartbroken, and that turned into anger and frustration. They quarrelled at who would take care of the Sun. The son said, ‘I will take care of the Sun, I am the man, a warrior,’ but the daughter replied, ‘No, I am the woman, a caregiver.’

While they argued, daytime came but there was no sunlight for the people of earth. That is when Wisakedjak took notice. He wondered, ‘Why there was no sun for the people?’ So he went up into the sky, above the clouds and confronted the son and daughter. He then asked, ‘Why is there no sunlight? The people need the sun to survive? Why are you both being selfish?’ The brother and sister both pleaded their case to Wisakedjak but he had heard enough.

Wisakedjak, frustrated at them both, told them, ‘Because you are both undecided I will make a decision. For the daughter, because of this you will be given a new task. I will create a Moon for you to take care of to use in the night, and your brother will watch over the Sun. This way you will both have to wait a whole year to see one another.’

I love the idea of the sun and the moon as two siblings who got sent to their rooms because they were fighting!

So, tricksters challenge and confront the way things are and create new ways of being when things aren’t working. They are located “at the periphery of the community (though, . . . never totally separated from it).” They speak wisdom and have access to all sorts of treasures, though as with the Leprechaun, there’s often some sort of riddle involved if you actually wish to find it. Tricksters can either “subvert (or endorse) social practices . . . continually offer[ing] us the possibility of transcending (or renewing) social codes.”

Finally, as Amanda Robinson writes in her entry for “Trickster” in the Canadian Encyclopedia, “[T]he trickster allows us to poke fun at the powers that restrain us.”

So, the Trickster is someone who speaks in riddles? Has some sort of trade (like shoemaking or, say, carpentry?). They’re at the periphery of the community, though never totally separate from it.  They’re known to disappear into thin air; challenge and confront social codes and allow people to poke fun at the powers that restrain them. Sound like anyone we know?

I wonder if we were to listen to the Bible story we heard today, of Jesus in the grainfields, through the lens of trickster folklore, how might we hear it differently? Well, lucky for you, you don’t have to wonder too hard, because I’ve taken a stab at  writing it. If you’ll indulge me just this once. . . . This is the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to trickster folklore:

There once was a group of people who lived freely on the land. They worked hard, day in, day out. They harvested the land, making sure everyone had clothes to wear, food to eat, and a roof over their head. Once a week, they paused from all of their hard work to take a break and to allow the land to breathe. They celebrated and gave thanks to the One who had given the land into their care, remembering the relationships between themselves and the more-than-human creatures around them. They called this day, Sabb-a-oth (Sabbath).

Over time, there grew up around them people who wanted to hoard the land. There were people who wanted to keep all of the food, all of the houses, all of the industry! They forced workers to harvest grain to sell at outrageous prices while the workers themselves made very little pay and took home very little food for their own families. What was once an economy of grace and abundance became a playground for greed—with price-gouging wherever you looked. What’s more, Sabb-a-oth, which was once a day to take a break from work, became a day to create a whole other workforce: that of the Sabbath-jailers.

Sabbath-jailers went from town to town, grainfield to grainfield. Anyone who was caught trying to gather food for their families on their so-called ‘day-off’ was locked up! Anyone who was caught trying to see the doctor on a weekend, because they couldn’t afford to take time away from work during the week, was thrown behind bars!

One such Sabbath, Jesus was going from town to town, making his way through the grainfields. His disciples began to pluck heads of grain as they went, gathering food for the hungry in their communities. Immediately, the Sabbath-jailers were on them. 

‘Look! Why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?’ they said to Jesus. 

Jesus tried to remind them what the Sabbath was for. How it was about taking a break to give thanks to the Creator because all who were hungry had been fed! He then teased them a little, pointing out the irony of these Sabbath-jailers working on the sabbath in order to put people away for working on the sabbath. But the Sabbath-jailers didn’t seem to think Jesus’ joke was all that funny.  

Then, just as Jesus and his disciples were about to move on, a man with arthritis came to Jesus begging for help. Jesus took the man by the hand and walked him to the private health clinic—which had brokered a deal with the authorities to stay open on the Sabbath in order to make an extra day’s profit.

Jesus sat the man down in the clinic and said to the doctor, ‘Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?’ And, the man’s hand was operated on that very day.

Jesus had caused quite a stir! As a result of his actions, the Sabbath-jailers began to conspire against him, plotting how they could destroy him. As Jesus was leaving, he turned back and told them this riddle: ‘The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.’

The Sabbath-jailers scratched their heads. What did he mean by this? Later, Jesus would explain the riddle to his disciples. 

‘Truly, I tell you’ he said to them, ‘I AM One with the God who created the heavens and the earth in six days and who on the seventh day of the week rested from their work. I AM among you as One who created the Sabbath and deliberately flouts it when justice is at stake, when God’s people need a reminder of what life is really about.’

In the trickster folklore version of today’s gospel, Jesus takes the social code of the sabbath and renews—or rather, restores it, reminding the Sabbath authorities of its original intent. To restore something is to re-story it—to attach to it a new narrative or to re-attach to it the original meaning that somehow got lost over the years.

If you were to write your own trickster folklore with Jesus at the centre, what social codes would you re-story? I wonder what boundaries you would challenge and confront in order to remind yourself and others what this life is really all about? Amen.

Works referenced and further reading:

Barbara Babcock, “A Tolerated Margin of Mess: The Trickster and His Tales Reconsidered” in Critical Essays on Native American Literature, edited by Andrew Wiget. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1985: 153–84.

Franchot Ballinger, “Living Sideways: Social Themes and Social Relationships in Native American Trickster Tales” in American Indian Quarterly 13 (1989): 15–30.

Curtis Emde, “Coyote, the Trickster” in Okanagan College News (accessed online on 02 June 2024).

Anthony Farington, “Trickster” in Encyclopedia of the Great Plains (accessed online on 02 June 2024).

Paul Radin, The Trickster: a Study in American Indian Mythology (New York: Philosophical Library, 1956).

Amanda Robinson, “Trickster” in The Canadian Encyclopedia (accessed online on 02 June 2024).

Jordan Stranger, “Wisakedjak and the Moon” in Indigenous Arts and Stories (accessed online on 02 June 2024). 

“The Legend of the Leprechaun” in CBC Kids (accessed online on 02 June 2024).