Archive for Sphinx

The Riddle of the Shrewd Steward

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , on September 17, 2019 by timtrue

IDMS Chapel, 9/18/2019

Proper 20C


I’ve got a couple of classic riddles for you:

First, “What is the creature that walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three in the evening?”

This riddle comes from Greek mythology, posed by the Sphinx. A man named Oedipus figured out the correct answer: man. . . .


This thing all things devours;

Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;

Gnaws iron, bites steel;

Grinds hard stones to meal;

Slays king, ruins town,

And beats mountain down.

This riddle comes from a story called The Hobbit. Bilbo and Gollum are having an epic battle of wits in the heart of the mountain; and Gollum posits this “tricksy” one. But Bilbo figures out the answer: time.


Jesus tells a similar riddle today about a man who is about to be fired from his job because his boss thinks he is dishonest, who then acts desperately and cleverly; and because of his actions his boss then commends him.

It’s a surprise ending! We’re left scratching our heads asking why. In fact, for two thousand years people have been asking why; and have come up with a lot of different answers, with very little agreement between them.

So, what we heard was that this guy was about to be fired, so he “sweet-talks” his way into favor with his boss’s customers; and this behavior impressed his boss.

Other versions of the Bible give us more detail. What this guy actually did was to go to one of the customers and ask, “Don’t you owe my boss a hundred jugs of olive oil?” And the customer answers, “Why, yes I do!” “Well then,” this guy says, “I have the authority to make it fifty. Would you like that? Now you only owe my boss fifty!”

This steward is shrewd!

Similarly, he goes to another customer who owes his boss a hundred containers of wheat and says, “Now you owe him only eighty.”

And the boss finds out! And he goes to his shrewd steward and says, surprisingly, “Well done because you have acted shrewdly!”

And for two thousand years, people who have heard this riddle have been saying, “But this guy just hurt you financially! How can you commend him?”

Just what is going on here, Jesus? Just what is the answer to your riddle?


So, here’s where I land on this. I’m not saying it’s the right answer—that I’ve figured it all out, et in saecula saeculorum, amen! Rather, it’s my best guess right now, at this point in my life, knowing what I know at this moment:

Letting go is to have and possessing is to lose.

That’s what I think Jesus is getting at in this story about this shrewd steward. To let go is to have; to possess is to lose.

Whahuh? Isn’t this just another riddle?

So, here’s what I mean. This guy—I just called him a shrewd steward—so, this shrewd steward is about to get fired and he knows it. What does he do?

Now, while he’s still working for his boss, while he still has the authority to make important decisions, he takes huge risks and gives up everything. He’s not going to have his cushy job anymore, he realizes; and he’s really got nothing to fall back on except for whatever pension he may or may not have saved up. And no one else is hiring right now—and, besides, he’s got only a bad reference anyway!

So, he throws caution to the wind and risks everything.

When he cut that customer’s debt in half—a hundred jugs of oil? Make it fifty!—and when he cut that other’s customer’s debt down, you know what I think he was doing? He was giving up his own commission!

It was his money he gave up, not his boss’s!

But why in the world would he do that? He was just about to be fired! He needed some extra cash in his pocket, to stockpile away as much as possible!

Instead, dishonest or not, he knew an important truth. This shrewd steward had learned that true freedom is not found in possessions. Rather, he learned that letting go is to have and possessing is to lose.

In my thinking, here is the answer to Jesus’ riddle. Here is how Jesus encourages all people to live. Freedom is not found in what we possess but in a generosity that stretches us to the extent of, even beyond, our means.

It’s not just Jesus who says this, by the way. Gandhi says it too:

Golden fetters are no less galling to a self-respecting man that iron ones; the sting lies in the fetters, not in the metal.

There is goodness as well as greatness in simplicity, not in wealth.


So, let’s think about what this means for us, here, at Imago Dei Middle School. What does it mean for us to be free of greed and wanting more? What does it mean for us to be generous?

Most of you met my daughter Emily. In seventh grade, she attended a private Episcopal school where many of the students came from homes with a lot of money. Quite a few of them lived in mansions. Some showed up to school in a Ferrari or a Maserati; others in Teslas.

So, one day Emily came home in tears. She had saved up her own money for about a year to buy herself an iPhone. I was so proud of her; she showed so much discipline. Anyway, she came home in tears on that day because she had dropped her iPhone on a concrete sidewalk and cracked the screen. “I’d ask for a new one,” she told me, tears streaming down her face, “but I know we don’t have the money. . . . But, Dad,” she continued, “the hardest part is that my friend Angela dropped her iPhone in the toilet and her mom just went out and bought her a new one the next day. It’s not fair!”

You ever feel like that: Other people have way more money than I do; it’s just not fair?

Yeah, me too.

But here’s what Emily did. Instead of thinking about things that weren’t possible, or that would take way too much time and focus for her to achieve, she looked around her immediate world and focused on the present. And she realized that already, here and now, she had much to be grateful for: friends, family, a warm bed at night, enough food; life’s simple yet profound pleasures.

What do you have that you are grateful for? You are part of a great school, a place where you are being challenged to grow into tomorrow’s leaders; surrounded by people who have your best interests at heart.

Also, think about the risks the shrewd steward took. Here at IDMS you are being encouraged to think and act in creative, innovative, risky ways.

You—all of you—have so much! Right here. Right now.

Throughout today and in the weeks ahead, remember this puzzling story from Jesus today, this riddle; and the challenge he leaves us all: letting go is to have and possessing is to lose.

Enigma Ingesting and Imbibing

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , on August 16, 2015 by timtrue


John 6:51-58

Q: What do you get when a psychic midget escapes from prison?

A: A small medium at large.

I have my daughter to thank for that one.  But my point for the moment is that riddles are fun.  Or at least they can be.

So, what about this one?

Q: What is the creature that walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three in the evening?

A: Man.

Morning here is infancy; noon is the prime of life; and the evening represents the sunset years, when man walks with the assistance of a cane.

Kind of fun, eh?

But does anyone know where it comes from?

In Greek mythology, this was the riddle posed by the sphinx.  She was a monster who spent her time terrorizing the city of Thebes and devouring anyone who couldn’t answer this riddle.

Not so fun now!

This particular story ends when a hero named Oedipus successfully answers the sphinx’s riddle; she casts herself off a cliff in despair; and the people of Thebes go on to live happily ever after—or, actually, not so much, if you know your Greek mythology.

To expand on my earlier point, then, riddles can be fun, but this isn’t always the case; riddles come in all shapes and sizes.

We often think of them as fun—enjoyable: they’re clever; they play on words and logic, often surprising us in some way.

But what about when there’s more at stake than just a trick of mind?  What if a riddle is more a matter of life or death?  What if, like Oedipus, we will in fact die if we give the wrong answer?

Then the riddle’s not so much fun.

Then it doesn’t feel like a riddle at all.

Now we aren’t able to look at it dispassionately, detached from it as if it were a lizard in an aquarium.  No longer do we have the luxury to puzzle over it on our terms, like some Sudoku puzzle we wrestle with until we solve it or something better comes along.

Instead, now we have no choice but to wrestle with it.  Now it makes us uncomfortable.  We might not find the answer right away.  Or ever!  And so we resign ourselves that we’ll just have to end up living with the conundrum indefinitely.  It’s not fun.  Nor does it feel like a riddle.  At all.

Still, that’s just what it is.

“I am the bread of life,” Jesus says; “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

What does Jesus mean here?

It’s a riddle, isn’t it?

But it’s hard.  There’s no easy answer.  It makes me uncomfortable.  It brings an element of unresolved tension to my faith.  It’s a conundrum.

And so it’s not fun.  It doesn’t feel like a riddle.  At all.

Now, on the one hand, there’s some really good stuff here.  Jesus came down from heaven, for instance.  That’s good.  Jesus, who is fully God, left a place beyond time and entered into our earthly dimensions of time and space in order to give life to the world.  I get that.

And then, also, he says we can live forever with him.  We who love him will dwell with him forever in that very place that is beyond space and time.  I get that too.  At least, I sort of get it.

But on the other hand—and here’s what I don’t get—at all!—he says that in order to do this—in order to dwell with him in that place beyond the space and time we know—we must eat his flesh.

What?!  He’s fully God, yes.  But he’s fully human too.  So, eat his flesh?  What?!

Which is exactly how the people around him responded when he said these things:

“The Jews disputed among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us flesh to eat?’”

To which Jesus said, C’mon, guys, it’s a riddle!  Don’t you understand?

Or, that’s effectively what he said anyway.

What he actually said was, Yeah, you’ve got to eat my flesh.  And, what’s more, you’ve got to drink my blood (!), because my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.

Jesus is using figurative language.  If that weren’t clear enough already when he said the things he did about eating his flesh—if cannibalism weren’t already repugnant enough—he adds this variation about drinking his blood too!  Jews found the practice of drinking the blood of any animal (aside from the suggested cannibalism) repugnant.

Now—obviously!—Jesus is not talking literally.  Rather, he’s saying, effectively, C’mon, guys!  Don’t you understand?  It’s a riddle!

But it’s a hard one.  It’s one we’re not comfortable with.  It brings an element of unresolved tension to our faith.  And so it’s not fun.  At all!

And that’s what Jesus’ followers thought.  Peeking ahead to next week’s Gospel (which picks up where this week’s leaves off), we find these words:

“Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him” (v. 66).

Jesus has posed a hard riddle to his disciples—and to us.  We might rather toy with it like a Sudoku puzzle than live with it.  We might want rather to be a faithful spectator, watching Jesus from the sidelines, than to live into all that he calls us to.

But there is a problem with this kind of sideline faith: when we come to the hard riddles—the conundrums—we’d rather turn back and no longer walk with him.

This riddle is not meant to be fun.  Rather, this riddle is a matter of life and death.

So then, what does Jesus’ riddle mean?

(Oh, wouldn’t you like to know!)

We can learn something from those who have gone before us.  For there has been considerable debate about this riddle in Christian history, especially since the Reformation in the 16th century; focused on the Eucharist, or the Mass.

What Jesus meant, the Roman Catholic Church claimed, was that the bread we eat at the Mass is Jesus’ actual, physical body; and the wine we drink his actual blood.  And so, when the priest consecrates the elements, somehow, mysteriously, even though it still tastes and feels and smells like bread and wine, they have become the very flesh and blood of Jesus.

To which the Protestants said, Pshaw!  (This was the 1500s; people still said things like “pshaw.”)  How can the bread and wine become the literal body and blood of Jesus?  That makes no sense!  I mean, he’s seated right now at the right hand of the Father in heaven.  So how can his literal body and blood appear on Sunday mornings in every Christian church around the world simultaneously?  No way!

But, you see, this protest put Protestants in a sort of quandary, because they liked literal.  They wanted to interpret everything Jesus said—yea, even everything in the Bible—literally.  But this one—that Jesus’ followers are to eat his flesh and drink his blood—oh, this one was too much.

So some good Protestants said, No, we can’t take this conundrum literally.  At all.  Of course not!  So let’s look at what Jesus said elsewhere.  Ah!  “Do this in remembrance of me,” he said.  Remembrance.  In fact he said this about baptism too.  So, yeah, that’s the literal path to tread.  Baptism and Communion aren’t sacraments at all, but to be done only in remembrance, out of obedience to Jesus.

And so went the debate—a debate that continues in some circles to this day, in fact.

Incidentally—just going to follow a little rabbit trail here—from this debate is probably where the term hocus pocus originated.  Yeah!

When you hear the words hocus pocus, what do you think of?  Some kind of spell, right?  It’s an incantation; or, more simply, magic.

This phrase we associate with a magic spell most likely comes from the Latin setting of the Mass used in the days of the Reformation.

You know the part of the Eucharistic Prayer when the celebrant says, “This is my body . . . Do this for the remembrance of me”?  Well, the Latin for this is my body is hoc est corpus meum.

Now, if we shorten it to hoc est corpus, and I’m a Protestant who doesn’t much care for Latin and am otherwise looking for something to criticize, it’s pretty easy to see how hoc est corpus became hocus pocus

And to see how the Protestant synopsis of the Catholic Mass became nothing more than magic: “Behold, the bread.  Hocus pocus!  Behold, the body.”

For the record—just so you know—the Episcopal Church is somewhere in the middle.  The Eucharistic elements are Christ’s body and blood; and we do this for the remembrance of Jesus.  But how the elements get that way is not magic: it’s mystery.  And we’re content to leave it there: in the realm of mystery.

Anyway, all this wrangling over what Jesus’ riddle means has missed much of the point.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  It is good for us to wrestle with Jesus’ words.  We should puzzle intellectually over this riddle throughout our lives.

But this riddle is not merely intellectual.  Eating and drinking are physical, material acts.  Ingesting and imbibing involve all five senses.

Following Jesus is not a Gnostic act.  It is not only about observing him, considering his words, contemplating his deeds, wrestling through his riddles and paradoxes at our leisure—as we might work through Sudoku puzzles.

Rather, following Jesus requires the engagement of our full being.  We not only admire him as a great teacher, preacher, healer, and wise man; we also are crucified with him and die to ourselves.  We ingest him; we imbibe him; and thereby we live in and through him.

And we say, with St. Paul, “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.  And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).

Following the living bread, Jesus Christ, is a flesh-and-blood riddle; not something merely to observe, but to ingest and imbibe over a lifetime.

Riddling Jesus

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , on March 8, 2015 by timtrue


John 2:13-22

Do you enjoy riddles?

Here’s one: What creature walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three in the evening?

Anyone know the answer?

Anyone know the history, where this riddle comes from?

In Greek mythology, the Sphinx guarded the road to the pyramids and other treasures of Egypt.  It would ask this riddle to people who wanted to pass by; and if the person couldn’t answer, the Sphinx would devour the traveler.

Finally, after many travelers had come to their respective tragic ends, a man named Oedipus answered this riddle successfully; and the Sphinx met her tragic end, turning into sandstone and eventually crumbling—which is why she has no nose today.

The answer to the riddle, then: man.  In the morning of life, a man is a baby and thus crawls on all fours.  At life’s midday, a man walks upright, on two legs.  In the evening of life, when a man is old, he uses a cane and thus has three legs.

Here’s another riddle:

It cannot be seen, cannot be felt, / Cannot be heard, cannot be smelt. / It lies behind stars and under hills, / And empty holes it fills. / It comes out first and follows after, / Ends life, kills laughter.

Anyone know whence this riddle cometh?

This is one of Gollum’s, posed to Bilbo in The Hobbit.  Bilbo is lost in a cave deep within a mountain.  It’s the cave where he finds the notorious ring.  Here he encounters Gollum and strikes up a deal.  They’ll play a riddle game.  If Bilbo wins, Gollum will show him the way out of the cave.  But if Gollum wins, Bilbo becomes his dinner.  Yikes!

Anyway, anyone know the answer to this riddle?

Dark. Dark cannot be seen, cannot be felt, and so on.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m a puzzle solver.  Riddles are a kind of puzzle for me.  When someone poses a good riddle to me—a clever one with only one possible answer, like the ones just discussed—it sticks with me.  I wrestle with it.  I struggle over it.  I think about it in my sleep—or so it feels like I do.  Until, at last, I either figure out the answer or return frustrated and defeated to the person who asked it.  Can anyone relate?

Now, let’s turn to today’s Gospel reading.

Here is a well-known story.  And, it seems, no matter how many times I’ve read, thought about, and even studied it, my initial gut response is always, “Yeah!  Go, Jesus!”

Here Jesus stands armed with a whip, determined to set things right.  Jesus is my kind of hero!  Jesus is the kind of leader I want to follow!  Yes!  Go, Jesus!

But then I begin to settle down.  The adrenaline rush is over.  And I start to realize the setting: the place where this scenario is taking place; and the people whom Jesus opposes.

Jesus is in the Temple!  This is a beautiful worship space, well designed as the spiritual center of the holy city Jerusalem.  And everything taking place here isn’t necessarily wrong.

People need a place to exchange their common currency—with images of Caesar on it—for the image-less drachmae, the coins required for the Temple tax.

Likewise, spiritual pilgrims need to buy sacrificial animals, meaning animals without blemish.  It would be very difficult to carry a turtledove, for example, from a long distance away and keep it unblemished.

Arguably, then, all these tables that Jesus is now overturning are in fact necessary for the Temple to function properly.

And the people who confront Jesus—those whom Jesus apparently opposes—are the Temple leaders.

You know what this is?  This place is the cathedral of Jesus’s day!  And these leaders?  They’re the cathedral dean and his canons; they’re the rector and his associate priests.

Now my adrenaline begins pumping again and I’m thinking, “Hey, wait a minute!”

And I find myself very sympathetic when these religious leaders ask Jesus to show them his credentials.  “What sign can you show us for doing this?” they ask.  By what authority, Jesus, are you causing this scene?

And to answer them, Jesus poses a riddle.  “Destroy this temple,” he says; “and in three days I will raise it up.”

Well, we know the answer to this riddle from the words that follow.  Jesus is not speaking about the literal Temple, the physical building and grounds still being constructed after forty-six years of work.  Rather, Jesus is talking of his own physical body, the temple of the Holy Spirit, which the political and religious leaders will in fact destroy; and the temple which Jesus himself will in fact raise from the dead after three days.  We know the answer to Jesus’s riddle.

But, I wonder, after their initial response, did the leaders Jesus confronted wrestle with his riddle?  Did they ponder his riddle, puzzle over it, lose sleep over it, and perhaps even grow frustrated as they sought unsuccessfully to understand what Jesus meant?

These leaders were doing what they knew how to do.  They were taking their jobs seriously.  And they did their jobs well.  Pilgrims needed a place to exchange money; pilgrims needed to obtain unblemished animals for sacrificial purposes.  And the leaders had attended even to these very particular details.  To put it in modern terminology, they were meeting the people where they were!  The Temple leaders were making Temple worship user-friendly!

Which causes me to wonder even more. What about us?  Is Jesus telling us a riddle here to get us thinking?  Should we be puzzling over his words?

Like the Temple leaders, both as individual disciples and as a corporate church, we have a pretty good thing going, a pretty well-oiled machine running.  We might spend some time troubleshooting and brainstorming now and again, to improve our machine; but we are pretty much settled into a routine, a method—disciplines—for maintaining our spirituality.

We are settled on them: these disciplines.  We’ve had good reason to do so.  And so, after a while of practicing our routines, we’ve come to think we have it down.  At best, we say, it works for me; at worst, we think, everyone else should do it my way too.

But what if there is something about my way that needs to change?  What if I’ve become blind to something?  Who will I allow to get my attention?  And how will they get it?

Maybe it’s time for me to consider this riddle from Jesus.  Maybe it’s time—right now, in the middle of Lent—as an individual disciple of Christ, to ask questions like:

  • What is Jesus trying to tell me?
  • How can I serve Jesus better?
  • Where have I been blind to Jesus?
  • Where have my own self-serving routines eclipsed Jesus?

Or maybe it’s time to ask these questions not as individuals but as a church.  The riddles, the perplexing questions, are there—if we look for them.

A friend recently posed this one to me.

There’s this group on the internet called Mystery Worshiper.  You can look them up.  They’re kind of like Mystery Shopper.

Anonymous people worship in churches and then write up evaluations of their experiences.  One of questions by which this group evaluates a church is, “What were the first words you heard spoken in the worship service?”  The answer they favor is, “Blessed be God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” for this opening acclamation is vertical: God-directed.  The answer they criticize most harshly is, “Welcome to St. So-and-so’s,” for this salutation is horizontal: directed at the worshiper.  Worship should be vertical, they say; not horizontal.

Well, the astute worshiper here will note that we usually practice the latter, not the former.  But that’s not the point.  Whatever the case, whether we agree with this approach or not, it’s a good place to start; a good question—a kind of riddle—for us to consider as a church.

  • How might we be eclipsing Jesus as a corporate body?
  • Are our outreach efforts more interested in serving Jesus or ourselves?
  • Do we value things like user-friendliness too much?
  • Are we trying too hard to meet people where they are?

Following Christ is a riddle worth pondering deeply.