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Game On!

Text: Mark 1:9-15; 40-45

I grew up playing games, board games – Monopoly, Life, APBA Pro Baseball, Risk; card games – everything from canasta to poker to hearts to bridge; sports games, from baseball to basketball to kick ball to golf. And, just so you know, whoever coined the phrase, “Oh, it’s just a game,” has never played a game with the Charles family. Games are played to win in our family; anything less is a total waste of time.

When I think about highly competitive games in literature and film, I think back on the trilogy, “The Hunger Games.” In Katniss Everdeen’s ashen, dystopian world, you play “The “Hunger Games” not just to win, but to survive. Her decimated world is divided into districts. Once a year each district chooses a male and female contestant to compete in an arena with only one winner. What makes “The Hunger Games” dreaded by all contestants is that everyone who loses the game also loses their life. So, when the first book in this trilogy opens with Katniss musing, “This is the day of the reaping,” we soon learn that “the reaping” is not a harvest of fresh vegetables, but of terrified human beings. When Katniss enters the dreaded arena, you can hear the ominous cry, “Game On!”

The Gospel of Mark was written just as the Romans were demolishing the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. Read this Gospel and you can smell the ashes and feel abject despair in the air. It is into this terrifying arena, nearly forty years after Jesus’ crucifixion that Mark writes his “The Hunger Games.”

In Mark, the rules of the game, though, are different. Everyone is a contestant in the game, but in this game, only one person dies. And, almost before the game begins, Mark signals that the one who is going to die is Jesus.

In this game, the biggest dispute is over who is in charge, who sets the rules. As Mark tells the story, the religious leaders in Jerusalem are the rules keepers. But when Jesus arrives, he issues a new set of rules. He preaches that God’s Reign is not coming one day in the great “by and by” or after we die one day and fly off to heaven. Jesus preaches that God’s Reign is “at hand.” Jesus inserts this new rule into the game: “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mk. 8:35).

Long before Jesus battles over the rules with the religious leaders in Jerusalem, he begins his ministry in Galilee. Early on, a leper approaches Jesus – something the Old Testament rulebook strictly forbids. And, the leper asks to be healed. This story has a familiarity to it, recalling the story of the Jewish prophet Elisha healing the Gentile leper, Naaman. Now, in Jesus, it appears that the new Elisha, has arrived, through whom God will bring healing even to lepers.

Look a bit closer and you’ll notice that this story actually turns the story of Naaman the leper on its head. Unlike the prophet Elisha, Jesus breaks the rules, smashes them, in fact, by touching the leper. The rule keepers are aghast: “You don’t touch lepers! It’s just not done. Read the rules, Jesus! It’s in the rule book, Leviticus chapter 13, to be exact. Jesus, you are in direct violation of the rules of the game.” The rule keepers know that lepers are unclean, physically and ritually, and if you touch one, you are immediately on the outside looking in. Score one for the fastidious Jerusalem rule keepers.  

Mark tells this story not to suggest that Jesus is the new Elisha. He tells the story to introduce us to someone who refuses to play any game with rules that keep those in the greatest need ostracized, living in isolation and want, always on the outside looking in.       

Mark’s Jesus does not “pity” this leper – a rather unfortunate translation of the Greek; no, Jesus, who is no sentimentalist, has fierce, heartrending compassion for the leper. He knows how demeaning and isolating it is to be set outside, never to belong within. Mark’s Jesus flagrantly breaks the rules of the religious game of his day. In a perilous act of solidarity, instead of joining the communal shunning of the leper, Jesus touches the leper, making him clean even as he makes himself unclean. Game on!

Jesus brings the full resources of God’s healing, redemptive love to the leper. Then, literally, “snorting with indignation” (embrimesamenos), Jesus breaks the rules by touching and healing the leper, and then sends the healed leper back to the rule keepers, back to those who know every rule and can quote them chapter and verse. Jesus, now ritually unclean, a loser in the game himself, soon to be the ultimate loser, sends the cleansed leper “back” to the rule keepers.

  What sense does that make? Jesus wants even strict rule keepers to see that with God’s Reign at hand new rules are in effect. He wants all to see that the old rules of who’s in and who’s out have just imploded in their faces in the healing of the nameless leper. The game is now won not by avoiding all those who wear the label, “do not touch,” but by being in touch with Jesus who brings a fresh reading of the rules to the game.

Jesus tells the healed leper not only to obey the rules, but to keep quiet. “Go let the rule keepers see for themselves,” says Jesus, “no need to shout from the rooftops.” And, yet, the leper cannot follow that counsel. The healed leper knows that sometimes you just have to shout when the news is too good to keep quiet.  

In his story, Mark invites us into “Hunger Games,” played to the death by Jesus so that you and I might spend our lives hungering for the touch of Jesus, the healing of Jesus, the justice seeking of Jesus, the political confronting of Jesus, the bringing those on the outside in of Jesus, the fiercely compassionate love of Jesus, and the new life that awaits those who follow new rules, embodied in Jesus.

In Mark’s “The Hunger Games,” Jesus dies and all who die with him find something to shout about, something that they can’t help but shout about. They not only find healing; they find life.

Mark begins his “The Hunger Games” on the heels of a grand celebration. Jesus is baptized in the Jordan and the heavens announce, “This is my beloved child.” Before anyone can cheer, Jesus is thrown into the wilderness to face off with the Evil One. Game on!

Mark’s “The Hunger Games” never promises foolproof protection for those who follow Jesus, but it does promise his never-ending love. That promise is in place from the moment ashes mark us with the sign of the cross until we gather here to adorn the cross with flowers to sing our Alleluias. 

Mark asks, “Follow the rules of the dystopian world in which you live or follow the rules of Jesus?You decide. There is no more important a decision that you will ever have to make. So, choose wisely!”

Game on!


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