Saturday, October 16, 2021

The Games People Play

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Readings: Isaiah 53:10-11; Psalm 32(33):4-5,18-20,22; Hebrews 4:14-16; Mark 10:35-45

Picture: cc woodleywonderworks

My dear friends, if you happen to come across a group of people running around on a basketball court, passing a ball to one another, is it safe to assume that they are playing basketball? The answer, of course, is no, not necessarily. They could, for example, also be playing a game called futsal. A scaled-down version of soccer, played on a hard court. Which goes to show that, if we want to determine what game people are playing, it’s not enough just to consider where they are. It’s also important to look at what they do. Are they using their hands, or their feet? Are they throwing a ball through a hoop, or kicking it between two posts?

The same can be said about what we find in our readings today. But first, it may be helpful to recall that, in chapter one of Mark’s gospel, Jesus had called James and John, the sons of Zebedee, to leave their fishing boat, and to become fishers of people. From then on, we might say that, the brothers had left their old field of play, and joined Jesus in a new one.

And yet, here in chapter ten, we see them engaging in what amounts to a brazen act of shameless self-promotion. Which indicates that, though they may be sharing the same field as the Lord, they aren't actually playing the same game. As a result, Jesus takes the trouble to gather all twelve apostles, to teach them how to distinguish between two very different games, by considering how authority is exercised in each one.

In the game of worldly competition, authority is exercised through domination. The so-called rulers lord it over their subjects, as James and John were probably hoping to do. In contrast, in the game that Jesus plays, authority is exercised through service. (A)nyone who wants to be great among you… must be… servant… and… slave to all.

And the Lord teaches this lesson not just with his words, but also by his actions: his life, death and resurrection. As the other readings tell us, he is the supreme high priest who has gone through the highest heaven, but only by first descending into the depths of the earth. By allowing himself to be tempted in every way that we are, though without sin. By offering his life in atonement, so that by his sufferings, he is able to reconcile us to God and to one another.

This is the same game that we Christians are called to play, in all the different arenas of daily life. At home or at work, in church or on the streets. To consistently choose loving self-sacrificing service over shameless self-promoting domination. And we probably all know this well enough in theory. It’s just that we don’t always see how it translates into practice. Which is why we really need this synod on synodality, for which we are beginning to prepare today. As we go through the process together, we hope to learn, as a church, how the game is played. How both leaders and subjects alike can find God, by truly listening and speaking with one another, and with the world.

Sisters and brothers, if it is true that a game is determined less by the field of play than by the actions of the players, then what game are we playing, everywhere and everyday?

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