Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Playing Nice

Matthew 11:16-19

by Daniel Harrell

I saw on Facebook that a friend of mine, a video game designer, has just produced his own first RPG, or role-playing game. It’s called Kingdoms of Almalur—a single-player open world RPG for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PC. According to the promo, “Almalur combines intense third person action combat with deep exploration, expansive character development, and immersive storytelling in a unique universe. [Ask your kids and grandkids to explain what this means.] Gamers are mysteriously resurrected from the dead and thrust into a bloody conflict as they battle to stop evil forces that threaten to destroy the world.” This mention of resurrection and combating evil made me wonder what Christianity would look like as a role-playing game. I googled the idea and found that “Matthew the teenage Christian blogger” had already beat me to it.

“Allow me to nerd out completely” he blogged. What if each believer had his or her own character level that would reflect their spiritual maturity. This level could grow or shrink depending on your faith. Your battle stats would show your the fruits of the Spirit or your knowledge of Scripture or your commitment to prayer, or your success at avoiding temptation. Your specific level would be determined by your spiritual gifts and vocation, such as: missionary, preacher, deacon, healer, tongues-speaker. And then, instead of saying something weak like “You should pray everyday because it’s good for spiritual growth.” You could say, “Strive to maintain a prayer level of 12 and a Bible level of 18. This should fend off level 11 temptations very easily. If you have any stats below 10, this may indicate sin in your life leaving you wide open to high damage from a low level spiritual attack.”

“How awesome would that be?!” Matthew the blogger gushed. “Had I known about this system, I could have been a level 35 Preacher Class C Christian by now!” To which his father might have responded, “now son, the Christian life is no game.” Except that according to Jesus it is a game; it’s just that people don’t want to play.

We’re carrying on with our look at the life and times of John the Baptist. Last Sunday had our hero languishing in prison as a result of his berating King Herod. Initially confident that his prison stay would be short, John soon began to doubt whether Jesus had the goods to spring him loose. Expecting a Messiah capable of raining down enough heat to toast the wicked Herod, in John’s estimation, Jesus hadn’t brought enough heat to toast toast. Likewise expecting Jesus to bear a winnowing fork of fire and justice, Jesus had brought little more than a salad fork to dish out love and forgiveness. What kind of Messiah was that? All of which led John to wonder aloud about Jesus: “Are you really the one to come or should we wait for somebody else?”

According to the prophet Isaiah, Jesus did have the Messianic credentials. He replied to John how the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them,” just like Isaiah foretold. But peel back a few layers and the good news Jesus brought wasn’t all that great. “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me,” he said, and with good reason. The justice Jesus brought looked remarkably unjust—pardoning sinners who didn’t deserve it and then commanding that they forgive their enemies the same way. He fights a losing battle—only to lose it on purpose? He rescues the world from evil through the strange strategy of surrendering to evil. He gives himself up to die an unjust death for an undeserving people. John prepared the way for the Lord alright, only the way of the Lord turns out to be the way of the cross—the way of failure, futility and death. Who plays a game where you have to lose in order to win, to die in order to live, to fail in order to find victory?

Well, nobody, according to Jesus. In something of an odd follow-up to last week’s passage, he asks, “To what will I compare this generation?” (by which he almost always meant this unbelieving generation). He then cryptically answers (as is typical) with a parable: “It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’” The allusion is to games kids apparently played in the streets of ancient Palestine. One was the wedding game where children sang and danced and pretended to get married. The other game, probably for the boys, was a bit more gothic. It was the funeral game where they’d wail and mourn and pretend to be dead. Sounds grim, I know, but it actually wasn’t like that. In ancient practice, proper grief was essential to the funeral ritual. To ensure adequate mourning, especially in the case of a not-so-dearly-departed, professional mourners were hired so that somebody would cry.

What’s Jesus’ point? Let’s unpack it. But let’s also have a little fun doing it. I was over at the local Temple to Salvation by Treadmill—Lifetime Fitness—where they had on the longtime popular game show “Who Wants to Be Millionaire?” One of the categories was “The Bible” for $100,000 and I was sure that the contestant was going down since nobody reads the Bible. But then game hostess Meredith Viera cited Psalm 90 where it reads “the days of our years are threescore years and ten” and then she asked: “how long is threescore and ten?” I almost fell off my arc trainer: “He’s getting a hundred thousand dollars to answer that lame cheese-ball question?! That’s not a Bible question!”

Here’s a Bible question: In Matthew 11:16, Jesus parabolically describes children complaining to one another about refusing to play. Who are the “you” who didn’t play wedding and funeral? Is it a] other children; b] John and his disciples; c] this unbelieving generation of Gentiles d] this unbelieving generation of Jews. Jesus compares “this unbelieving generation” to an unwillingness to play, so it could be other children, you know, bratty and selfish children, other parents’ children. But since this is a parable, the other children are likely representative of bratty and selfish adults. Are these adults John and his disciples? Probably not. As we saw last Sunday, even though John doubted Jesus, Jesus never doubted John. In fact Jesus praised John for his faithfulness despite his misgivings. How about this generation of Gentiles? Gentile was a synonym for all things godless, but Gentiles were never described as children. Dogs, yes, but never children—at least not until they became adopted children on the other side of Pentecost. In the Bible, the children are always those who inherit the promises of God specifically made to Abraham; promises that God would make them a great nation. This nation of Abraham’s descendents was the nation of Israel and Judah. Which leaves us with d] this unbelieving generation of Jews, who in Luke’s parallel passage are typified by the very religious Pharisees, folks who thought themselves to be paragons of belief.

What didn’t they believe? Specifically that Jesus was the fulfillment of God’s promises. But their unbelief went back further than this generation. Unfaithfulness was an inherited and ironic family trait.

Back in Deuteronomy 32, where Moses sang his swan song, he belted out a few choice lyrics for the chosen people: “…they are a perverse generation, children in whom there is no faithfulness. They are a nation void of sense; there is no understanding in them. If they were wise, they would recognize this.” Like losing in order to win, dying in order to live or failing in order to find victory, according to Moses, being smart is recognizing you have no sense. Which sounds like nonsense.

My young daughter Violet likes to play a game she calls “build a tower.” What this entails is stacking blocks or Legos or Lincoln Logs for her bunnies and ducks and other toys to perch upon. These toy building materials hearken back to my own childhood, so it was a fun game to play initially. The problem was that as soon as any of my towers achieved any height or impressive form, Violet would break out into this sinister grin and scream out “knock over!” at which point she summarily destroyed my nostalgic masterpieces. This was cute the first few hundred times, but eventually I grew tired of it, so being the bad dad I am, I refused to participate in such nonsense anymore—much to her disappointment. Now had I been wise, I would have recognized that the name of the game was never really “Build a Tower.” The name of the game was “Knock Over.” You lost in order to win.

Here in Jesus’ parable, the children want to play wedding and funeral, but the grown-ups refuse—much to the children’s disappointment. Who are these disappointed children? For a hint it helps to look at Luke’s parallel passage. In Matthew 11, Jesus’ punch line goes, “wisdom is vindicated, or proved right, by her deeds.” But in Luke 7, Jesus says, “Wisdom is proved right by her children.” While this may represent two different sayings of Jesus, more likely each gospel writer records a different encapsulated version of the same saying. Something like: “wisdom is proved right by the deeds of her children.” Wisdom, shorthand for the wisdom of God, is often personified in Scripture as a mother. The behavior of her children, the manner of their lives and their actions, prove her to be wise. Children reflect on their parents. So who are wisdom’s children in the parable; who are the ones who vindicate God’s wisdom? For a million dollars! Are they a) the believing generation of Jews and Gentiles in Jesus’ day; b) Jesus and John; c) Matthew and Luke; d) you and me. You’re right! It’s c) Jesus and John. They are the parabolic offspring of the wisdom of God—wisdom that looks like nonsense.

“We wailed and you did not mourn” sang the children. “John came neither eating nor drinking,” said Jesus. Like sorrow, refusing to eat and drink often accompanies grief. Why did John mourn? For the same reasons that Elijah and Moses and the rest of the prophets mourned: because God’s people were a perverse generation—a brood of vipers—adults who would not play funeral. They did not mourn nor repent. Too grown up to stoop to what they thought to be nonsense, too good to see how bad they really were, they refused to play and called John a demon.

“We played the flute for you and you did not dance,” sang the children. “The Son of Man came eating and drinking,” said Jesus. He came as a bridegroom ready to party and dance and rejoice at God’s goodness. But the adults would not play wedding. Too grown up to stoop to what they thought to be nonsense, too good to see how much better they could be, they refused to play and called Jesus a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.

Jesus will later declare that “unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the Kingdom of God.” This is another reason the Bible refers to believers as children of God rather than adults of God. Believing in Jesus takes childlike faith. Of course, the tendency is to describe such faith by highlighting childlike qualities like simplicity, innocence and trust. But such notions were probably foreign to most first century people. Instead, children were thought mostly to be insignificant, weak and foolish who if anything needed their inherent weakness beat out of them so that they could become contributing members of society. Childlike faith is the faith of desperation, dependency and powerlessness. It’s all you have when you have nothing left. This is why the gospel always portrays despised tax collectors and sinners as the truly faithful rather than the religious Pharisees. You have to lose in order to win. Such nonsense is how you know it’s the gospel.

As the apostle Paul will later to write to the Corinthians: “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in God’s presence.” The word “chosen” is the same as the Old Testament word for God’s people. In Israel as now, God chooses the foolish and weak and low and despised for his children. “Jews demand signs and Gentiles desire wisdom,” Paul writes, “but we proclaim Christ crucified, an offense to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Gentiles, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”

And all to God’s delight. A few verses later in this chapter, Jesus prays, I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from those who think themselves wise and the religious and have revealed them to little children.” To those who are willing to play.

A few days ago Violet wanted to play “build a tower,” but being the bad dad that I am, I was still toycotting. So mom obliged, and she really got into it. Using the Lincoln logs, Dawn built a tower that stretched almost as high as Violet is tall. I smirked inside. Dawn was being played the fool. She was just asking for it. Violet marveled at the tower’s soaring height and applauded exuberantly. Right. I knew the ruse. She was setting her mom up for destruction. She let Dawn get got so far as to put on a roof and a flag, and then exclaimed, “Dad! Look at the beautiful tower!” “I see the tall tower,” I said. “It’s the tallest tower I’ve ever seen, heh-heh-heh.” But instead of ruining Dawn’s masterpiece, Violet left it alone. Talk about merciless. She let it stand the rest of the afternoon and evening until even Dawn started to wonder if something was wrong. I decided to find out. “Violet,” I said, “look at this big tower! Don’t you want to knock it over?” “No!” she replied. “Why not,” I asked. “Because dad. Mom made a good tower.”

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