LITURGY AND LIFE
With God there is no playing games
29th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Recently, I’ve been caught up in The Hunger Games novels. Every spare minute I have, I am aching to find out what happens next in a society of 12 districts that is enslaved by the ruling Capital city. Each year, the Capital makes a point of its power over the people in the districts by forcing two teens from each district to fight to the death in The Hunger Games. And every year, 23 of the district children die, and one is deemed “victor.” But the heroine of the story is Katniss, a victor who is all too aware that there is no victory, that the game is not a game and that the system is fundamentally flawed. She is struggling to find her way out — out of the games and out of a world that keeps her family and her district perpetually hungry, afraid and dying.
How often I find myself playing games with God, even though I can see the foolishness of it in hindsight, if not right in the moment! It feels strangely like my attempts to use reverse psychology on my children. For as long as I can remember, I have tricked my daughter into eating things by pretending I don’t care whether or not she eats her vegetables. When she realizes she cannot draw me into a fight about it and that she’s hungry, she usually eats them. This was working well for us, until I recently saw her use the same tactic on her little brother to get him to relinquish the red cup she wanted. I thought I was teaching her to eat her vegetables but, really, I’ve taught her to play the game. Parenting win or parenting fail?
The thing about the games I play is that they are designed to make someone lose, and I spend significant time and effort ensuring that it is not me. Like James and John, I want to make sure I will not be among the last and the least.
The first reading is a part of the song of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah, and it can help us to make sense of the games we play. Throughout human history and across many world religions, suffering has been attributed to sin, as though those who suffer are receiving their justice for what they have done. Our human family has seen enough senseless suffering, however, to realize that this is not always the case. Suffering is a part of the human condition: people could not possibly earn or deserve abuse, torture, poverty, starvation or cancer. The song of the Suffering Servant suggests that the one who suffers can see light in the darkness in realizing that the one who suffers can bring many to righteousness, can carry and even heal the suffering of others.
Playing games with God is our way of ignoring what Jesus did on the cross. We delude ourselves into thinking that spirituality is actually a game with winners and losers, and that our winning requires others to lose. We compare ourselves to how we perceive others are doing in the game. And by our participation in the game, we invite others to play it with us, and with God. If there was a game, we would win by losing.
But what if there is no game? What if there are no winners and no losers, only a God of constant calling and the people he longs to love. What if, by playing the game, we find ourselves trapped, like Katniss, in a game where winning only celebrates how fantastically we have lost track of what really matters, what really brings us life?
In the second reading, the letter to the Hebrews puts all of this in perspective for us. We need only lay our cares, our needs, our joys and our worries before Jesus, who allowed his suffering to be the source of our new life. With boldness and not comparison, we are all called to bear what is difficult in a way that God will turn it into something beautiful. That is a far cry from competition. In God’s order, our losses are actually gains. When we let go of the need to win, the game disappears.
Like The Hunger Games, our only route to true life is to refuse to play the game. By stepping outside of our fear of loss, our suffering can be joined with Jesus’ suffering. Our hurt can be transformed so that our lives can be a blessing and an invitation for others to find life too. And a world where all are invited to and actually able to live abundant life is the only world worth living in.
Perrault is the director of Pastoral Services for the Diocese of Saskatoon. She is co-author of How Far Can We Go? A Catholic Guide to Sex and Dating. She and her husband Marc are the parents of two young children.