I recently saw one in a store – and was glad to see it was still around.
For it has been at least a decade since I have played it with my nephews – even longer since I played it with my brothers and sisters. And I know board games don’t last long in our video-crazed world.
The game? Snakes and Ladders. . . for ages 5 and up: an age-range I comfortable fit into.
In ancient days when I was little, it was called Chutes and Ladders – by either name, it is, of course, a very simple game.
The object of the game is to navigate one’s game piece, according to dice rolls, from the start (the bottom square) to the finish (the top square) helped or hindered by ladders – which can swiftly advance your game piece to a higher square --- or snakes – which can just as swiftly slither you back to the lower squares where you begin your ascent all over again. First to the top – wins.
The game, even as an adult playing with your nephews – provides a source of simple enjoyment and excitement – without having to be plugged into anything. The game is a simple race based on the sheer luck of the roll of the dice.
But, simple as it is, I think the game carries a bit of a moral lesson --- where a player’s progression up the board represents a life journey which is enhanced by virtues (the ladders) and complicated by vices (the snakes).
In the Gospel, the Pharisees may not know about this game of “Snakes and Ladders”, but what they certainly play is a game of “snakes and entrapment.”
That is because the gospel mentions about the Pharisees getting together to “dis” Jesus: dis-miss, dis-credit, dis-qualify him as a spokesman of truth and life. The powerful have set their sights on the powerless. AND à
The Pharisees want Jesus to make a mistake, they want him to make an obvious blunder – then like snakes, they can pounce on him. No wonder John the Baptist once called them “you brood of vipers.”
The Pharisees want to dis Jesus – because they want to get rid of him. This is obvious when on another occasion they asked Jesus to pronounce judgment on an adulterous woman –
Or as we heard last week – to weigh in on the issue about paying taxes to Caesar.
This time around, they wanted to see if Jesus knows his stuff by asking him a seemingly trivial question: Which is the greatest commandment of the Law??
Oh how they thought this would trip Jesus up – there were 613 commandments for him to choose from --- but much like a mother might have a favorite child – but she would never admit it ->
Jesus was not going to fall into their trap – instead of speaking about a SPECIFIC law – he goes to the very heart of all the laws ---
His answer was so simple but yet so profound: you shall love God with your whole being (heart, soul and mind) and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. These are the ends to which the law guides us – the two commandments the law and prophets depend on.
For a question meant to entrap him – Jesus gave an incredible answer, and if the Pharisees were to think about it seriously – it’s an answer that should make them tremble.
Because attached to the law of loving God and loving neighbor – is the word SHALL: it is a serious word, an imperative, a command – and it gives no one any options.
And so without exposing them outright – Jesus was indirectly asking the Pharisees: if what they were doing (not only to him – but to those they were supposed to be helping) was it being done out of love for God – and out of love for their neighbor ---
or out of love for themselves --- and their way of doing things -- and the power they so desperately wanted to hold on to. . . ??
Yes, if the Pharisees thought about it – they would have trembled. Because they were like snakes, like vipers, waiting to swallow up Jesus if he fumbled – and in turn, all those who fell short of keeping those 613 commandments. Which, of course, was everyone --- including themselves.
Yet Jesus did not play into their little snake games. Rather Jesus held out to them a ladder – a ladder of love – to help them climb from their ulterior motives and their evil intents – to the level of the commandment of love.
So Jesus shows us how to turn a bad situation into an opportunity to love and be accepting. Jesus turned the game of vice into a teaching of virtue – and he expects us to do the same.
Because there are snakes of evil that we all can give into ---- and we can be swallowed up by the vices around us. Or as Jesus did --- we can hold out the ladder of love. And with the ladders of love, we can climb out of our fears and insecurities – and avoid the vices, the snakes, waiting to swallow us up.
So where are these ladders of love, and how are we going to climb them and offer them to others?
These could be some examples:
As we know, people are often unreasonable, illogical and self-centered. We can either slither our way down and respond in the same way--- or climb the ladder of virtue and forgive them and move on.
If we are kind, people may accuse us of being selfish and having ulterior motives. We should be kind anyway.
If we are successful, we will win some false friends and some true enemies. We should strive to succeed anyway.
If we are honest and open, some people may cheat us and take advantage of us. So we should be honest and open anyway.
What we spend years building up, someone can destroy overnight. We should build anyway.
If we find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous. Be happy anyway.
The good we do today, people will forget tomorrow. Do good anyway.
When we give the world our best --- it may never be enough. We should give the world the best we’ve got anyway.
So we, as God’s chosen, just have to keep climbing those ladders of love so that as we climb, we become more like Christ. Love God: we all our hearts, minds and souls. And love our neighbor as ourselves. And so the Gospel story continues – with us. . .
Oh those wicked tenants: seizing and beating and killing the servants of the vineyard owner – all so they can reap the rewards of the vineyard – rather than owner who planted the vines and then provided everything for the tenants. . .
But before we get up on our mighty horse of judgement – let’s consider a couple of things. . .
FIRST: Do you think the world is the way God wants it to be??
Take a moment to think about that. Do you think the world is the way God wants it to be?
My guess is that probably every one of us came up with the exact same response: NO – of course not.
After all, we can look in many places to see evidence supporting our answer – we see struggles and discord and pain in our own families, neighborhoods, and Church. God could not possibly want that.
We turn on our computers every day only to find fraudulent e-mails sent from people trying to steal our identities, and receive phone calls from people trying to scam us in one way or another. God could not possibly want that.
We see factories belching junk into the air and animal species rapidly disappearing before our eyes. Is this what God wants for creation?
And of course we see the really big stuff: war, poverty, famine, oppression, murder – God certainly doesn’t want all of these things. Certainly not. NO – it seems pretty obvious that the world we are living in -- can’t possibly be the world God envisioned when he created all of this from nothing.
So how about a different question. Is the world the way WE would like it to be? Maybe we quickly came up with the same answer as before – of course not!
But if both of these things are true, if all of us think the world ISN’T the way God wants it to be or we want it to be – then why doesn’t the world look different than it does????
Why doesn’t the world look more like the world we want, the world we hope for, the world we dream about?
Now some hard reality. If there is something wrong with the world, it is NOT because God isn’t doing his part – but because we are not doing our part!
It’s not that God has failed in some way – but because we have.
And therein lies the problem – because I think I’m willing to argue that even though we may say we want the world to look the same way God wants it to – I’m not sure that really is the case.
Oh—we SAY we do. We’re good at that – saying things that sound good, saying things that try to convince ourselves and others that our motives are pure – that YES, we do want a world filled with love and kindness, and generosity and forgiveness – just as God does. . .
But we sure don’t seem to live that way. At least NOT in the ways that will bring about the world God wants.
And much of our behavior points to actually wanting very different things for the world than God wants …. And in that sense, our choices our decisions, and our sins – get us exactly what we do want. A world in which--
We get what we want, when we want, how we want it.
We get to hold on to our grudges, refusing to forgive nowhere near 70 times 7 times.
We get to buy things and acquire things, and use things without considering what harm they may bring to us or others.
We get to dislike and distrust people who are different than us.
We get to compete for virtually everything without having to worry about those who are on the “losing” end of our efforts.
Yes, we may SAY that we want the world God wants, but our actions seem to indicate that we actually want a much different world – one in which we are entitled to whatever we want – one not too different than the tenants in the parable wanted – where they were in charge and thought they did not owe anything to anyone – and could take whatever they wanted. . .
Both Isaiah in the 1st reading and Jesus in the Gospel use the image of a vineyard to drive home some very sobering thoughts.
And while the two readings don’t use the image in exactly the same way – two things come out loud and clear in both of them.
FIRST: that God provides everything that is needed for a good and efficient vineyard (hedges, wine press, tower) and SECOND: God is the landowner, the one in charge, the one to whom the yield of the vineyard is due.
And therein lies the challenge for us: for we sometimes struggle in accepting these truths. Sometimes we live as if God really DOESN’T get a say in the choices we make. We live as if the world and our little part of it – is NOT God’s – but is actually ours. Ours to do with what we please. And so, producing the “good fruit” God wants us to --- takes a back seat to the fruit that we should be growing – takes a back seat to whatever it is we want to do. >
And so, we sometimes act selfishly, acting purely in our own self-interest – and bear the kind of fruit that actually harms us and the world – making them far less than what we, and the world, were created to be.
And sometimes we live as if God really isn’t doing his part – as if God isn’t providing us with everything we need. We tend to blame God for our lives NOT turning out as we had hoped. We blame God for every bad thing we see in our lives and in the world around us.
When we hold this sort of view, it’s as if we think that GOD has to change for the world to be better –
rather than think that each of us needs to change to help bring about a better world, a kinder world, a more just world, a more perfect world.
Put simply --- it’s easy to do nothing when we think everything is God’s problem or God’s fault – and not ours. . .
But at the heart of Christianity – is the profound truth of the utter generosity of God – that our incredible God gives us everything we need – pouring out his grace and blessings – not because we deserve it or have earned it – but because he simply LOVES US!
And God did not do this just at the time of creation – but continues to do it every day – most perfectly shown in the sending of his son to save us and to heal a broken world.
And when we take everything God provides, when we take seriously our responsibility to tend God’s vineyard faithfully – great things will happen, good fruit will be borne, the kingdom of God will become a more visible reality – little by little through our every act of love – however great or small.
Does God want a better world? You bet. Do we want a better world? Certainly we do.
So let’s stop looking to God to make it happen f – but rather allow God to make it happen through every human heart open to his grace. Making the world a better place isn’t God’s job --- it’s our job. And so let’s be faithfully on the job today – and every day God blesses us with.