Everything depends upon leveling.
I admit that one of my guilty pleasures is gaming.
In college I was one of those “nerds” that got sucked into the world of adventure gaming, playing “Dungeons and Dragons” for hours — HOURS on end in the dormitory lounge with little pewter figures all hand painted. Escaping from studying into a fantasy world of wizards, dragons, elves and orcs.
I admit that like many in the 1970’s and ‘80’s I shoveled quarter after quarter into various video games, “Asteroids,” “Tempest” and “Galaga” trying to “win” by getting the highest score.
I still spend some time unwinding in front of a video screen saving the galaxy or wandering virtual worlds or middle earth.
In the world of gaming everything depends upon leveling, you know.
You have to play the game long enough to accumulate enough experience points to collect better devices, better weapons, or better magical items until you are the biggest, baddest character on the board, or accumulate the highest score on the machine.
When you first start out in any game everything beats you up.
But that first time you “Level up,” it’s great.
Suddenly the monsters and characters who used to be a challenge become easily dispatched.
It doesn’t matter the game, really. Whether you are piloting a starship, commanding a mechanical robot, making your way through a simulated battlefield dispatching Zombies or driving a virtual racecar, — the more you “level up,” the easier the game play becomes.
“Leveling up” is everything.
And if you think about it, that is really just a mirror of the way that we tend to view the world working in general.
If you’re a kid getting your first job at McDonald’s, the understanding is that you’re expected to get your butt kicked for a while. We even laud the character building nature of that.
You just need to “level up!”
So, the encouragement and incentive is to climb the ladder, ascend the levels of management, get a better job, and continue perpetually “moving up.”
You need to become the manager. Get your own franchise. Become an entrepreneur. Start your own unique business, or ascend the corporate ladder.
And that’s a fine arrangement, all things being equal.
However, another truth about this world is that, (like in a game) all things are usually not equal.
Some will enter the game with an extra measure of privilege. They can afford to devote hours to game play, or they can afford to purchase the boosts and special items that give them a leg up on things. They level up more readily, more easily, and a hierarchy develops.
There are those who cannot afford any of that and they are left underpowered and outmatched, stuck where they are.
So also, some enter the game of this life with an extra measure of privilege. Wealth that is passed to them. Social standing, gender, or a skin color that works in their favor instead of against them. Mental or physical capabilities that allow them to learn and grow and “level up.”
Circumstances of birth and opportunity by virtue of where they live, who they know, how well equipped their schools are or how stable their home life and situation all impact the kind of start that you get in the game of this life. Such things will have a hand in how well you are able to “level up.”
So why all this talk about gaming? What does this have to do with this particularly difficult portion of Luke’s Gospel?
Well, it all has to do with the kind of “leveling” that Jesus seems to have in mind.
Luke is intentional in his telling of the story of the Beatitudes. We are told in Luke’s Gospel that Jesus comes down on the “plain” or to a “level place” in order to teach.
When Matthew tells this story, he has Jesus sit atop a hill, like a “new Moses” to bring down a new law from a new Sinai.
But Luke intentionally sets the story of the beatitudes and all that follows on a “level place.”
Luke is letting us know that the rules of the game of life can and do change with Jesus. Or, at very least the possibility exists for the rules of the game, and the game itself to change.
Luke is not naive. This Gospel is written to a Greek speaking audience that understands the workings of Empire very well.
Empire is built on a system of patrimony and reciprocal obligation, on “leveling up” if you will.
In the world of the New Testament living under Roman occupation, life was lived in a complex set of favors and returns.
One gained favor in government and societal circles by the company one could keep, the obligations one could make, the favors one could ask. All of which needed to be carefully balanced. You need to be willing to give to someone just enough to get the desired outcome in return, but not so much that you would be obligated too much in return.
You sense this in some familiar the bible stories.
You hear it in the way that we are told the Pharisees carefully chose their seats, and by the objections they have to those with whom Jesus chooses to associate, to eat, to drink, to touch.
You get glimpses of that hierarchy in the story of Jesus’ healing of the Centurion’s servant.
“He is worthy for you to do this for him.” The Pharisees tell Jesus. “He helped to build our synagogue.”
It is a “you scratch my back, and I will scratch yours…” kind of world. A world where one is preoccupied with “leveling up.”
Jesus even makes this explicitly understood today. “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?” He says.
“If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that? Even sinners lend to sinners.” He says.
That’s Jesus straight up saying that he knows well how the game of this world is played.
I dare say that we are just as well acquainted with that.
Do we not shake our heads at the kind of “arrangements” that we see played out on a daily basis in the world of politics, health care, business transactions and society?
Do we not also see a world (where depending on who you know, and what your “level” in society may be,) “treatment” is different?
I don’t need to give you any illustrations for how we see the “game” of this world played out. Such illustrations surround us and will readily come to mind depending on your own “level of privilege.”
Illustrations will come to you in the outrage you feel at the unfairness of something.
Or it will come to you in a quick examination of who you are all too willing to give a “pass” to for their behavior or actions.
“Hey, that’s just the way the game is played.”
I won’t slide into examples that you can either dismiss as too political, or too outrageous, or too uncomfortable.
I’ll simply say that we all know the truth of this.
We live in a world that is preoccupied with “leveling up”, which is precisely why this Gospel story rubs us the wrong way.
What Jesus proposes here is indeed “leveling,” — but not up.
Rather, for Jesus it is a leveling down, and evening of the playing field, a choice to change up the game of this world and instead live as if this was the reign of God.
What Jesus proposes sounds like madness to a world where “leveling up” is the norm.
The advantage that you have… that is what you are to give away to the one who has no such advantage.
The wealth you have accumulated? That is what you are to share readily with the one who is lacking in life’s daily needs.
The divisions and hatred that you’ve carefully “worked up” over the years, decades, centuries even … the “enemy” that you have worked and leveled up in your own mind or societal consciousness as the root and cause of all manner of problems… that is who you are to forgive, who you are to LOVE, who you are to pray for.
Worse yet, you are to take any abuse that they may send your way, to turn the other cheek to it, to expose yourself to further injury rather than to engage in any of the tit for tat retribution that is the usual response, the game this world plays.
You are not to play that game, the one you know so well.
Every fiber of our being says that this is the WRONG thing to do!
People will take advantage of us!
People who play the game will just keep on doing so, and will use this as a means of “leveling up” over us!
This is what we tell ourselves to keep us from breaking the cycle of the game that we know so well.
But here’s the thing, (and it is important to SEE this!) Jesus doesn’t just give these things as a command from on high as to how you are to behave now. If he did, we would just cry “foul” on that and go right on ignoring his word as coming from someone who just doesn’t get it, doesn’t know how the “game” of this world is played.
No, Jesus COMES DOWN and enters this on a level playing field with us.
He comes and interrupts the game play that we are used to, or at very least he refuses to follow the normal set of rules by engaging in any kind of “leveling up.”
Jesus enters into a different way of living and relating, and invites us along with him.
Jesus “levels down” until he’s on eye level with the one who is the enemy, and the one who is cold and hungry, and the one who is angry enough to slap him, — angry enough even to crucify him.
He levels down, and then invites those who follow him to do the same, and to keep on “leveling down” until the normal operation of this world is interrupted enough to stop the unending treadmill and bondage of the need to “level up.”
Jesus lives into and introduces a reign of love that says there is enough for all to share, and that the pursuit of the next big thing, the next level, the highest score is not the venture that will bring you joy. It is rather relationship with one another and seeing sufficiency that will do that.
“Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Jesus says. Which sounds way to simple, and everything in our experience says, “it won’t work!” People will take advantage of us! We won’t get anything back!
But Jesus invites us to dream this dream with him nonetheless.
If enough people are willing to dream it, and live it, then the promise is that the bondage of the endless pursuit of this world can be broken and the freedom of the Kingdom of God can break in.
Everything does depend upon leveling you see, but not the kind we are used to. Not leveling up… rather rather leveling down. Joining with Jesus in considering that maybe the game we’ve been playing, and that know so well, can be changed for good.