Friday, March 29, 2013

Playing Games with Jesus-A Good Friday Homily

One of the most interesting things I learned when I was in the Holy Land a few weeks ago was that I finally understood what was going on in the Good Friday readings with Jesus and the Roman Soldiers. I have never quite understood what the bit about the crown of thorns and the purple robe and all that was about. I understood the symbolism and theology of it, but I never understood why? Why were Roman soldiers handing out in the street with a purple robe and a crown and (in the other Gospels) rolling the dice and gambling for Jesus' clothes and all this.

With all the armor and swords and all that Roman soldiers stationed out on the beat, as it where, where did they get all this stuff? It just seems to appear, conveniently, in the Passion narratives. I never quite understood how or why.

As it turns out, there is a very good story that is very historically accurate behind this little bit of the Passion narrative that seems somewhat obscure.

An Example of the Game of the King
All over Israel in areas where they have dug up Roman era cities, in Jerusalem, in Bet She'an (which the Bible calls the Decapolis), and a whole lot of other places, wherever there was a public forum or road where people gathered. There is this graffiti, for lack of a better term, carved into the stone. Most of the time, it was carved into the stone slabs on the roads, sometimes it was on columns of the columns had a recess or flat spot. If you looked for them, they were everywhere in Roman era ruins, particularly in Israel, but they were all over the Roman empire.

I am passing around some pictures of some that I took a picture of in Bet She'an (and one on the actual Station of the Cross on the Via Cruces in the Old City of Jerusalem, if you want to see what I am talking about. This type of graffiti came in various shapes and sizes, but ig you look at it, you see it looks like a layout of a type of board game.

And that is exactly what it was. Wherever there was a public space and people were milling about and needing something to do, someone would carve board game images into the stone as that passersby, if they had the pieces, could strike up a game. The game was called Baseleo, or basically, the Game of the King. It was not unlike the Game of Thrones that is popular now. Nothing new under the sun.

The version that was played by common people, they'd have these pieces, about the size of a chess piece. You could use a rock or anything that would stand up on one end, and they had a stick, not unlike a shuffleboard stick. And they'd have some sort of dice or maybe even a coin. Each person would take a turn and they'd roll the dice. They'd take the stick and try to move their piece however many spaces without knocking

the piece over. They knocked the piece over, they lost their turn. In uneven stone pavement, it was a game a skill. Whoever got their piece to the throne room first became the king, won the game.

In the Roman Army the soldiers would be stationed all over the known world, many times very far away from home.  It was often a boring job as the day to day routine played itself out.  While Judea was a volotile province it was still probably a pretty boring job being a legionnaire stationed as a security guard or whatever on the street day after day and so the soldiers played the same kind of game to pass the time.

On the floor of the Antonia fortress in Jerusalem (today a convent – The Sisters of Zion – is built over the site) which is where Jesus was tried by Pilate, archeologists have found the markings of the game known as The Game of the King.

The way the Roman soldiers played it was a bit more, shall we say, cutthroat. It was almost a hazing ritual for new recruits into the Army. It was played with sheep’s knuckles as dice and they would roll those dice on a playing board.  The soldiers would pick one of their own low ranking Army peons and make him the “king”.  They would give him robe, a crown, a scepter, and they would pay homage to him.  It was a type of hazing.

During the course of the day the soldiers would gamble for all of his possessions – clothes, wife, home back in Rome, etc, culminating in gambling for who got to kill him.   These Roman soldiers would pick some poor hapless new recruit and they’d make a game out of killing him. A terrible initiation ritual, but it shows you the brutality of the Roman legions. Some of them weren’t nice people.

Another example from the Bet She'an ruins
We know that the soldiers played it this way because Caesar Augustus in his sweeping reforms, specifically outlawed the playing of the game in the ranks of the army because it was hurting morale and he was losing good troops. So, the soldiers instead of using each other, then moved to using condemned prisoners. That was not against orders.

Now enter the condemned prisoner, the rabbi Jesus.  He was made to look like a king by being given a robe, a crown, and a scepter.  He was then mocked, beaten, spit upon, while they pretended to pay homage to him. Eventually all of his belongings were gambled on as they “cast lots” which was done with sheep’s knuckle dice and they killed him. This was not something that was unique to Jesus' case. Roman soldiers did this with condemned prisoners or random people they pulled out of the crowd who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.


I think in a certain way, we still play The Game of the King today. We play sick games with Jesus...we follow him when we want to, but when things are not going as smoothly, Jesus becomes a piece on the board. Maybe if we just position right, if we just say the right prayer or do the right just enough to somehow bribe divine favor, then Jesus will make up the king of the game. 

Jesus did come and Jesus did not die so that we could become rich or successful. In fact, just the opposite.  This Good Friday, I ask you a simple question: Are you playing games with Jesus? I am convinced all of do at some point in our lives. We might go to Church, we might feel very safe and secure, but God is just a very nominal part of our lives. 

Jesus declares that his true followers are the ones who put his words into practice.  

Yes, that includes the "Taking up your Cross" bit. 
Yes, that includes the "Loving your neighbor as yourself" bit.

Don’t let your shallow faith be a mockery like The Game of the King, but instead live the words of Saint Paul:

“As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.” (Ephesians 4:1)

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