Religion as "Gamesmanship"

February 20, 2000 / Mark 12:13-27

Our text for today sets us down right in the middle of a series of arguments forced on Jesus by his critics and enemies. A series of self-appointed guardians of orthodoxy came to Jesus in rapid succession to expose him with trick questions. In the process, they revealed their hearts. They saw religion as gamesmanship. It was the playing field on which one person could win and another would have to lose. It was their means to expose, humiliate, and otherwise destroy someone with whom they disagreed. It was power ó the power to admit or exclude, elevate or ridicule, honor or shame.

Jesus got caught up in their games because he couldnít avoid it. They made him their target, so he could not avoid them altogether. But he didnít make a career of this nonsense! He had spent the bulk of his time to this point in his ministry teaching, preparing, and empowering his own disciples ó and avoiding the religious authorities. But things were moving to an end quickly now. He had come to Jerusalem. The shadow of the cross was falling over him. He walked into the "trap" of his enemies because there was no longer any reason to avoid it.

A Series of Confrontations

It all started with his challenge to what went on habitually at the temple. He went through the Court of the Gentiles and turned the noisy bazaar into stunned amazement. "You have made [my fatherís house] into a den of thieves!" he roared. Thus began the series of five confrontations: (1) a demand to know the "authority" by which Jesus had cleansed the temple at 11:27-33, (2) the very pointed Parable of the Ownerís Son at 12:1-12 (3) the challenge about paying Roman taxes at 12:13-17, (4) a trick question about married life in the post-resurrection world at 12:18-27, and (5) an inquiry about the "greatest commandment" in the Law of Moses at 12:28-34.

For our purposes right now, suffice it to say that these confrontations accomplished two things. First, they demonstrated the absolute brilliance of Jesus. He didnít get tripped up by his enemies. To the contrary, he effectively silenced them. They stopped trying to goad him with their trap-setting questions because the confrontations were backfiring on them and decided instead simply to resort to brute force to get ride of him. Thus, second, these confrontations sealed Jesusí fate.

Rather than walk you through all these questions and answers in detail, Iíd like to step back and try to make you aware of the larger issues surrounding them. And I want to caution us against turning religion into gamesmanship in our own experience. Or, to borrow the language of Alcoholic Anonymous, I want to caution all of us against substituting the husks of religion for the nourishment of authentic spirituality.

I want to make the lessons of this text personal to us by telling you the true stories of two people I have known. They are not members of this church and arenít in this room, so donít look around in an effort to identify them! Their stories are now matters of public record, so I am not breaking any confidences. Even so, I will disguise the stories by altering a few of their details for the sake of keeping identities concealed. That is, the names will be changed to protect the not-so-innocent people involved. But the skeleton of each story is absolutely (and frighteningly!) true. I hope their stories are uncharacteristic of Christian people. I certainly hope they are not variations on the life story of anyone here.

True Stories of Two People

The first is the story of a preacher. I had met him a few times across the years, but I could not say that we knew each other well enough to be friends. He had preached for a very conservative church, in fact, and I had heard that he had taken a few shots at me and at this church. Big deal! People sometimes criticize other people because they either donít have all the facts or donít know the motives behind certain things they do. At other times, they criticize because the people involved deserve criticism. If I wrote off everybody that doesnít like something Iíve done or said, Iíd have to leave the planet.

That preacher was fired from the church he had served for more than ten years when it was discovered that he had sexually abused three children in his church ó his own eleven-year-old daughter and two of her friends. He and his wife separated, and he moved to Nashville in search of a job. A friend of mine from a church near where all those things happened called me and told me what had happened. My fear is that he thought I might find some satisfaction in the report. I didnít ó and told him so.

People sometimes go over the edge when they do something as terrible as that preacher had done. They figure they have nothing to lose and throw their lives away. Some are so overwhelmed with shame that they commit suicide. So I set about to track him down, invite him to lunch, and offer to be of whatever help I could to him. I wanted him to know that Godís redemptive power was for him ó not just for those to whom he had once preached the gospel. He agreed to meet me at a restaurant.

We arrived within a couple of minutes of each other. We stood in the foyer making small talk while waiting for a table. Then, when a hostess seated us, I prayed again for God to give me the right opening and correct words to let him know that I cared about him and wanted to help him get things back on track in his life. But he took the initiative in our conversation. "There are some things you believe that I need to let you know I disagree with," he started. "I understand you have a choir at Woodmont Hills and that your people applaud at baptisms."

The second story is that of a college student. She grew up in a Christian home. Both the folks back home and her teachers here think highly of her. She is bright and outgoing. She has friends galore. But some things had been going wrong in her life, and she asked to talk with me.

She had been experimenting with alcohol and marijuana for over a year, and she had done cocaine once recently. She said she really didnít see as much danger in any of that as her parents did ó or as I might. Her immediate concern was that she had found out three days before that she had gonorrhea. She had slept with three different guys a number of times during the past year. "But I havenít missed church a time since leaving home for college," she told me. "Even when one of those guys and I would spend the weekend in Knoxville, Iíd make him get up and go to church with me on Sunday morning."

Whatís Wrong With These Pictures?

Whatís wrong with these two stories? Does anything about either of them grate at you? Does anything strike you as inappropriate?

Both these true stories reflect real-life instances of church members who lack personal faith. One was living a tradition-bound faith that could somehow tolerate child molestation for over three years but could not abide a piece of special music or applause at a baptism. The other was living her parentsí faith about the importance of attending church services while her own lifestyle contradicted some basic values those services were meant to affirm and defend.

The late Paul Little distinguished three kinds of faith. The first two can be, in his words, "strictly environmental, an outgrowth of your surroundings."

Some people have indoctrination faith. They have gone to the right places, sung the right hymns, and can give all the right answers about what they call the plan of salvation. They wouldnít think of missing church without a really good reason. They can quote a lot of Bible verses. But they have never really met the Christ they have studied about and have no life-changing personal commitment to him.

Then there are people with conformity faith. These people do reasonably well when they are in Christian surroundings. When they are in a church assembly, in a school or work environment surrounded by Christians, or with their families, they do all the right things and practically none of the wrong ones. Put them with people whose values and behavior are sub-Christian or leave them to make their own decisions about what to do, however, and ó to use Littleís words ó they will "shed their faith like a raincoat."

The third kind of faith is called commitment faith. This is the faith that goes deeper than tradition, family, or mere intellectual acceptance of the facts about Jesus. It is life-changing commitment to Jesus as Lord. It is serious obedience to the Word of God. It is a life of genuine discipleship that denies self, take up oneís cross, and follows Jesus (cf. Mark 8:34).


Jesus lived among people who argued over paying taxes to a pagan government but thought nothing of plotting to kill him. No, thatís not correct. They thought they were doing the right thing to rid the word of Jesus ó by whatever wicked means necessary. Some of those same people spent hours every week fasting, praying, and studying Scripture ó but didnít know God. They were hair-splitters and synagogue-attenders ó but could have no part in the kingdom of God. They were happy to argue religion all day but would let a widow starve or an orphan sleep in the streets. They had reduced religion to gamesmanship. They were members of the one true Church of Moses, could quote the Ten Commandments by heart, and wouldnít think of violating the sabbath. But they were hopelessly lost!

As much as you love your parents, their faith cannot be transmitted to you like eye and hair color. As much as you love your children, you donít want them to have your faith ó but their own personal faith. As much as you respect a church heritage in which you were reared, you need a faith grounded in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ rather than in a particular historical tradition. Otherwise, the "gamesmanship" of religion replaces the spiritual life of a disciple of Jesus.


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