“And why do we have a winner?” the ruler of Panem asks rhetorically, in our latest blockbuster movie, The Hunger Games.
If you haven’t heard yet from all of the movie hype, The Hunger Games takes place in a futuristic society created from the rubble of devastating world war. In this dystopian society’s structure, however, we see only an amplification of some of the evils of our present world: money and power are held by only one small part of the population, those who live in luxury in the magnificent Capital. In the Provinces, people are poor and living in misery and toiling to produce the energy and food that keep life in the Capital so pleasant. To keep this system in place, the rulers in the Capital have created a Story, a story fed to the captive provinces through television broadcasts. The Story says that the guilt of war and destruction lie heavily on this people prone to rebellion and strife; and yet, to rise above their guilt, they have the opportunity each year to rally around two strong, innocent young people, gleaned from each province by lot, who will display the honor and strength and charm of the people of their province on live TV. These two youth from each province will come to the Capital for the annual Hunger Games, to be perfected in beauty and wit by coaches and experts, American Idol-style, and then to have the chance to showcase their province’s glory in a fight to the death, as the world watches on TV. Only one contestant can emerge as the winner, returning home in glory. The others will all die. The deadly games do involve strength and wit and strategy, but they and their outcomes are also carefully controlled by the media experts in the Capital, in the way that our popular TV reality shows are controlled and manipulated behind the scenes. So why is there a winner each year of these games? Why doesn’t the Capital reap their annual tribute and then kill all of the contestants in a clear display of dominance and superiority? Because of the power of hope. In answering his rhetorical question, the ruler of Panem concedes that the miserable lives of the people in the Provinces must be nourished by some hope. “A little bit of hope will keep them going, keep them working, keep them playing their part in the system,” he explains. It will nourish them when they are hungry and push them forward when fear or despair threatens to overwhelm them. “But,” adds the wise and cynical ruler, “there is a risk. A little bit of hope is good. Too much hope is dangerous.”
And here we arrive at our Gospel lesson. In John’s Gospel, Jesus has just ridden into Jerusalem on the young donkey and been welcomed with cries of “Hosanna! Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord!” Acclaimed by the crowds like one of the young contestants in the Hunger Games, Jesus has kindled hope in the hearts of the downtrodden Jews from the Roman province of Judea and in the hearts of Greeks alike. “We wish to see Jesus,” some Greeks declare to Philip at the beginning of our Gospel. They all have hope. “Perhaps this is our King?” the Jews wonder. “Perhaps God will speak to us in this man?” the Greeks speculate. They are all waiting on the edges of their seats, expectant, hopeful, encouraged, whispering to one another, passing the word, passing the hope around. They start to dream of a better life, perhaps even a closer relationship with God. They think that, in seeing Jesus, they just might be looking at a winner.
And then Jesus seems to ruin it. He talks about dying and leaving and judgment. He says crazy things like, “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” Those do not sound like very hopeful words to me, and I imagine that the Greeks and Jews listening to Jesus’ words might not have found them very hopeful, either. But that is because our vision of hope is too small and weak. We tend to satisfy ourselves with the kind of hope that the organizers of the Hunger Games promote, the kind of hope that will lead us to work harder within the systems that we know, the kind of hope that will keep us docile and happy and playing by the world’s rules. God, however, is offering us the dangerous kind of hope in Jesus Christ, a superabundant kind of hope that must break the old before it can build the new.
Jesus talks about a seed planted in the ground, a seed that must break apart in the dank, dark soil before it can sprout up as a plant that can feed multitudes. We know, of course, the truth of that image in nature. One year I was too lazy to bring in the decorative fall pumpkin on my doorstep. After Thanksgiving, I kicked the broken pieces over behind the bushes and forgot about them. The next spring, from that rotting mess of pumpkin, a vine began to grow. It grew up onto the hedge, flowered, and produced pumpkins in the air, hanging from the top of my tall hedges. Who would have ever thought of wild pumpkins growing untended above my head? That is a hope that would have escaped me entirely. The hope of resurrection is that kind of incredible hope. It breaks our expectations. It looks like death and loss. It surpasses anything that we can conjure up in our own minds. And it changes the world.
In The Hunger Games, there is of course no mention of God or of resurrection. The only assurance to candidates in the Games is a parody of “The Lord be with you:” “May the odds be ever in your favor” the Games’ organizers offer in weak blessing upon the doomed contestants. Nevertheless, the movie shows, despite itself, the results of the kind of dangerous resurrection hope that Jesus offers in our Gospel. First, when Rue, one of the youngest and sweetest contestants, dies, our heroine Katniss Everdeen stops playing the game to place beautiful bunches of Queen Anne’s Lace all around Rue’s small body, lovingly and tearfully bidding farewell to someone whom she was supposed to have fought and killed. By stopping to care for Rue, Katniss puts her own life in danger. She forgets to “love her life,” putting love for another human being above her own survival. And the viewers in the provinces who had been watching on TV in docile hopelessness, react. In Rue’s province, the crowds suddenly riot, bravely attacking police and attempting to destroy the system that holds them captive. Katniss’ self-giving love has suddenly set them free from fear. The authorities in the Capital do put down the riots in triumph, but they are worried. In Katniss' action, a dangerous hope has been unleashed.
At the end of the movie, manipulated by the media who control the games, Katniss and Peeta, her fellow contestant from Province 12, are caught and seemingly bound by the unfair and constantly changing rules. Since the hope of the Games is that there must be only one winner, the two remaining tributes must kill or be killed. Katniss, however, now understands a different kind of hope—the hope that would end her life yet break the deadly authoritarian system that holds all of her people captive. She and Peeta make the choice to break the system—to give up their own lives, to be like the seed in the ground that dies in order to bear fruit. I won’t ruin the movie for you by outlining exactly what happens, but the self-giving love in the actions of Katniss and Peeta succeed in putting a crack in the strong Powers that bind their world and unleashing dangerous hope in their country. Their willingness to die for hope of freedom defeats the rules of the Games themselves, and they live.
We are not contestants in the Hunger Games. Neither are we martyrs for the faith like the courageous Church Father, Ignatius of Antioch, who went to his death proclaiming, “I am God’s grain.” But we are nevertheless called to follow Jesus and to unleash dangerous hope in our world. Last Tuesday in our Lenten discussions, we talked about Justice and about how hard it is for us to take practical steps to “do justice.” We recognized all of the economic and political and social powers that hold us captive, the unfair and frustratingly complex systems that seem to strangle all of our attempts to do good. I believe that one of the reasons that the movie The Hunger Games is so powerful is that we recognize ourselves in the dystopian society of Panem, and we long to be free of the powers that bind us to evil and injustice. To us, and to the crowds in Jerusalem, Jesus answers: If you want to see me, really want to see what my glory can do, you must first follow me to the cross. It is the only way. The structures of this world that hold you captive cannot ultimately be manipulated and stroked and chipped away in easy, comfortable ways. They must be broken open by the divine power of self-giving love. Follow me and watch what dangerous hope can do.
As we sing in one of my favorite Easter hymns: “Now the green blade rises from the buried grain; wheat that in dark earth many days has lain; love lives again, that with the dead has been: love is come again like wheat arising green.” To win is always to love.