Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 119:9-16
Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33
How many of you went to see “The Hunger Games” this weekend?
How many of you read the book?
How many of you know what I am talking about?
I have to admit that the most I know about “The Hunger Games” came from the reviews of the movie in Friday’s newspapers. The story takes place in, as the New York Times calls it, a “picturesque dystopia.” Every year in this post-post-United States North America, a set of teenagers is chosen to fight to the death – and to have these games televised – until one hero or heroine survives. This plot device is a direct steal from the Roman Empire, from the custom of “bread and circuses.” The name of the empire in “The Hunger Games” is even “Panem,” the Latin word for bread.
This formula [of bread and circuses, historians tell us] offered a variety of pleasures such as: the distribution of food, public baths, gladiators, exotic animals, chariot races, sports competition, and theater representation. It was an efficient instrument in the hands of the Emperors to keep the population peaceful, and at the same time giving them the opportunity to voice themselves in these places of performance. … 
The emperors and their minions organized the games, and the gladiators were the peoples of the lands conquered by the Empire:
German, Spanish, Welsh, Britannic, black Africans, nomadic Russians, and Jews from Jerusalem. … using the defeated enemy to entertain the public was a triumph in victory.
I think this is indeed what “The Hunger Games” is based on: a central, imperial power using brute force to divide and conquer subjected people.
If we read the Gospels closely, we will see that this reality of empire, this ever-present reality of brute force, of violence, of subjugation, is the foreground of the gospels. The story of Jesus takes place in the face of this empire, of its fear, of its force. It is the social context in which the Jews, and Jesus, lived. It is the air they breathe, the water they drink, the bread they consume.
If you think about it, we Christians cannot really understand why the Romans had Jesus executed. He was such a nice person, who said such nice things. It is hard to get back into that space, where the surrounding world was so brutal, and what Jesus said and did was in such enormous contrast. What was going on, 2000+ years ago?
One historian who has helped me make sense of this context of Jesus ministry is John Dominic Crossan. “Most of the world works on a greed system,” he says.
Keep that in mind. On a big scale, we like to keep ours and take lots of other peoples’ things. So empires usually run on that principle and on the premise that they own the world. The Roman emperors had not the slightest doubt that they were in charge of the entire world … if I were to attach a motto to the Roman Empire, I would say, “First victory, then peace.” It’s the program the world’s been run on for about 5,000 years.
What was so shocking to some, and so thrilling to others, in the first century, was that Jesus proclaimed a very different kind of empire, a different kingdom ruled by a different king. Instead of vanquishing your enemies in the “hunger games,” where death is the final answer, Jesus says, ”unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” The standard for Jesus, and for the kingdom of this God is not victory but service; not smashing one’s enemies but justice. Crossan puts it this way:
Jesus’ program is: “First justice, then peace.” That’s the real thing. Otherwise, you have peace for a while, but then eventually wars break out, and you start all over again.
Jesus’ message was thrilling to some, and threatening to others, because he challenged the “victory” status quo. Peace in the kingdom of heaven came when people realized there was enough to go around, when there was justice, when God worked in a collaborative way. Peace came to Caesar’s empire only after the enemies were vanquished, and forced to “entertain” in the arena of bread and circuses. It became a never-ending cycle of violence and vanquish: there was always someone rising up who did not want to be conquered.
John Dominic Crossan, quoted in an interview in "Zion's Herald" -- http://www.zionsherald.org/interviewJuly05.html