Free Parking, Heresy, and the Reformation



Before all this techno hubbub I was raised playing board games with my family. My kids today call them ‘bored’ games. But not in my house back in the day. If someone wasn’t crying or screaming it wasn’t a good night of competition. From Scrabble, Flinch, Aggravation and Stratego, we played to the death. However, my favorite game was Monopoly. As soon as I learned it, I quickly became the Donald Trump of the square. Well, at least in my own mind.

After marrying my gracious wife, Julie, I was introduced to a less stressful environment of board game playing. One Christmas my mother-in-law invited everyone to play Monopoly. She asked me. I told her no. “It won’t be pretty,” I warned her. My wife nodded her head. Quite frankly she looked terrified. After a little more needling I gave in and sat down to play.

As we played I noticed that when people were punished by a card in community chest, they put their fine in the middle of the board. Soon someone landed on Free Parking and they received all that glorious cash in the center. “It’s not in the rules!”, I objected.  “Well that’s how we play it,” my mother-in-law responded. “That’s not life,” I proclaimed as if I was in the presidential debates against Jimmy Carter. How am I supposed to win against that, I thought. Heresy!

By focusing intently on what one wants to avoid, we often crash right into the moral hazard we are trying to evade.
— Joel Hess

The game went on. I collected a lot of monopolies and finally my brother-in-law landed on one and he could not pay me back. I comforted him by telling him he could get out of this dog eat dog world now. His mom didn’t like it. “Why don’t you lend him some money, or maybe the bank can, so he can keep playing?” “No way,” I said, “are we just going to go around and around the board to infinity? This is a game. It has rules. There are winners and losers.” Well that didn’t go over very well. And it was Christmas, too. Needless to say, I was treated like a heretic for the rest of the evening. Heresy!

To be sure, the game has its own rules. The rules somewhat mirror our world. There are losers and winners. You get what you deserve. You gotta pay the piper whether you like it or not. Every funeral is a reminder of that.

Heretics and the Rules of the World

So it’s no surprise that Jesus was labeled a heretic in His day, according to the rules of the world. Unlike me, He forgave the women married seven times who landed on His property.  Indeed, He gave her a drink of living water. Unlike me, He told the thief on the cross who repented at the very last second, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Unlike me, this Good Samaritan picked up the stranger, the loser, broken and alone, on the side of the road and paid for everything to make him well. We all land on God’s property; thieves, trespassers, stingy unforgivers. Yet God forgives us all of our debts to Him. Not because He’s nice or lenient or careless, but because His Son paid dearly for every one of us, every sinning member of humanity.

Luther was called a heretic, too, as the official church hierarchy of the day had turned Christianity into a Monopoly game. Do this, get that. Jesus might love you and help you, but you still gotta pay. The Reformation was born out of a monk who looked into his own soul, into the teary eyes of peasants, and into the Word of God and saw that we simply can not pay! That is precisely why Jesus said, “Come to me all you who are tired and weary and I will give you rest!”  It’s paid for! Go you are free to go around the board to infinity, better, eternity.

And today make no mistake, the Gospel is still heresy to the world and to our protestant work ethic ears. I feel its foreign sound every time I tell someone they are forgiven yet hear in the back of my Monopoly brain, “Are they truly sorry? Will they just go and sin some more?” Heresy to my flesh, Good News to my soul, the devil screams at the game, and angels sing in heaven.

Rev. Joel Hess is the fortunate pastor at Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Cadillac, MI, where God’s reality pierces through our illusions by His Word, flesh and blood and gentle waters.  He is the author of many half written projects; a talented musician and artist.  His contributions to the Jagged Word deal with the intersection of theology, culture and the arts.

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