Playing By The Rules


This is the message that I gave on the 17th Sunday after Pentecost, 5 October 2003, at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church, Putnam Valley, NY.  The Scriptures for that Sunday were Job 1: 1, 2: 1 – 10; Hebrews 1 1 – 4, 2:5 – 12; and Mark 10: 2 – 16.

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On October 20, 1983, an event occurred in Southhaven, MS that was little noticed then and probably did nothing to change the course of events in the world. But it mattered to a few people then and it is worth noting today. At the start of the Thursday evening session of the Southhaven Football Association, the announcer read off the names of the game officials for that night.

“The officials for tonight’s games,” the announcer proclaimed, “are referee, Bob Mitchell; head linesman, Tim Mitchell; clock operator for game 1 and field judge for game 2, Tony Mitchell; field judge for game 1 and clock operator for game 2, Terry Mitchell.” On that night, and for the only time in our respective careers as football officials, my two brothers and I worked a game with our father. Now, the three of us had done games with our father individually but it was the first and, as it turns out, the only time we ever were a game crew. It was one of those things that we knew was significant but was probably barely noticed by those attending the games that night.

And as several officials have reminded me, that is the way that it should be. Most officials will tell you that a well-officiated game is one in which the officials are not even noticed. You will note that when people do complain about the officiating, it is because a particular call went against the team they were rooting for. And I have also noticed that the main reason that people complain about the calls made by officials is because they, the viewers of the game, do not understand the rules or use rules that are outdated or inappropriate for the level of play. In fact, it has been said that the most common call by an official at an elementary game is “This isn’t Sunday, coach!” The problem is that most adults who work with the players at the elementary level don’t understand the rules and only remember the rules that were in force when they played. And they want to try things with their elementary age players that they see seasoned professionals do on Sunday afternoon.

I enjoyed being a football official and most of the time it was fun. I saw plays in games at the elementary and junior high level that most people watching televised games would never see. By working various games at the elementary, junior high, and high school level I was getting ready to move up to the college level. And I must admit that doing college games would have been really a great way to spend a fall afternoon. But then I hurt my knee and my career was over.

Still, the role of a football official, no matter what the level, is not to have fun but to insure that the game is played safely and according to the rules. And no matter what others might think, the rules are there to protect the players, not hamper the game.

The thing about rules is that they are meant to help or protect, not limit or prevent. The Pharisees are raising the issue of divorce in today’s Gospel reading. They are seeking to trap Jesus into contradicting what Moses said or to offend Herod Antipas as John the Baptist had done. They wanted to make sure that his response would justify their view of the world that men had rights that women could not have.

Jesus indicates that divorce was a concession to the hardness of one’s heart and immediately turns the argument of marriage to God’s original intentions. Rather than justify the views of the Pharisees, which put the man above the woman in marriage and society, Jesus forces men and women to bear equal responsibility in the case of divorce and remarriage. God’s design was that men and women would be equal in value and worth, even if they had different roles in the overall design.

This reading is the basis for most Christian churches’ teachings about divorce and is based on the assumption that Jesus was speaking about individual men and women. But if we view this passage from the aspect of gender rather than from that of individuals, we see that Jesus was looking at the full equality of men and women. This equality is so profound that “no one” has the power to separate them, much less make one of them less than the other.

Because, with both persons made in God’s image and as one flesh, they will have equal rights and bear equal responsibility for their actions and decisions. In this way, both are full heirs to the gifts that God bestowed upon them; both are “a little lower than God,” and crowned with “glory and honor” as the Psalmist wrote in Psalm 8:5. Finally, both are equal in their rights and responsibilities as co-creators with God. (Adapted from “Living the Word” – Reflections on the revised common lectionary, Cycle B by Michaela Bruzzese)

What the writer of Hebrews is saying is that our chance, if there ever was such a chance, was lost when we allowed sin to control our lives. The writer of Hebrews reminds us of the rights and responsibilities that we were given with the Creation of the world, as depicted in the early chapters of Genesis. We were given control through Adam and Eve of all of God’s creation, but that control was delayed because of sin. But, in verse 9 of today’s reading, we read “But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, for the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, that He, by the grace of God, might taste death for everyone.” (Hebrews 2: 9)  This means that humanity regains through Christ what Adam and Eve lost, control over God’s creation.

But we have to remember that in creation, we are all created equals. Nothing in the creation story gives us dominion or control over others in society. Yet, society is quick to forget this. The problem that we have is that we don’t want all people to be equal. We want to be able to say to someone that we are better than they are. We want to be able to say to someone that we have the right, by whatever reason it was granted, to tell someone what they can or cannot do.

One point that Jesus constantly stressed was the equality of everyone in God’s eyes. Everything that Jesus did questioned the rules of society. The Pharisees had a view of marriage that did not fit the view of equality that God intended it to have. Society had rules about children that would have kept them away from Jesus; yet Jesus commanded His disciples to let the children come to Him.

It is our nature to have rules in our lives; the problem is that we try to structure the rules so they favor a particular viewpoint. We have a hard time with life when there are conflicts between what we know is right and what the rules state. This is especially true when it comes to our relationship with God.

Jesus through his actions questioned the rules of society. In the verses following the Gospel reading, which we will hear next week, Jesus points out that the Ten Commandments lay out the rules for the fair and ethical treatment of people.

The book of Job is about the relationship between man and God. It also brings to question how can the justice of an almighty God be defended in the face of evil, especially human suffering and even more in terms of the suffering of innocents.

In this regard, there are three possible assumptions. First, God is not almighty; second, God is not just; and third, man may just be innocent. But, in Israel, there was no doubt that God was almighty; there was no doubt that God was just; and thirdly, no human was ever wholly innocent in God’s sight. These latter three assumptions are fundamental to the theology of Job and his friends. Simple logic dictates the conclusion that every person’s suffering comes because of his guilt in the eyes of God. Those were the rules of life and there was no way to change them.

The Book of Job, written soon after the Jewish people’s exile in Babylon, offers an example of a subversive wisdom, an alternative to the traditional wisdom of ancient Israel. The core of the book, dialogues between Job and his “comforters”, is a sustained debate about the theme of requirements and rewards (“the righteous will flourish, the wicked will wither”) which stand at the center of conventional wisdom.

Conventional wisdom states that those who play by the rules will be rewarded, those that do not will suffer. This is the wisdom found in the Book of Proverbs. In that regard, both the Book of Job and the Book of Ecclesiastes can be seen as a radical questioning of this easy confidence and conventional wisdom. In the book of Job, those who would “comfort” Job are defenders of these notions; Job vehemently attacks them. Society demands that we follow the rules, no matter how inequitable or unfair they may be.

In the passage that we read for today, Job is described as a righteous man. Two aspects of Job’s character and actions are highlighted. Blameless and upright, meaning “straightforward” and “ethically straight” emphasize his spotless character. Like Daniel, Job was blameless before his human critics, but not completely sinless before God. In Job 31: 5 – 6, he (Job) testifies of his personal integrity. That Job feared God and shunned evil was an indication that his right relationship with God motivated him to turn away from evil. This descriptive phrase was also an indication that Job was the epitome of wisdom.

In Job 2: 9 – 10, with his wife’s taunts, “to curse God and die” Job faces his most severe trial. Her question, “Do you still hold fast to your integrity,” employs almost the exact same wording that the Lord used in verse 3. The wording emphasizes Job’s perseverance, which his wife misconstrued as religious fanaticism; she thought he was blindly refusing the reality of his desperate situation.

Job’s response to the second test, the loss of his health and alienation from his wife, was once again commendable. His rhetorical question, urging the acceptance of both good and adversity from God, anticipates one of the central messages of the Book of Job, that a person of faith will trust in God through prosperity and adversity, even while unable to understand why bad things happen.

We are able to trust in God when we have a first-hand relationship with Him. Jesus’ ministry was an invitation to all to share in the same life that He had experienced, that of one who knew God personally. This is a challenging message for both secular and Christian forms of conventional wisdom in our time.

Our culture’s secular wisdom does not affirm the reality of the Spirit. The only reality our society is certain of is the visible world and our ordinary experience. This leads us to seeing Christianity in passive terms. Rather than seeing life as a process of spiritual transformation, a journey, conventional wisdom says that God has already done what has to be done.

It is a vision that has God as lawgiver and judge. God’s requirements must be met, and because we cannot meet them, God graciously provides the sacrifice that meets those requirements. Yet, in this view of God, new requirements are created: God will forgive those who believe that Jesus was the sacrifice, and He will not forgive those who do not believe. God’s forgiveness becomes contingent or conditional. Not only is it only for those who believe, but it lasts only until sin is committed again, which can then be removed only by repentance.

But, just as Jesus changed how society should view itself, so too does He challenge and change our view of God. No longer is God a lawgiver or judge; rather He becomes our Father in Heaven. No longer is God’s grace given because we have met a series of requirements determined by adherence to the law; God’s grace is freely given to all who would seek it.

We live in a society that still holds to the view of conventional wisdom. Our works and how we live under the law justify our lives. But Jesus showed that God’s grace was freely given to all and not just a select few. This alone removes us from a life from anxious strife and the self-preoccupation that goes with it.

Simply put, a life in Christ sets us free. It removes us from having to play a game by rules so complex that no one can win. It gives us a new set of rules that insures that our lives have victory over sin and death.

So, we must play by the rules. The question is, and will always be, whose rules shall we play by? The rules of society which lead ultimately to death or the rules of God which lead to Eternal Life?


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