Unwritten Rules

Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time

I am not an athlete, you can probably tell. I did play soccer, basketball, volleyball, and softball in high school, and soccer, and hockey in college. I can’t claim I was any good at any of it. I was out there on the court or the field though. I worked up a sweat. But I was very uncoordinated most of the time. And it would have helped if I was a tiny bit more interested in the game. I may have been when I first learned to play. But when I wasn’t getting better at helping my team score points, and sitting on the bench most of the time didn’t help build my self-esteem, I turned to other interests.

People say life is like sports. There are important rules you play by. Some people will stretch the rules. Some people will cheat. Some people will not give the game their best effort. And some people will make a career of talking about what everybody else is not doing right, even if they would have done the same thing had they been in a similar situation. As with all sports, everyone concerned should know the basics – the objective of the game, who is eligible to play, what constitutes the field of play, how to keep score, how long the game should go, when someone is offside, when it’s legal to steal, bluff, bunt, or use your head to score points. Usually there is a referee or an umpire, and the instant replay camera, to settle disputes while the facts are fresh. And when the game ends, most decisions are final. It is only in recent years with the use of random testing for illegal substances that what were once considered final decisions could still be overturned. 7-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong can attest to that.

Anyway, there are official rules, and there are unofficial or unwritten rules. You’ve heard about unwritten rules, haven’t you? Every sport apparently has them. Sometimes they make total sense, sometimes they don’t. Yet people can forget these rules, or no one tells them, or they don’t figure them out on their own. So it helps to have friends who look out for you, and they can save you a lot of trouble. As in life, being part of a team has its advantages.

So with the help of sports writer Rick Reilly, here goes. (Sports Illustrated. Jan. 16, 1995.) The coach always sits on the first row of the team bus. If he’s out sick or dead, the seat remains empty. Never, ever put your finger in someone else’s bowling ball. The starting goalie is always the first person on the ice. Do not talk to or sit near a pitcher with a no-hitter going. A first base coach never stands in the first base coaching box. Stand as far away as possible from a skeet shooter with a perfect score going. Always clear the inside lane for faster runners. Never stand behind the pool table pocket your opponent is shooting for. A catcher may complain to the umpire all he wants about balls and strikes, as long as he doesn’t turn around and do it face-to-face. Never hit the quarterback during practice. When a soccer player is hurt, the opponents must kick the ball out of bounds. Never leave the field with a clean uniform. Throw a handful of salt into the air before your sumo wrestling match begins. No overhead smashes at women in mixed doubles. You must alter your course to help a boat in distress. Winners buy. When the coach finally wraps up a long meeting with “Any questions?” nobody better ask one.

Most church-goers are familiar with unwritten rules. That’s partly the reason many of them go to church. There may be much about believing in God and being a good person that is clearly spelled out in scripture and the church’s tradition, but it is the unwritten portion that gets a lot more attention. For instance, we know we should go to church on Sundays and Holy Days. We know we shouldn’t kill, cheat, steal, or lie. We know we shouldn’t curse, swear, gamble, disrespect our parents, or commit adultery. But some people still feel guilty about not going to mass when they have been sick, or have to stay home to care for a sick child or parent. But when they oversleep on Sunday, they make no real effort to spend time in prayer and reflecting on the Sunday readings because it’s not the same as mass. And rightly so. Instead, they do absolutely nothing. We know killing in self-defense is no crime. But we don’t see the crime in putting ourselves or others at risk with unhealthy eating habits, the use of proven harmful addictive substances, or the neglect of positive measures to ensure a healthy productive lifestyle. Few of us are outright cheaters, thieves, and liars; but many aren’t bothered because they don’t get caught, or those people are thieves anyway so it’s just karma, or it was only a tiny little white lie. Cursing, swearing, gambling, disrespect, and adultery may be frowned upon by people we love, but they’re not all on the same level of gravity and outrage. As long as no one gets hurt or they get hurt just a little bit, or we think they deserve what they got, then it must be okay. Or is it?

The people of Israel were familiar with the Law of Moses. But over time, on the authority of rabbis, lawyers, and scholars of the Law, other rules crept in, sometimes in an attempt to clarify the essentials of the law, sometimes actually distorting its true meaning. The apostle James in his letter points his listeners to that which was most important in Christian discipleship, not just knowing what to do, but actually doing it. In effect, the more convincing learner is not necessarily one who can regurgitate what was taught, but rather one whose example of living gives clear witness to the truths that have been truly learned. In a similar line of thinking, the whole issue of ritual impurity that Jesus was addressing in the gospel was not an attempt to dismiss these practices as without merit, but to draw his listeners’ attention to things of much greater importance. It is not what comes from outside of us that makes us unclean, but what comes from within us – that which fuels our anger, our injustice, and our unfaithfulness; that which feeds our pride, our jealousy, and our lust; that which moves us to vengeance, unchastity, greed, and deceit. Human precepts are often intended to lead us in the right direction, so we do not lose our way, or stumble and fall. But by themselves, they do not build the foundation of faith, since faith is based on an intimate connection with an actual person, who also happens to be God.

As teenagers, we are very aware of the rules that are imposed on us by parents, school, church, and society. We do what is expected of us, sometimes grudgingly. We go through the motions, often without conviction. We might study the rules and make sure we keep to the straight and narrow. But when we fall in love, madly in love, we discover there is no manual with all the rules. So we struggle, we stumble, we strive for greater intimacy and understanding. Our friendship with God follows a similar route. We become just as concerned about the unwritten rules as we are about what is clearly expected of us, because it is the DELIGHT of love, not the BURDEN of love, to exceed expectations, theirs and ours. When you’re in love, it’s okay to have rules, but that’s not what drives your living. And if you want your faith to drive your living, it helps to be totally, unapologetically in love with God.