This past weekend offered a treat for football fans, with an unprecedented pair of triple-headers to start the playoff season, followed by the college championship on Monday. It was nice to watch something on TV that wasn’t politics or the pandemic, and I thanked God for the distraction. But as I watched in the context of politics and the pandemic, I was reminded of one old reason to watch football, and picked up a new one as well.
The old reason is that football offers us heroes that often have little to do with the actual game. For example, each team nominates a team member for the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award, based on their efforts in the community. And many teams had to overcome adversity this year, beginning with COVID battles that left one team without a head coach on Sunday and another earlier in the season without any quarterbacks! But more importantly, there was Ron Rivera’s struggle with cancer and the fact that he kept coaching through it all, combined with the story of his team’s quarterback Alex Smith, who came back from near-death, having contracted a flesh-eating virus on top of a broken leg, and after two years of painful therapy got his team to the playoffs.
The new reason is something I hadn’t paid much attention to before: rules. Football teams are comprised of aggressive, combative men who like running into each other and are usually not very nice to each other. However, they also have a great deal in common: the love for the game and for fair competition. And so they agree that if they break a rule, they get a penalty; if they break a bigger rule, they get a bigger penalty; if they commit a personal foul, they get a warning, and if they commit another personal foul, they get thrown out of the game.
In a week during which everyone seems to be trying to hold everyone else accountable, I found this very comforting. This is the way life is supposed to work. The idea of fair play, of referees and rules, and of agreeing to these rules in order to commit to a higher cause is intensely appealing.
This is also the way the Kingdom of God works. Bet you didn’t see that one coming! Throughout the Bible, and especially in the Old Testament, people cry out to God because they see the unfairness of life. Bad people get away with crimes. Rich people oppress the poor. Evil kings demand tribute. Even the priests are corrupt. Ecclesiastes writes, “I looked again at all the injustice that goes on in this world. The oppressed were crying, and no one would help them. No one would help them, because their oppressors had power on their side” (4:1, Good News Bible).
But things turn in the Kingdom of God. The first become last, while the last become first; those who were full become empty, while those who were empty become full. Justice and righteousness roll like rivers and streams. The rules are enforced.
Like our Biblical ancestors, we too desire to see people punished (although we may have different people in mind). God tells us to relax and not to dwell on such feelings; it’s already covered. And as always, God turns the question around again: “Are you playing by the rules in the book that I gave you?”