Football Is Legalistic

The other night I was driving my family home from somewhere we had gone and my youngest son, who is obsessed with football, brought up the topic of the various ways a touchdown is considered valid or invalid. For instance, a play is considered a touchdown if the football crosses the plane of the goal line. However, he began explaining the difference between what is considered a touchdown in the NFL versus college football. Do both feet have to cross the goal line or just one? What if a player was in the end zone, but leaned across the goal line to catch the ball and immediately fell forward and the ball technically never crossed the goal line? What if a player was tackled a few inches in front of the end zone and slid, ball first, over the goal line? What if … As you can see, the scenarios are endless. But someone has to define what a touchdown is or isn’t in specific enough terms to allow the players to know if they have succeeded or not in scoring a touchdown.

But the details don’t stop there. For every play of the game there are specific rules that govern what happens next. What happens if a defensive player crosses the line of scrimmage before the ball is snapped? What about if that happens to an offensive player? When an offensive player is carrying the ball, what criteria has to be met for the runner to be considered stopped? How much forward movement must he have to continue and what about the whole thing with his knee touching the ground? When is a fumble really a fumble and when can a ball continue in play? You get the point. The rules are endless.

Towards the end of my discussion with my son, I told him he was a legalist. At first he didn’t understand. And then I said, “You’re so caught up with the rules, that you’ve lost track of the game.” But my comment was in jest. For him, and so many other men like him who have a passion for sports, knowing the intricacy of the rules is one of the things that make the game

One of the reasons I don’t enjoy football is probably because I don’t understand the rules. To me it all looks the same. Isn’t the object of the game to keep the ball away from the other team and hurt as many of their players in the process? It just seems so barbaric, uncivilized, and asinine. But that’s because I don’t see the sport from the inside. I don’t see the carefully calculated details and decisions that have been a part of the evolution of the game. I don’t see the long history of plays that have been the catalyst for developing tighter definitions of each of the terms and rules. I do see, however, that despite these inexhaustible rules and regulations, there are still millions upon millions of people across the world that enjoy and participate in football on an almost daily basis.

Here’s another problem. Sometimes the referees make a mistake and call a bad call against our favorite team. It happens. There’s no denying it. We get upset. Stand up. Shout. Make an idiot out of ourselves and then we go back to the game. We may talk about the refs and their bad decisions after the game, and complain to our friends that they should be fired. But do we ban all referees from football and claim football doesn’t need referees? Do we stop watching football? Do we stop playing football? Do we ban the sport entirely and close down all of the football stadiums across the country? No. That would be absurd.

But this is how we treat Judaism. First, we look at it from the outside and criticize it because we don’t understand it. We think its goal is one thing when its another. We try to superimpose our misunderstandings upon it and redefine it based on our misunderstanding. We look at all of the laws within the Torah with disdain because we don’t know the game. We haven’t been around the block long enough to know how those rules make the game enjoyable for those who love it. When we finally have some appreciation for the rules, we want to redefine them on our own terms and jettison the entire game history that has helped to articulate those rules more precisely over the last three thousand years. And we want to get rid of the referees, because they continue to reinforce those old rules. No matter what we do or how much we tell them they are wrong, they don’t seem to want to play by the rules we have created or even the ones we have redefined based on our understanding of how it should be.

Football fans like football. They don’t like a sport that has a bunch of guys running around with a pointy, brown ball with an entirely different set of rules, no matter if they seem to be wearing the same uniforms as their favorite team or not. It only brings confusion and frustration. It’s a mockery. A shame.

Messianic Judaism is a type of Judaism. It is one that is working to resemble the Judaism that Jesus and his disciples practiced. It is also working to look like the Judaism that will be practiced in the Messianic Kingdom. But it has to be concerned with the details. Otherwise, it’s not a form of Judaism, but only a mockery of it. Is the goal of Messianic Judaism to be “legalistic”? Of course not. But we could ask the same question of the NFL. Did it set out to be “legalistic”? No. But for each of these, a well-defined standard by which we measure success is absolutely necessary. It’s how we know if we have “played the game” well or not. It’s what makes the game worth playing and keeps everyone on the same page.

If I create my own standard for how Messianic Judaism should be lived out, it’s like writing my own rulebook for football. No one will want to play with me. In fact, no one could play with me, because I’ve changed all the rules that they are familiar with. So, the next time you see Messianics doing things that look too Jewish, too legalistic, just remember that these are the things that make the game accessible for some, but inaccessible for others. It’s not that they want to make things difficult, or legalistic, or offensive. But your appreciation of what they are doing depends on whether or not you want to understand the game. Fans and players understand it. Critics won’t ever get it.