Usain Bolt was recently disqualified from the Men’s 100m final at the World Athletics Championships in South Korea. His crime? One false start. Previously, athletes had been allowed a single false start, with disqualification following a second, but a recent change in the rules denied the world’s fastest man a second attempt.
Was that right? Was it fair? I’m sure athletics committees round the world are puzzling over these questions. But it’s useful for us to puzzle this over too: what is the point of having rules and what is the point of playing by them?
I’ve often heard it said of the Bible, “It’s just a book of rules,” and indeed the Bible does contain rules. A cursory glance at the Pentateuch—the first five books in the Bible—reveals all kinds of rules and regulations ranging from the obvious (e.g. “You shall not murder,” Deut. 5:17) to the obscure (e.g. “Do not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk,” Deut. 14:21b). What are they there for?
Many of these rules are spiritual disciplines and ethical instructions which, if observed, would mark Israel out as God’s people among neighbouring nations, some of whom engaged in profoundly malevolent religious practices. But there’s another purpose to biblical rules and regulations, expounded more fully in the New Testament: the rules promote life.
Even athletics rules exist not to constrain the athletes or make life tough for them, but to help them race well and to the best of their ability.
That said, rules can be used and abused in a different way. At secondary school I learned to play the clarinet and classical guitar. Year in, year out, I practised scales, arpeggios, learned pieces for music exams, and performed in school concerts. Yet in fourteen years (gulp) since leaving high school, I’ve barely touched either instrument. The reason? Simple: year in, year out, I practised scales, arpeggios, and learned music for exams but never learned to love the music for the music itself. It was all about ‘getting it right,’ playing by the rules and playing perfectly. Surely music is about more than that?
Lots of people in Jesus’ day got into confusion about rules. They either broke them in rebellion against a God they perceived to be a harsh taskmaster, or gave up trying to keep them, perceiving that they were too far gone for God to care, or they lived by the rules to the letter but without love in their hearts. Jesus encounters people from each of these camps, breaks a number of ‘rules,’ and teaches us all a valuable lesson: that God’s rules are made for the flourishing of people, not people for the upkeep of God’s rules (cf. Mark 2:27).
Some years after I left secondary school, I picked up my guitar and started to play a piece that I’d struggled to play at school. I had found it technically difficult and my palms used to sweat when playing under pressure (which felt like most of the time), making it all but impossible. Yet with no ‘taskmaster’ present to rebuke me, no examiner to tell me my playing was substandard, and with no other motive to play than to enjoy the music, my fingers got round the notes with ease. I found I could play by the rules but not for the rules and it felt marvellous.