Thursday, May 07, 2015

Rules and Reason

In first century Israel there were a lot of religious rules - especially strict were the Sabbath rules. There were so many things people couldn't do on the Sabbath. One day Jesus and his disciples were walking along a grain field. The disciples began absent-mindedly picking some heads of grain and chewing on them. I'm not sure if they were hungry or if this was a diversion like chewing gum is today. In either case, it violated some Sabbath rule and they were confronted by the religious authorities. In standing up for his guys, Jesus said a seemingly bizarre thing - "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath."

Church people may get what that means, but it's not the most easily decipherable concept. He's pretty much saying that rules exist to help people live better, not to restrict them or make things more difficult. Sometimes the rules make our lives more difficult in the short term, but prove important for our long term ease of life. This wasn't one of those instances. In this case, the rules were incongruous with common sense and reality.

It's easy for some of us to become obsessed with the rules. We get this notion that if something is codified in law or rule, then it's morally impeachable. Yes, there is moral value in following the rules and getting along with one another. This isn't necessarily an anarchist sentiment, but we do have to recognize that context matters. Rules are made for people, not people for rules. No one gets pulled over for going 66 in a 65 - they certainly could - it's a violation of the law - but reality gives us some leeway there, especially if the car is already going slower than the speed of traffic. Rules are made for people, not people for rules.

I was thinking about a real life situation where this comes up and I came up with this:

Let's say there's a midweek day game at Tropicana Field, home of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays (capacity 40,473) in early May. We're just starting the second inning and Steve is camped out with his three year old son along the third base line. They've got hot dogs half eaten and frosty lemonades in the cupholders. They've also got the section to themselves (attendance for this game is about 4,500). It's a great day until Jim arrives. He stands over Steve and waves his ticket, "I've got Section 119, Row E, seat 2 - you're in my spot." Steve motions around to his kid and their food. "Sorry man, I figured it didn't matter today, can you just sit somewhere else?" "No way. I want my seat." "We've got all our stuff out, it'll be difficult to move everything - there's four empty rows between us and the field, you'll have a great view anywhere." "Sorry. Get out. My ticket says Section 119, Row E, seat 2, and that's where I want to sit."

The exchange catches the attention of an usher who hurries down to ask if she can help. Hearing the situation, she also encourages Jim to pick a different seat. He refuses even more vociferously. Reluctantly the usher sighs and asks Steve and his son to move, helping them with their food and setting them up two rows back.

Obviously the rules are the rules. The guy has a right to sit in the seat he purchased, but common sense and the interests of human decency dictate that the guy just pick a different seat. Rules are made for people, not people for rules. We really need to be sure we're not so committed to getting everything "right" by some objective standard that we miss the real opportunity for human interaction and care. No one is really right in this story, and no one is really wrong. In these moments it becomes an issue of discernment - figuring out what makes the most sense for calm and peace and order to proceed.

(And for those of you following the sports news recently, Tom Brady is Steve, the NFL is Jim, and Ryan Grigson is the guy sitting by himself in the top row of upper deck section 322 complaining that the whole thing's unfair.)

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