Monday Morning Referees

Referees don’t decide the outcomes of games. At least they shouldn’t. But, if you watched the NFC Championship game on Sunday, it is hard to deny the fact that two calls by officials really hurt the Green Bay Packers. Towards the end of the first half, the referees missed an obvious pass interference call which resulted in Tampa Bay scoring a pretty unbelievable touchdown. Then, towards the end of the game, the officials did call an obvious pass interference in favor of Tampa Bay, giving them the first down, and allowing them to run out the clock for the win. The inconsistency of the referees had a definite impact on the outcome of the game.

If you don’t like sports and didn’t follow any of that, stick with me. All you need to understand is that the officials – those people on the field who are there to ensure fair play – failed at their task and, as a result, hurt one team’s chances of winning the game. Never mind the fact that the Packers did a lot (and I mean a lot) to lose that game, when the contest was over, social media was simply a-buzz about the referees. They were accused of playing favorites, picked on for being terrible at their jobs, even blamed for the loss. They were picked apart, scrutinized, judged, and condemned. The judges were judged because their actions on the field rendered the game unfair, which is the exact opposite of what should happen with the presence of the referee.

Whether the condemnation of the referees was just or not is up for debate. But, what I want to focus on here is this phenomenon of the judgment of the judges. It would seem that everyone knows better than the officials on the field. The Monday morning quarterback has become the Monday morning referee. To be sure, the referees are getting paid a very large amount of money to make sure they get the calls right. Yet, it has to be understood that they are watching the fastest and strongest men on the planet play a game at lightening speed. To make as many correct calls as they do is remarkable. On the field, they don’t have the advantage of sitting on their couch, beer in hand, watching replay from 25 different angles. In order for their to be a fair game, the referee must be infallible! But, they are not perfect. They will get things wrong. And we won’t let them off the hook. We sit, anxiously watching, almost hoping, that the ref screws it up! 

Michael Lewis, in his fascinating podcast “Against the Rules” does an entire first season on how and why the referees have lost the trust and respect of those they are supposed to officiate. He argues that this is true, not just in sports, but in many facets of life. In the first episode, he goes to Secaucus, NJ where the NBA has their replay center. If you watch basketball, this is the place the officials phone when there is a disputed call on the court. The referees in New Jersey watch the play from 25 different angles in order to make sure the correct call is made. Lewis interview one of the replay referees, whose father had been a pro basketball referee all the way back in 1947. He said his father would roll over in his grave if he were alive to see replay. Such an office would undermine the authority of the ref on the court. Lewis explains, “The refs used to insist on their authority. At any rate, everyone agreed that there wasn’t any way to better ensure the fairness of the game than to let the ref play God. The replay center is an admission that the ref is not God, that he makes mistakes.”

The ref is not God. He makes mistakes. And we hate him for it! Or do we? I mean, there is something rather satisfying about putting that would-be god in his place. It gives us a great sense of superiority to know that we know better than the Judge on the court. As Americans, we love to have superiority over our authorities. There’s no sovereign here! 

What’s more, as sinners, we are always looking for a way out from under the law and its accusations. If we can demonstrate that the one executing the law is flawed, then we can justify ourselves by condemning the judge. If we can demonstrate that our team lost because of the referees, then we don’t have to look in the mirror and face up to our own mistakes. If the gods are to blame, then we are not, and we can ignore our sins.

As sinners, we desperately want to be gods, by which I mean we’d love to sit in a room in New Jersey and analyze everyone else’s mistakes in order to attain some feeling of superiority. That’s why we do it to our politicians and celebrities every night while watching the news. We’ve convinced ourselves that if we can prove others inferior, then we are superior. In this way, we’ve found our way out from under judgment and condemnation. We love to judge and condemn others. It just feels so godlike! 

The desire to get out from under condemnation is understandable. Who wants to be that scrutinized referee? The trouble is that trying to get out from under the law’s accusations by becoming the accuser only makes matters worse. Jesus, the only one with any right to judge, said it this way, “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” (Matt. 7:1-3) In other words, you should expect the same scrutiny of your sins that you show to others. This is no way out from under the law. 

This is also why we would make, not just terrible referees, but terrible gods. Because if Satan had told the truth and we had become godlike after eating the fruit, all we would do with our authority would be judge and condemn others. This is not how the true God works. To be certain, He judges and He does so justly. He is just, but His mercy triumphs over judgment. (James 2:13) Our God, who puts on our flesh, came to us with every reason and right to condemn us and cast us out. Yet, He does something quite different, “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:17) The rightful judge chooses to forgive, chooses to show mercy. Taken to another level, Jesus actually takes the burden and blame for the sin and suffers the guilty verdict in your place so that He is “both just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” (Rom. 3:26) God is God for us in taking our judgment and showing us mercy.

Debating bad calls by referees is fun and relatively harmless. However, we’ve grown far too comfortable speaking the language of judgment and condemnation, even using such language to get out from under condemnation. The only way to true freedom is the Word of mercy from Christ Jesus into your ears. Such mercy will change your speech to reflect the mercy you’ve received. Judging the judges only lead to more judgment on your own head. It is only in speaking the merciful Word of Christ freely that you will begin to sound truly godlike.