Like most of you and, maybe also a considerable number of people on the planet, I have been watching the Football World Cup taking place in Russia and for the most part enjoying it. I have to confess though one of the things that I have not enjoyed is how players so often, more than ever, play for a foul, a free kick or even a penalty when it is not merited. After the most innocuous knock, tap, or very often no contact at all, players fall down seemingly dead or dying, or if not dead then they look as if they are seriously injured, but should the referee not blow his whistle, they miraculously rise moments later as if suddenly cured. One minute it looked as if a crash team might be needed, some medical intervention involving a full surgical team and then the crises is over as soon as it began.
What is really happening is that a good rule meant for the protection of players, a good flow of the game is being hijacked and has become part of the game as much as a pass, a cross, a header, a corner.
A fake foul, a fake free-kick , a fake penalty can turn a game. A player can try to outwit, deceive, pull the wool over the referee’s eyes to get some advantage and, maybe even worse can maliciously set out to get another player booked or even sent off, by writhing on the ground.
I am surprised how silent the commentators of the game have been about this, normally they seem to conspire with the offenders against the referee . It leaves a bad taste, that players at the highest level of the game are encouraged to fall down at the slightest touch, are trained to roll over and act up, playing for a foul, free kick, penalty or to get the other player booked or sent off. It takes away from the purity of the way the game should be played and the spirit of fair play that we often hear about.
There are some players who play with integrity, who don’t play that kind of game, but they seem less and less. It looks as if it has got into the blood-stream of the game, managers, trainers, and other players look as if they expect it.
On a wider canvas than the football pitch, it is hard to have integrity when others encourage foul play in life. When people encourage you to be devious, double dealing or two faced. When we get involved in a game which sets out to deceive or sets out to get another person harmed, if you like booked or sent off.
In life surely the better way is to be the honest player, the honest broker, the person who doesn’t look for short term gain and lose their integrity, their morals, their right living.
St John the Baptist, the person who is born, circumcised and named in the reading of the Gospel at Mass is clearly a person of integrity, who is not swayed by anyone. He doesn’t trade his good name and his word for short term popularity. No one can accuse him of watering down the message. He tells soldiers not to use extortion. He tells religious people to act as they should. He takes King Herod to task, he is imprisoned for his troubles and loses his head for playing with a straight bat. He steers a straight course, he is honest and truthful.
Sometimes in life there seems no benefit in doing the right thing, sticking to your guns, acting as you see fit - other than knowing you are doing the right thing, as you see it.
It’s in the wind today, if you do it and can get away with it, then that’s the right thing. If you can get that foul or free kick or penalty or the equivalent by dishonest means - go ahead and do it. But there is something the leaves a bad taste if you go down that road, that you don’t play fair.
But there is a cautionary word for someone who wants to act with integrity, to do the right thing, to act properly. How do you stop that simple and good desire from crossing over to a religious arrogance? How do you stop that becoming a stick to beat others with? How do you balance those ideals with the reality of your shortcomings? There is nothing worse than the zealot, the haughty and proud person, the person who thinks they cannot make a mistake, the person who has disdain for others. How often Jesus points out the folly and the weakness.
Jesus at all times recommends a different path for his disciples not the way of the proud but the way of the humble. Not people who are looking to be called masters, teachers, rabbis, not people who are looking for lofty seats or high thrones, but a different path, a more humble path.
Jesus often warns if you are looking to be a person of integrity, a person who has good morals, who is religious in the best sense – beware, there are dangers. There are rocks ahead that will rip a hole in your boat, there are rocks ahead on which you will run aground, there are temptations which will warp you if you are not careful .
But the greatest danger comes from yourself and a poison that can enter your soul.
That malevolent eye, that you judge people. That word that you pass onto others that destroys another’s character, brings them down. That way in which you wish the other person ill or harm, maybe not out aloud but deep down.
Don’t put yourself on a pedestal. Don’t look down on others. Don’t be deaf to what other people say. See the good that is in others and in their way. Don’t judge others by your standards. That would seem to be the antidote.
The bible sometimes makes people into heroes who were maybe not. I rather think that John Baptist was not the hero we make him out to be. Truculent, hard headed, single minded, abrupt - these are words that would fit the bill. If we know anything all our heroes turn out to be fallible and fragile and I suppose John the Baptist was no different.
It makes it more credible to know that all our heroes are at the end of the day like us. Good and bad, a mix of both, flawed, limited and got shortcomings.
Like John the Baptist we are only on the way, trying to be good, stumbling and falling as we go. But maybe just that, trying. Trying to steer a straight course trying our best to be good as much as our wits give us the ability and as much as we allow grace to lead us.