Last week there was a big brouhaha at a LA Dodgers game. Dodger manager Dave Roberts accused the San Diego Padres players of “stealing signs,” and this began a heated argument involving all the players of both teams. In the process, the normally laid-back Roberts became so aggressive that he was punished with a day’s suspension.

Here’s what sign-stealing is. When a player for the team that’s at-bat is on second base, he has the chance to look straight at the catcher, who uses hand signals that tell the pitcher what pitch to throw: fastball, curve, slider, change-up. The catcher also points to show whether the pitch should be inside, outside, high or low. The player on second base is in a position to read these signs and use his own set of signals to send the information on to the batter. It’s a great advantage to the batter to know what pitch is coming.

Now, there’s really no way of stopping this from happening, but there’s an old, gentlemen’s-agreement tradition among baseball teams that stealing signs is not playing fair. That’s why Dave Roberts got so upset. However, the truth is that all teams probably do a little of this, and the Padres player on second base was just a bit more obvious and careless than he should have been. In my opinion, stealing signs should be accepted as smart baseball. It’s an example of creative bending of the rules.

I feel the same about “card-counting” in Las Vegas. This is a way that many really sharp people try to beat the odds in various games of chance, especially Black Jack. In that particular game, it’s helpful to know how many high cards and low cards have already been played, and people with particularly good memories and some clever techniques can increase their chances of beating the house.

Of course, the casinos hate this, and they employ specialists to watch people at the betting tables, looking for signs of card-counting. If they identify a person, or even suspect him/her, the person is likely to be expelled and blacklisted on The Strip. Personally, I root for card-counters and wish them the best. They’re doing a little creative bending of the rules.

A delightful 2011 film, Holy Rollers: The True Story of Card Counting Christians, is a good way to become familiar with the practice through the eyes of a mischievous group of Christian young people. The movie trailer can be seen here.

Religious “cheating,” like sign-stealing and card-counting, can be another example of creative bending of the rules. The woman in this story was trying to find a short cut to God, by-passing layers of religious laws, traditions and practices, and Jesus’ disciples were trying to enforce the house rules:

Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”  But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.”  He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.”  He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”  Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly. (Matthew 15:21-29)

The Gospel writer tells us in every way possible that this woman was an outsider and not qualified for God’s grace. She was stealing signs and counting cards, rather than following the house rules, established in the Jewish Law. But Jesus understood her, and he rephrased the disciples’ put-down of her in the ironic, tongue-in-cheek words, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” The woman was on his wavelength and responded, “Yes Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” The private joke between them was delightful, but Jesus also saw it as evidence of great faith.

There are many people in our day whose desire to connect with God does not follow traditional channels. They don’t connect with our church rules and regulations, our music, our preaching. We tend to see them as sign-stealers, card-counters or religious “cheaters”, trying to find a shortcut. But what if their unorthodox journey is really a creative bending of the rules that Jesus accepts as great faith?

— Pastor George Van Alstine