(Jonah 3:10-4:11; Psalm145:1-8; Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16)
I first heard the term “zero-sum game” in my Systematic Theology course while I was attending divinity school. I wasn’t familiar with the term, but the content of the professor’s lecture made it clear what it meant. In case you aren’t familiar with the term, I’ll give you a few definitions.
- From the Merriam-Webster Dictionary: a situation in which one person or group can win something only by causing another person or group to lose it. Dividing up the budget is a zero-sum game.
- From the Business Dictionary: a situation in which one person’s or group’s gain equals the loss of another person or group. Thus, a gain for one must result in a loss for another.
- From Wikipedia: a mathematical representation of a situation in which each participant’s gain or loss is exactly balanced by the losses or gains of the other participants. If the total gains of the participants are added up and the total losses are subtracted, they will sum to zero. Thus, cutting a cake, where taking a larger piece reduces the amount of cake available for others, is a zero-sum game if all participants value each unit of cake equally.
The zero-sum game is usually how the world works. Things have to balance. If you’ve harmed someone, you have to apologize to even the scales. If you’ve done something wrong, you have to receive a punishment to even the scales. If you need or want something, you have to pay for it when you receive it to even the scales. In school, you get the grade you deserve. At work, you receive the raise you’ve earned.
Another way to understand it is to think of the world as a giant cake. There’s only so much cake to get distributed among all of us. If we get more, then there’s less for others. If others get more, then there’s less for us. This is how much cake there is – no less or no more – so get what you can while you can!
As you can see, a zero-sum game is a “strictly competitive game.” In a zero-sum game, there are winners and losers. There is no way for everyone to win.
God’s economy, however, is not like the world’s economy. The scales don’t have to balance and there’s always more cake, because God don’t play no zero-sum game! God has invited us to His party and at God’s party there are no zero-sum games. We’re not required to bring anything to the party and there’s always enough cake. The mere fact that we are at the party is enough for God. All we have to do is show up.
The scripture passage from the Gospel According to Matthew today illustrates this truth clearly. Those who worked all day in the scorching heat were paid the same amount as were those who worked only part of the day. All of the laborers got paid the same amount, regardless of whether they worked 12 hours or 9 hours or 6 hours or 3 hours or even 1 hour. And the landowner didn’t try to hide the fact that he was paying all the laborers the same amount. Instead, he blatantly paid those who had come last first, right in front of those who had come first. As the first laborers stood by, watching the landowner overpay the last laborers, they were thinking that if those who had come last were paid the daily wage, then those who had come first – that is, them – would probably be paid double the daily wage! But, instead, they, too, got the daily wage. Needless to say, they weren’t happy about this!
Well, of course, they complained! What the landowner did wasn’t fair. The scales didn’t balance. The cake wasn’t divided justly. The laborers were trained to think and feel according to the world’s economy, which is a zero-sum game. But, in this case, they were confronted with God’s economy, which is NOT a zero-sum game. They didn’t understand what they were witnessing, because it’s not what they were used to. The landowner had to help them understand. He pointed out that they had been paid the wage agreed upon. Nothing was being taken from them. They were losing nothing. The fact that there were those who were getting more than they had earned didn’t affect the grumbling laborers in the least. The landowner could do what he wanted with what was his. He could treat the last to come as well as the first to come.
It’s a novel concept, the concept of grace, which is the “free and unmerited favor of God.” Frederick Buechner defined God’s grace this way: “There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do.” Huh? But, don’t I have to . . . No. Are you sure I don’t have to . . . No. But, I keep feeling like I have to . . . No. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do. Except, that is, receive the grace being given. Just receive. That’s all you have to do. Take the gift, unwrap it, and enjoy it. My Systematic Theology professor interpreted God’s grace this way: “You’ve been forgiven. Now, go get a life!”
Of course, when we receive God’s grace, we love it! We’re relieved, comforted, maybe even overjoyed. But, when others receive God’s grace, we don’t always love it. We fall back into the world’s way of thinking and being, which is a zero-sum game. “You only worked one hour and got paid as much as I did? Unfair! You don’t deserve that pay! You robbed a bank, did drugs, and abandoned your family and God forgave you just like He forgave me, even though I worked diligently, didn’t even try drugs, and have faithfully stood by my family? Unfair! You don’t deserve God’s forgiveness!”
We want the scales to balance and everyone to receive the same size slice of cake. If the scales don’t balance and the cake slices aren’t equal, we feel unsettled, resentful, maybe, even, angry. But the kingdom of heaven is like the landowner: The last to arrive receive the same amount as the first to arrive. Nobody loses, everybody wins, and some get more than they earned and more than they deserve . . . because God don’t play no zero-sum game.
A sign that we are growing in faith is when we can rejoice that the last and the least receive as much as the first and the most. And an even greater sign that we are growing in faith is when we contribute to making sure the last and the least receive as much as the first and the most. We bring a cup of water to the thirsty. We bring a plate of food to the hungry. We bring a coat to the cold. We provide refuge for the homeless. We welcome the stranger. We forgive the sinner. And so on. When we can give graciously, as God gives, then we are participating in God’s economy even in the midst of the world’s economy; we are creating an experience of the kingdom of God in midst of the kingdom of the world. We are doing holy work.
“There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea. There’s a kindness in God’s justice, which is more than liberty. There is no place where earth’s sorrows are more felt than up in heaven. There is no place where earth’s failings have such kindly judgment given.
For the love of God is broader than the measures of the mind. And the heart of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind. If our love were but more faithful, we would gladly trust God’s Word, and our lives reflect thanksgiving for the goodness of our Lord.”
O, thank you, God of Grace; thank you. Amen.
Sermon preached by the Rev. Amy Johnson, Canton Community Baptist Church, Canton, CT, Sunday, September 24, 2017, the Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost.
 Google dictionary.
 Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993, 38.