Zero-Sum (Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost)

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Back in the mid 1940s, a mathematician and an economist wrote a book entitled, “The Theory of Games and Economic Behavior.”  And in that book, they introduced the term “zero-sum” game.  A zero-sum game is a game in which the gains of one player are exactly offset by the loss of another player.  That is, if I win, you lose.  And if you win, I lose.  The sum of wins and losses total zero.

And of course, of lot of games are “zero-sum”.  Often, for one person to win, the other person has to lose.  If one person wins money, another has to lose money.  And if one team benefits from something, another team is penalized for that thing.

And with that book, the term “zero-sum” was introduced into common vocabulary, and it was applied not only to games and economics, but to other areas of life. For indeed, there are a lot of things in life that are, or at least can be, “zero-sum.”

It’s true that if two people are competing for a job, one will get the job and the other won’t.  If you have an hour to do two things that take an hour, one job will get done and the other won’t.  And as we get ready to vote soon, we know that in for each position, one candidate will win and the other will lose.

Life, in some cases, is zero-sum.  But it isn’t always like that.  There are indeed situations in which more than one person can win (the so-called win-win situation).  There are situations in which both parties end up losing (some of us are old enough to remember the nuclear age concept of “mutually assured destruction”).  And there are situations – especially situations involving important relationships – which can be damaged beyond repair simply by thinking about them in the transactional terms of who’s winning or losing.

One of the problems our society faces is that we often reactively approach all situations as “zero-sum” situations.  We often have a bias to think that for one of us to win, somebody else has to lose.  And sometimes that can be really harmful.

But while the term “zero-sum” is relatively new, the idea is as ancient as people.  Zero-sum thinking is why:

  • Jonah is all bent out of shape in today’s first reading – Jonah had been shown immense mercy and forgiveness by God; now, it just seemed to Jonah that somebody else (preferably the people of Nineveh whom he hated), should be on the receiving end of God’s wrath; Jonah won, so Nineveh should lose…
  • The workers in Jesus’ parable are all upset with the landowner – after all, everybody, including the earliest workers, got what they were promised; they didn’t lose a cent of their salary; but somehow, if the latecomers also “won”, then it must mean that the early-birds had “lost”; that’s the just the way things are “supposed” to work…

Now like many parables, Jesus says something startling to make a point.  And what’s startling, of course, is that this would never work in real, human life. The next day, nobody would show up to work until the last hour.  That’s just how things work with people.

And that’s why Jesus uses this startling image to show us that this is NOT how things work with God.  God does NOT think in zero-sum terms about us.  And while the folks Jesus was speaking to should have known this at least since the story of Jonah, Jesus told this parable to call them, and to call us, to:

  • Remember that God’s love, mercy and forgiveness are NOT “zero-sum” things – God’s love and forgiveness for me does not in any way diminish God’s love and forgiveness towards you, or the other way around; and while that’s easy to say, it’s often hard to keep that reality in our hearts and minds when we encounter other people who don’t seem to “deserve” it (as Jonah and the early workers did…)
  • Make an effort to reflect God’s love and mercy in our own actions by living in ways that are not “zero-sum” with others; often, that means resisting the common idea that to love or care for one group, another group has to be denigrated.  That is, I can care about Black Lives and still care about Blue Lives (one doesn’t have to “lose” for the other to “win”); I can advocate for other people’s rights, without feeling threatened that I have to give mine up (that’s not the way it’s supposed to work anyway); more often than not, the way we live together does NOT have to be zero-sum…
  • Resist the temptation to relate to other people in transactional terms – that is, how can I win against this person or how can my group beat the other group?  A couple of weeks ago, we remembered the terrorist attacks on Sept 11, 2001.  For those of us who remember that day vividly, it all seemed like yesterday.  But among the many pictures and thoughts that were expressed on social media, one that stood out for me was one that said, “As bad as Sept 11 was, I wish today we could be more like the people we were on Sept 12.”  I remember those days, too, when every member of Congress, conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats, all joined hands and stood on the steps of the Capitol and sang “God Bless America.”  It was a moment that everybody in the country felt like we were all in this together, and nobody was going to get left behind.  That’s what it feels like when we’re not living in “zero-sum” society …

Of course, there will always be parts of life that are zero-sum.  And if we’re just playing a game, sometimes that can be fun and interesting. 

But because it’s so tempting to revert to zero-sum ways of thinking and living, Jesus wants us to always remember that God does not work that way with us.  Jesus calls us to reflect that reality in the ways we live and relate to others.  And Jesus calls us to look for and live in ways that don’t require somebody to lose for another to win.