You Can’t Win, You Can’t Lose-Luke 14: 1, 7-14
(November 6, 2022-22nd Sunday after Pentecost)
Remembrance Sunday and Remembrance Day are days when we think of service to others. When we consider the service of those who lost their lives and those who returned diminished from war we see true examplars of service and sacrifice. So much was given, with so little expectation of reward or gain. But, most of the time the sacrifice/reward balance is not so clear. There are many types of service. So many of you here today volunteer for Parkminster and in the wider community. Volunteering involves a dance between on the one hand self-denial and sacrifice and on the other, reward. In most cases of volunteering we give up or offer our time and skills but we get something back—a sense of purpose, fulfillment, connection. Most of us would have a hard time volunteering somewhere if the sacrifice wasn’t met with some reward.
This whole inter-play between sacrifice and reward in the life of faith caused me to struggle with scripture this week. On the surface our faith story seems to be pretty straightforward; God likes humility, humble people make good followers of God, God will reward humble people. Similarly, doing good deeds knowing that you cannot be repaid by others will be rewarded by God. As I dug deeper1 though something about those conclusions bothered me. If you try to be humble because you’re going to be rewarded then you are motivated by self-interest and personal gain, and there is nothing humble about that. If you are inviting people to your banquet who cannot repay you because God will repay you, aren’t you still going to benefit? Where is the virtue in that? Do you see where I am going? Does this make sense?
It all seemed kind of confusing and dissatisfying to me. I was helped through this by a writer who suggested that the words of Jesus seem confusing because of the win-lose mentality that is so prevalent in our society and which most of us have adopted. The mentality that says there have to be winners and losers in life. The thinking goes that if humility is to have any spiritual value then I can’t derive any benefit from humble acts. Humility must be completely self-sacrificing; there can be no personal gain. I must lose something (pride, honour, status) in order for another to gain something. Similarly, if the act of doing good to those who cannot repay me is to have any spiritual value then truly I cannot receive any benefit; there must be a winner and a loser. Applying this paradigm over scripture leaves us with the conclusion that love is for losers—there cannot be any benefit to the giver of love for love to be genuine and real. But that goes against our experience of loving doesn’t it? It seems like an absurd conclusion.
Maybe that was the point of Jesus’ advice, to point a finger at the absurdity of the situation, much like Solomon proposing to sever a child in half in order to settle a custody argument. Maybe Jesus was asking those present to re-evaluate and question their values. What if life could be lived without winners and losers, without shame and
1 William Murdoch, http://wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/LkPentecost12Ord22
loss of face, without the fear and violence of grasping for security and status? What if life in the presence of God takes us beyond the fragmented concepts of winning and losing? What if the same love that prompts me to humble myself so that you can be exalted actually exalts me back? What if the same love that prompts me to open my home and my table to strangers and outcasts actually rewards me back? What if there are no winners and no losers in the kingdom of God?
The way of Jesus, the way of love changes all the rules, throws out all the categories of competition, hierarchy and power—no more winners, no more losers, no more inferior, no more superior, no more success, no more failure, no more judgement. The fruit of love is community in the truest sense of that word, a bringing together of those who have been kept apart, returning to wholeness that which we have divided and fragmented.
In a world of winners and losers this makes no sense. This was made clear to me a few years ago when the writer Christopher Hitchens criticized Mother Teresa. Hitchens has since died, he became known in his later years for his fervent and evangelical approach to atheism. Hitchens had a brilliant mind and a gift for writing but he was a bit of a spiritual illiterate. Mother Teresa was known for often saying that she found God among the poor and dying with whom she worked. Hitchens pounced on this, criticizing her for using the poor and the dying for her own spiritual self-interest, questioning whether her motives were really self-sacrificing and thus pure. The implication seemed to be that the benefits of love could only be accrued by the one receiving the love, not the one doing the loving.
Hitchens misunderstands the nature of faith-based love. We don’t love to deny ourselves, to feel pure and self-righteous, as if being a person of faith was an act of self-aggrandizement disguised as masochism, as if there was some nobility in loss and sacrifice alone. We don’t love out of self-interest either because that approach undermines what it means to love, to give of one’s self. Love offered from a place of faith isn’t about checking off boxes that puts us in God’s good graces. Love offered from a place of faith is done because it connects us to each other and to God; the great mystery that is the very heartbeat of creation. We feel good when we are humble, when we give of ourselves without expectation of return because we experience wholeness, we experience the world as God intends; healed of fragmentation and divisions, whole. We feel good because our world has expanded, we see ourselves and others as part of that beautiful and mysterious whole we call God. In the kingdom of God the rules are different. In the kingdom of God love isn’t a denial of self so much as it is an embracing of others, of God, of life. It’s losing one’s life in order to gain it. Love is forsaking the anxiety and violence of competition, hierarchy and power for the peace of community.
On Remembrance Sunday, in addition to remembering those who gave of themselves in war, we would do well to also remember and live into the way of Jesus so that the sacrifices of war might become a distant memory. To the volunteers here at Parkminster and beyond thank you for all that you do in faith and in love. In our fragmented and
divided world this is the only work that makes sense, for it reveals the hidden wholeness, the kingdom of God in our midst. This is grace, this is good news. Amen.
Rev. Joe Gaspar
You Can’t Win, You Can’t Lose-Luke 14: 1, 7-14