And the King shall answer and say unto them, “Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of these my brethren, even these least, ye did it unto me” (Matthew 25:40).
It is a theme which plays out daily in sporting venues across the country. One team gains the victory: its players are jubilant and their fans celebrate. The cameras focus on the pleasant scene. Whether the game was close or a blowout, whether it was played well or poorly, the story is written to describe their great victory. Meanwhile, the other team has lost. They may quickly pay their respects to the winning team and head back to the locker room. Their fans silently file out of the stadium. Their story will not be remembered positively or on its own terms, but only either as a foil to magnify the victory of the winners or as some sort of testament to their failure or ineptitude. These tendencies are only magnified during playoff and championship seasons; the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat are both magnified the closer the teams get to the ultimate championship. The future is kind to the winners: they receive, if nothing else, grudging respect for their accomplishments. History is not kind to the losers: just ask the Chicago Cubs and their fans.
Such winning and losing is not confined to the world of sports. Governments and politics frequently feature winners and losers. A leader may win an election by a lot or a little, but once they have won, they have some room to set the agenda, and the story of the election is written to describe their victory. The one who lost the election recedes in view to some degree, having perhaps even come close to obtaining power, but now the story is written to describe their failings and ultimate failure. The winners get remembered; the losers, again, are either forgotten or remembered as a foil or for their failures. At least in most electoral situations the loser is able to continue to live and pursue success in other ventures: history is full of stories of leaders losing their power by losing their lives. The victors then write the story to elevate their triumph and to justify their behavior. The loser, silent in the grave, loses even greater face: consider Richard III of England.
Winning and losing is a natural part of life “under the sun.” While there may be some circumstances in which it can be said, “a rising tide lifts all boats,” that is, that certain improvements lead to the betterment of everyone, in general, for some to succeed, others must fail. New technologies may provide new opportunities and jobs, yet they will likely replace older technologies and the jobs of those who used them. Globalization has led to the creation of many jobs in foreign nations, allowing them to develop and improve, but has also led to the loss of many jobs in America and other first world nations. At times, the economy grows, job opportunities increase, and many people are able to succeed and prosper; at other times, the economy contracts, job opportunities decline, and many people suffer. Some years bring good crop yields and farmers prosper; other years bring drought and perhaps even famine and farmers go under. A few people are born into a prosperous family and they succeed whether they are competent or not; others are born into far less prosperous circumstances and can never seem to get ahead.
This all seems decidedly unfair, and many people throughout time have attempted to “fix” it. Yet every social experiment to attempt to eliminate such inequality and allow everyone to be equally successful has ended in failure. Reality is far more like the World Cup than pee-wee soccer: there will be winners and there will be losers. Sometimes winners win and losers lose because the former were more talented and executed better than the latter. Sometimes the winners win despite a lack of talent or sloppy execution. Sometimes the losers “deserve” to win or “deserve” to lose. We may not be happy with this situation, but it represents the reality in which we live.
God recognizes this. He has warned us that success is not automatic, and many times those who “should” succeed do not (Ecclesiastes 9:11). Meanwhile, success and victory is not inherently a problem: God has given mankind many good things which they should enjoy, and all should seek to find contentment in their circumstances (Ecclesiastes 8:15, 1 Timothy 4:4, 6:6-8). The big question, however, involves how the “winners” treat the “losers.”
In fact, the best way to understand the character of a person, a team, or even a culture or a nation is how they treat the “losers.” Do they boast over the losers and relish their victory? Do they prove willing to resort to oppression and dishonorable and unethical conduct in order to maintain their advantage over the “losers”? Or do they seek to respect and honor those whom have not been as successful for their endeavors and effort and seek to provide benefits to them?
We do well to remember that God has always sought to make special provision for the “losers” in society. He redeemed Israel while they were lowly and oppressed as slaves in Egypt (Deuteronomy 7:7-10). Under the old covenant He commanded Israel to observe the Jubilee, a restoration of property to its original owners and a remission of debt, so that each generation would be able to make a fresh start if their conditions had deteriorated (cf. Leviticus 25:1-55). The Israelites were not to gather every last bit of crops from their fields and vines, but leave some gleanings for the poor, the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow (cf. Leviticus 19:10, Deuteronomy 24:21).
Yet those in Israel who were successful did not honor God’s intentions to provide for the “losers”. The prophets condemn the Israelites for their oppression of the poor and their corruption of justice (e.g. Isaiah 5:7-8, 20-23, Amos 4:1). For these and other transgressions of His will God cast Israel out of its land so that they all would understand what it was like to be the “loser.”
Throughout His life Jesus identified Himself with the “losers” of society: the poor, the marginalized, even eating with sinners (cf. Matthew 9:11-13). During His gestation His mother proclaimed how God humbled princes and exalted those of low estate, filling the hungry while sending the rich away empty (Luke 1:51-52). He pronounced blessings on those who had “lost”: the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those persecuted for righteousness’ sake, among others (Matthew 5:3-11). His closest followers were not members of the society’s élite but represented a rag-tag group of fishermen, a tax-collector, a political revolutionary, and other “common, unlearned” men (cf. Matthew 4:18-22, 9:9, 10:2-4, Acts 4:13). At the moment of His death it would have been quite easy to consider Jesus as a “loser” and a failure: He stood up to the religious authorities of the day and they seemed to have prevailed through the exercise of the imperial power which they otherwise could not stand. He was dead and His followers dispersed in distress. Perhaps He had saved others, but, so it seemed, He could not save Himself (cf. Matthew 27:41-42).
Yet, on the third day, God raised this Jesus from the dead, and after His ascension, He was given all authority in heaven and on earth (Matthew 28:1-20). Jesus had not failed, nor was He a “loser,” because of His death; instead, through His death and resurrection, He proved successful and victorious over the power of sin and death (Romans 8:1-2). Jesus, who had died, is now Lord and Christ!
Jesus still identifies with the poor, the marginalized, and those who have “lost” in various ways in the game of life. This is why His description of the judgment scene to come in Matthew 25:31-46 should give us pause. We can only gain the victory if we have been of assistance to those who have “lost.” The ones who have fed the hungry, given drink to the thirsty, clothed the naked, and visited those imprisoned or ill obtain eternal life; those who did not do such things go away into perdition. How Jesus describes this situation is especially relevant: He tells those who have done the right that they fed Him when He was hungry, gave Him drink when He was thirsty, clothed Him when He was naked, and visited Him when He was sick or in prison (Matthew 25:34-35). When they want to know when or how they did so, He responds by telling them that as they had done it for the “least of these my brethren,” they did so to Him (Matthew 25:37-40). When you help the “losers,” the poor, oppressed, and/or marginalized, you help Jesus; when you dismiss or abuse them, you dismiss or abuse Jesus.
God has no intention of “penalizing” success: it is good to prosper. But God wants everyone who prospers to remember that because of their prosperity others have likely been less successful and are in a poor condition. Success does not mean that the victorious or successful person is any better or more valuable in the sight of God than the “loser” or unsuccessful person: they are all children of God the Father, and He cares for them all (Luke 6:35, Acts 17:24-28). Instead, success is to be considered as a responsibility or trust: you have been given blessings so that you can provide blessings and benefits to others, to give to those in need (Ephesians 4:28, 1 Timothy 6:17-19). But let none be deceived: God identifies with those who are poor, marginalized, and in distress, the “losers” of society, and He hears their cry (cf. James 5:3-4). It is up to us: will we be gracious winners or sore winners? Will we identify with those with whom God in Christ identifies, and seek to provide assistance to those who have “lost” in various ways in the “game” of life? Let us seek to do good to those who are in need, always remembering that we are all equal in God’s sight and that today’s winner might become tomorrow’s loser, and glorify and honor the God who cares for all mankind!
Ethan R. Longhenry