Picking Winners and Losers


                The slogan de jour in the defense of right wing ideology is “it’s wrong for government to pick winners and losers.” This has been employed to decry affirmative action in hiring or scholarships and government investment in green energy, for instance.

                But does it mean anything?

                We can assume that it means that the market system is the only good mechanism for picking winners and losers. If you win in the market, you automatically deserve it; and if you lose, you deserve that too.

                This logic would also presume that any investment in anything that is thought to be good for society as a whole is wrongheaded, since any investment benefits someone, and any investment by government is ipso facto outside the market system.

                Certainly someone could legitimately wonder if investing in sewers or improved roads in one part of town is picking that neighborhood to be a winner and the neighborhood not so favored as a loser.

                Could it be that this mantra of “winners and losers” as well as “class warfare” are, ultimately the kinds of things one would resort to if they thought they were not being picked. If you are among the ones who believe you and your kind should always be the favored ones, then when you are not cashing in you would have to find someone to blame for picking the wrong winners and losers.  It may not mean much, but it’s the kind of truthy sounding thing that muddles up people’s minds just enough that they might well side with you, even against their own interests.

                There is something very biblical in all of this. In my reading of the Bible the number one sin has nothing to do with sex. It is envy.

                Before Cain kills Abel, he envies him. Envy divides Sarah and Hagar, Jacob and Esau, and Joseph from his brothers. Ironically David, who has everything, envies Uriah for his beautiful wife, and so has him conveniently killed. Later, Jezebel helps Ahab grab a vineyard from Naboth because she thinks it unfair that her royal husband doesn’t have every piece of prime property he wants.

Jesus tells a parable about the same envy at work in the heart of the brother of the prodigal son. Jesus tells this because he knows it is the sin of envy run amok that will put him on the cross. This is because all envy flows from the well of unbelief—a lack of trust in the infinite grace of God.

                When the prodigal sons of today are welcomed home, there is a loud, vast chorus of complaint from those who would blame the father for being unfair, engaging in class warfare and picking winners and losers.

And they would also insist it is time to take our country back—all the way back to the stone age, when the market was pure, all the winners were virtuous, and all the losers had the decency to keep quiet, get out of the way and just die.

About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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