The Limits of Competition

Sunday 21st September 2008
Year A, The Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Parish Eucharist
Matthew 20:1-7

One of the more fascinating controversies over the past quarter of a century has been the role in our national life of the time honoured egg and spoon race, the three legged race and the sack race which once graced our school sports fields in an atmosphere of unembarrassed innocence; but no longer. We might still enjoy parents making fools of themselves but we certainly do not want children to be embarrassed by clumsiness or being last.

Today's Gospel raises fundamental questions about the role of competition. It is, perhaps, a less pointed story in the south of England in 2008 than it was in my childhood in Liverpool before the Dock Labour Scheme, when men literally did queue up for work every morning, not knowing whether they would get any and, perhaps worse, there were no rules governing how they were chosen. In that context it was easier to sympathise with those called to the grape harvest at the 11th hour; it wasn't their fault. But today we tend to side with those who bear the heat of the day because we probably identify with them, characterising ourselves, in the insidious words of the politicians, as: "honest, hard working families" thereby casting aspersions on those who are chosen late, or not at all.

Yet so much of how we live gains from collaboration and mutual respect rather than from competition; it is not just that "what goes around comes around", that if we are decent to people we have a reasonable expectation that they will be decent in return; in any case the motive for generosity should never be the expectation of reciprocity. But our experience is surely that to be constructive and to try hard do not damage the prospects of others; just because you are a better rose grower than me - and everybody is - makes no difference to the pleasantness of my garden. There are cases where there is only one job for five applicants and one gold medal at the end of a race but most of life is not like that and we should be wary of introducing competitiveness into inappropriate, or even harmful, areas

Now let us take the case of the job or the medal. In the case of the job, the applicants all put their CVs together, wear their best clothes and do their best to negotiate questions which, hopefully, are designed to unfold rather than entrap. One is chosen, the best one for the job, but this does not and should not mean that he considers himself to be better in general terms than the others: a better citizen, a better all-round human being, a better father or a better Christian; what superiority he has in the eyes of the employer is specific, not general.

In the case of the race where there is only one winner, the same kind of logic applies: the superiority of the athlete over her competitors says something about skill and stamina but not about worth; and in this case, at least until recently, there was also the argument that athletes did what they did for its own worth, for fun, for self esteem and that these depended upon the integrity of the effort rather than the ranking of the result; it was taking part that counted; but not now; winning is all.

We must be careful of transferring a value from a right place to a wrong place. There is a legitimate sphere for competition where there is no alternative; but competition is not a good thing in itself, nor is it suitable for areas of activity where the zero sum game does not apply or where collaboration is better. In the first case, there are countless examples of situations where your gain is not my loss, where the element of competition is simply a form of envy. In the second case, we all recognise that the whole can be more than the sum of the parts. And if we must have competition then it needs to operate in an environment of equal concern and respect, where we recognise the achievement of winners but do not degrade nor belittle losers, particularly those who have tried their best; we are not all equally clever or athletic but this should not be equated with a value judgment.

At root, the problem of the school sports day is that well meaning people want a desirable end but have chosen the wrong means. The aim is to stop the loss of self esteem suffered by losers; but the fault here is the collective and individual attitude to competition, not the competition itself. We were made to compete; it is an intrinsic part of our nature: it brings out the best in us and the worst in us; but we will not be better people and there will not be less suffering if we abolish sports days; we will simply have dealt with a symptom and not dealt with the root problem which is the confusion between effectiveness and worth; stopping an occasion on which some parents or children might behave badly will not somehow make them behave better.

Bui the Gospel is about much more than this. It is about the unlimited reality of divine love which is never to be confused with our limited capacity for human love. The simple message of the vineyard is that it does not matter when we turn up, when we see the light, when we recognise the Creator, when we learn to depend on our Redeemer, when we listen to the Spirit, our efforts, no matter how puny, will be honoured. God's love is not reciprocal, it does not depend on what we put in, it cannot be measured in hours or pounds, it cannot be estimated, compared, contrasted, doled out, withheld or debarred; it is unlimited and gratuitous for, to give it its technical word, it is grace; it is gracious, it is graceful, it is gratis.

For the past 500 years there has been a vigorous debate in Christianity about the relationship between Divine Grace and our behaviour: some extreme Protestants have argued that divine love is so gratuitous and unconditional that human love is not relevant to salvation; and some at the other extreme have argued that we can only achieve the ultimate goal of divine love through our actions. This is a false dichotomy: the essence of Christianity is that we were created to choose to love and that the divine love, the Divine Grace, enables us to do this; it is not a reward but a necessary precondition. There is no contradiction but a complementarity between the receipt of divine love and the practice of human love.

So if you are lucky enough to attend a traditional school sports day, remember that although we are all in receipt of divine love it is unfulfilled in us unless it generates human love, so by all means admire the winner, but love and value the loser as well.