Last night, the story on the national news was about the $636,000,000 Mega Millions Dollar Jackpot and all the last minute tickets that were being purchased. The reporter said that if there was one winner and they took the cash option they would receive $341,000,000. He went on to state that if the winner kept 80% of that prize money and divided the other 20% among three charities there was a lot of good that could be done. The first charity he mentioned was the Salvation Army. A representative from that charity said that they could help about 150,000 families with their 1/3 of that 20%. The second charity mentioned was Habitat for Humanity and they said they could build about 25,000 homes around the world with their third of that money. Honestly, I don’t remember the last charity mentioned. I started thinking about the fact that the first two charities were founded by people whose purpose was to follow the example of our Lord Jesus. In this season when we celebrate his birth, I thought it would have been nice for the news reporter to mention that fact. But, of course, I am a little biased. For all that is wrong with the church, there are still some things that we get right. The Salvation Army and Habitat are but two of the ministries rooted in the Christian faith that remind us where our attention and focus should be. I was glad that they were highlighted on the national news even if their origins weren’t mentioned.
The more I thought about it, however, the more frustrated I got with the way this story was reported; the Mega Million winner giving a “generous” 20% to these charities. The story could have been approached much differently. If all the people buying tickets, hoping against the astronomical odds of getting rich, had decided instead to give their dollars to these charities there would be a whole lot more good that could be done for people. More than one billion dollars’ worth of tickets were sold to create this jackpot of $636 million. So a report could have been about what these three charities could have done with 1/3 of a billion dollars instead of 1/3 of 20% of $341 million dollars. So the story was about what one person “might” do with an abundance, instead of focusing on what we all “could” do with what we already have.
The stories in the news today are about the two winning tickets for this Mega Million jackpot and the happiness of the store owners who sold those tickets. For selling the winning tickets, the store owners get a large lump of money too. Maybe these “winners” will be generous in sharing their winnings with the charities that were mentioned. Maybe they won’t. To be truthful, I think these lotteries and the “feel good stories” that come out of them are a very sad commentary on our culture and the priorities that have taken hold of us.
I know that people will argue that the funds raised with the lottery support education. But the truth is much more complex. This was the way lotteries were “sold” to people. We were told the money made from the lottery would supplement education and make our public education system stronger. Nothing wrong with that goal. And with billions and billions of dollars raised over the past few decades through lotteries you would think that our public education system would be the best in the world. Why then are there still so many public school systems struggling and having to make cut backs, struggling to make budget? According to a March 2012 Washington Post story:
Because instead of using the money as additional funding, legislatures have used the lottery money to pay for the education budget and spent the money that would have been used had there been no lottery cash on other things. Public school budgets as a result, haven’t gotten a boost because of the lottery funding. . . . . As one state education official said, “That’s been a slow and insidious movement that’s been going on for a few years now.” (“Mega Millions: Do Lotteries really benefit Public Schools”, Valerie Strauss)
So our children are sold two lies with the lottery. First, the lie that the money is going to be used to make our education system better. And second, the lie inherent in the lottery itself, that buying tickets at the chance of getting rich is a good way to use their resources. Hard work, education and wise decisions aren’t really important in this life. All you need is just pure dumb luck.
In just a few days, we will be celebrating the birth of our Lord Jesus. Whatever else we might believe about Jesus, as Christians we do believe that he came as a word of Truth spoken to our world. Those of us who chose to invest our life by following him are to be people who, likewise, speak a word of Truth to our world. Though we have all at some point bought into the Lies that are part of our world, it is imperative that we continue to strive toward the speaking of Truth. Our culture’s obsession with wealth, made so clear by the billions of lottery tickets sold for the mere chance at getting rich, is one of the most profound Lies we have believed. All the hypothetical questions about “What would you do if you won the lottery” keep us from the real question of “What are we already doing with what we have.” Because the truth is, all of us working together, have more than enough to make this a more just and equitable world.