The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Lottery Fever

According to this morning's news reports, the anticipated payoff from tomorrow's Powerball lottery drawing will approach a staggering $1.4 billion. This could and quite likely will increase as more and more people buy tickets during the final day's feeding frenzy. This payoff is a world record for lotteries and if no winning ticket is drawn the record will only be set higher.

Almost everyone I know has bought a ticket, or a fistful of tickets, in the vain hope that they will beat the astronomical odds that say otherwise. The odds of winning when one buys a single ticket are 292.2 million to 1. These odds do not change with the size of the payoff, but are based solely on the  way Powerball is structured. If, therefore, you are considering buying a ticket, the odds of your winning are about the same as pulling your name out of a gigantic hat holding the names of every American. It's estimated that you are 2,000 times more likely to be killed by a lightning strike than to purchase a winning Powerball ticket. If you are a golfer, your chances of making a hole-in-one are about 20,000 times greater than winning this particular lottery. And so, if you've not been killed by a lightning bolt, or if you've never sunk a hole-in-one, I suggest you consider using your funds more constructively by buying an ice cream cone (with sprinkles, or "jimmies" as we call them in New England) or maybe one of those giant bakery cookies filled with macadamia nuts and chunks of white chocolate. Either of these will bring you more joy than the act of tearing up a losing ticket.

Of course, as you might have deduced, the person offering this advice has never actually bought a lottery ticket. Over the years I've been given a few and surprisingly have won more from these gifts than the gifts cost the givers. Despite the fact that my net "winnings" are rather modest and amount to perhaps $10, one can't deny that I have a track record of beating the odds. And yet, blessed as I am with such obvious good fortune, I have no intention of buying a Powerball ticket before tomorrow's drawing.

My reason for avoiding Powerball, or any other big-time lottery, has less to do with the ridiculous odds than with motives. The other day, as the anticipated payoff rose dramatically, I saw the results of a poll in which people were questioned about their plans should they have the winning ticket. When asked what one would do first, only a tiny minority mentioned charitable giving. The vast majority talked about buying things for themselves and their family -- cars, houses, trips, yachts, airplanes, motorhomes, etc. Several people even mentioned cosmetic surgery. In others words, their motives for playing the lottery were, quite simply, more selfish than altruistic.
300+ feet of what?

When such large amounts of money are involved greed tends to overwhelm other, more charitable motives. One sees this displayed among the super-rich who never seem to have enough. The 10,000 square-foot mansion is just too tiny, so construction soon starts on the 50,000 square-foot super home. A few years ago while on a 5-day cruise in the Western Caribbean, I spotted a yacht owned by an American industrialist. It was huge, over 300 feet long, with its own helicopter deck, and was for sale at an asking price of $125 million. I later discovered the owner was selling it because it was just too small. His other yacht is over 400 feet in length. And, yes, I know that he and others like him have all established charitable foundations which they support with their wealth. And yet that support comes from their surplus wealth and not from their need, not from their poverty. Jesus, of course, addresses this failing in an unmistakable way when He points to the widow who gives a small amount to the Temple treasury, but an amount that represented "all she had, her whole livelihood" [See Mk 12:38-44].

Interestingly, not long ago I came across a study that examined the charitable giving of the super-rich -- what it called the "myth of philanthropy." It concluded that the most wealthy actually gave far less than lower and middle income folks. It would seem that not much has changed since the time of Jesus.

Furthermore, one need only examine the record of past lottery winners to see how greed often ruled their lives leading them to squander their winnings on extravagance. As a result, many have found themselves with nothing after only a few years. When selfish gain and greed are the motives one can expect nothing good to come out of it. How did St. Paul put it?
"Those who want to be rich are falling into temptation and into a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires, which plunge them into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all evils, and some people in their desire for it have strayed from the faith and have pierced themselves with many pains" [1 Tim 6:9-10].
And if you don't like (or need) an ice cream cone or a cookie, why not drop a few extra bucks in the collection basket at church, or perhaps give a small donation to your local soup kitchen. Think of it as a means to experience first-hand the mercy of God. As St. Peter reminds us:
"Above all, let your love for one another be intense, because love covers a multitude of sins" [1 Pet 4:8].
God's peace.

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