Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Why Not Play the Lottery?

Maybe the more important question is why play the lottery? The answer seems to be obvious: to win. Why do you want to win? To get money, to pay off debt, to do things I want to do or have things I want to have or go places I want to go. In essence, to HAVE what I do not HAVE.

And there is the rub.

When we approach life through the lens of faith in Christ, we claim the scripture that says, “All good and perfect gifts come from above, coming down from the Father of Lights with whom there is no shadow of turning.” We embrace the Bible as the Word of God – including the part that says, “Do not covet your neighbors….” Whatever. And the crux of our reason for playing the lottery is just that: We covet that which we do not have.

It’s very tempting to think of all the good we could do – we could give away 90% and live richly on only a small portion of the winnings. But let’s be real, at least with ourselves. We want to play because we want more stuff.

It's easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle than a rich man to enter heaven. Regardless of what urban legend you embrace that explains this proverb, the meaning is clear: Having great wealth makes it more difficult to follow God, not easier.

The news just reported that Americans are buying lottery tickets at a rate of $13,000 per second. Shortly before that they reported that, at least in North Carolina, the counties with the highest participation in the lottery are also among the ones with the highest numbers of citizens living below the poverty line. Coincidence?

According to Journalists Resource ( ), the people most likely to play the lottery are those with the most to gain and the least resources to invest. Sadly, they are also likely to lack the education to understand the odds of them winning make this a very poor investment indeed. In fact, they are more likely to be struck by lightning or eaten by a shark than to win $1.5 Billion.

So if the poorest people are the most likely to play and their odds of winning are so low, why have a lottery? Isn't it taking advantage of their lack of strong math skills? The answer is simple: While those who play are unlikely to win big, there are plenty of people who are winning big. The administrators, officials, advertisers, even the retail outlets that sell them. But what about schools? Aren’t they winning big? Not as much as you think. In reality, even according to lottery officials, the amount given to education is a drop in the bucket of the total education budget.

The lottery is a tool for wealth redistribution – in reverse. It takes money from those least likely to have it to spare, and gives it to others. It’s a tax on those who are bad at math. A system that takes advantage of desperate people longing for the hope they attach to financial wealth, who don’t realize they are being exploited, by those who profit from their desperation.

As a Christian, we are called to look after the widow and orphan – to help the least of these. Not to take advantage and profit off of them. By buying a ticket, I would be contributing to the jackpot…and increasing the temptation for the least of these to gamble their last $2 on the vain hope that this time they will be the big winner. If I won, the vast majority of the dollars I received would come from people struggling financially far more than I do. Just because they gave up those dollars willingly, is this really different than me taking whatever cash I can get from the homeless man on the corner? Is this different than those who send an elderly person an email claiming to be an African prince who will send them millions if they only provide the account information to deposit it into? Just because it has the government backing it, retailers selling it, advertisers hawking it – it doesn’t mean that it is right.

Suddenly, it doesn’t seem so much like “playing,” does it?