Since the Powerball jackpot soared from $40 million to tonight’s estimated $1.4 billion, even Canadians have queued up for the chance at the largest lottery prize in US history. They’ve bought tickets at convenience stores across the border or through Internet courier services like theLotter.com (which last month helped a man living in Iraq win $6.4 million in an Oregon lottery). By the look of headlines here in Toronto, the fever of rags-to-riches hope has spread north.
But count me out. Aside from the moral and statistical concerns with the lottery (not to mention “horror stories” of lottery winners), there is another reason I won’t be playing Powerball: I want to be no richer than I already am.
According to income guidelines for the middle class, our family—scandalously—is not. Sure, like other parents, we wring our hands about college tuition. And no, my husband and I and our five children do not board planes for exotic destinations. Nevertheless, we earn far above the American median income of $53,657—a fact about which I often feel penitent.
America, too, seems conflicted over its own riches. We lament materialism and waste—and buy an estimated 400 million Powerball tickets. We cast moral suspicion on the filthy rich—and consider electing a president whose primary qualification is not political experience but personal fortune. Explicitly, we caution against the perils of economic privilege—and yet clamor for more.
This cultural doublespeak regarding money belies what Jesus called the “deceitfulness of riches” (Mk. 4:19). Money, given the chance at mastery, operates according to the proverbial speck-and-plank rule. Greed is never a sin of which we find ourselves guilty. It is happiest when pointing the finger. It is always the problem of the other.
Jesus does not equivocate about money. He upholds the serious and sobering responsibility of financial stewardship. He exposes the inanity of accumulation. Jesus rebukes one man whose great wealth inspires no greater ambition than building bigger barns. He calls another man to inventory his possessions, sell them all, and follow him. You cannot serve both God and money, he insists with his followers. It is better to give than to receive, he reminds.
But despite his intolerance for greed, Jesus avoids overly facile conclusions about the virtue of poverty and the vice of wealth. He doesn’t condemn the money-makers but the money-grubbers. While it is impossible to imagine him encouraging the disciples to stand in line for Powerball tickets, Jesus doesn’t incriminate the rich simply for being rich. He doesn’t make income—but patterns of spending—the barometer of spiritual health (cf. Matt. 6:21). And this moral nuance should inspire his church to host a more robust and faithful conversation about power and privilege, one which invites poor and rich alike to find their place at his table.
The God of the Bible resists formulaic economic assumptions. On the one hand, he is, as one would expect of a God who calls himself just, the defender of the poor. In Israel’s festal practices and Jubilee observance, he commands redistribution. Moreover, when he assumed human flesh, he entered the margins of society. He became poor. To love him is necessarily to love the least. Unrestrained consumption, which amounts to practical indifference to the naked and hungry, the prisoner and the refugee, is inimical to Christianity.
At the same time, the God of the poor is also the God of the extravagant, aesthetic gesture. In the Old Testament, his infinitely varied and variegated creation defend what writer Annie Dillard has called his love of “pizzazz.” The Tabernacle and Temple, like creation, are not minimalist endeavors: God’s home is decorated lavishly, and worship has an undeniable element of pageantry. In the New Testament, when Judas faults a woman for spilled perfume that might have been sold and proceeds donated to the poor, Jesus defends her: “Leave her alone. She has done a beautiful thing to me,” (Mark 14:6). According to these examples, the God of the Bible is no grim communist, who paints in gray.
The Bible, studied seriously and preaching faithfully, can never be twisted to defend greed. It will always inspire material pause, especially when the Powerball jackpot grows: “The one greedy for gain curses and renounces the LORD,” warns the Psalmist (10:3). But if the Bible exposes the seduction of money (and the disordered desires of the human heart), it does not immediately criminalize wealth. For those making more money than intended or desired, they do not need unnecessary guilt. Instead, they require wisdom for stewarding power and privilege for the common good and God’s glory.
The rich will indeed find it more difficult to enter the kingdom of God. But as I’m consoled to learn, the investment banker, the neurosurgeon, the CEO—even the lottery winner—are nonetheless welcomed (Mark 10:17-27).