On May 7, Bill McGee wrote in a USA Today article about the crashed Aeroflot plane that killed 41 of the passengers onboard: “Reports from people on the plane indicate the evacuation may have been slowed by passengers grabbing their bags. Videos show passengers taking their carry-on bags with them as they exited the plane,” the AFA said in a statement. “We will never know if more lives could have been saved if the bags were left behind” (online edition, “Were lives lost at the cost of carry-ons in Aeroflot plane crash that killed 41?”). It’s outrageous and unbelievable that people would care more for their luggage than human lives, but that appears to be the case.
In Luke 12:15, Jesus taught, “Take heed and beware of covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses.” The NASB translates the first part of the verse, saying, “Beware, and be on your guard against every form of greed….” Watching video footage of those passengers making an emergency exit with carry-ons in hand is a rather graphic, unmistakeable illustration of Jesus’ point. Unfortunately, we can have a harder time seeing ourselves doing the same thing in the prioritization of our lives. We may be aghast at the thought that their seemingly greedy decision came at the expense of some people behind them being able to escape the flames, but Scripture teaches the devastating effect greed can have on our own lives and the lives of those we influence.
Paul teaches that such can be a “snare,” “harmful desires,” plunging men into “ruin and destruction” that pierces them “with many griefs” (1 Tim. 6:9-10). It’s interesting that Paul’s inspired counsel is to “flee from these things” (11). We should consider that an inordinate desire and pursuit of material things may hurt not only ourselves, but the people that come along behind us. That includes our children, grandchildren, and the other people who are guided by our influence and example. They are watching what we value most and what has our greatest attention and affection. We may not be caught on camera, but God sees it with perfect, all-seeing eyes.
Let’s be careful not to allow this world to cloud our judgment, making the things of this world more important than souls or the will of the Lord. The stakes are higher than whether we exit an airplane alive. It’s about how we leave this world and enter the next one.
Today, we are finding out that three winning lottery tickets were sold in the record-setting Powerball jackpot, one in California, one in Florida, and one in Tennessee. Each ticket is worth $528.8 million dollars. That’s an attention-getting number. Here are a few more. $70.1 billion dollars, the amount Americans spend on lottery tickets every year (more than Americans spend on sports tickets, books, video games, movies, and music combined). $755. That’s the average per-capita spend on lottery tickets in South Dakota. $800. That’s the per-capita spend in Rhode Island, who holds the ignominious distinction of leading the nation in this category. $230. That’s the per-capita average spend of every man, woman, and child in the 43 states where the lottery is played. One-third and one-half. The poorest third of households buy half of all lottery tickets (statistics via theatlantic.com, Derek Thompson, “Lotteries: America’s $70 Billion Shame”).
Newscasters often report on these jackpots and encourage viewers to “check the numbers.” Lottery commercials often vie with beer commercials as some of the more humorous, clever ones to be seen. In the media and public venues, lottery ticket purchasing is usually portrayed as a harmless, even exciting, diversion. Perhaps many have failed to look more closely at what these other numbers mean for a person’s ethics and morality.
John A. Hobson, in the January 1905 edition of International Journal of Ethics, examined “The Ethics Of Gambling.” In an examination of gambling, including lottery contests, Hobson observes:
Gambling involves the denial of all system in the appointment
of property: it plunges the mind in a world of anarchy where
things come upon one, and pass from one miraculously. It does
not so manifestly sin against the canons of justice as do other
bad modes of transfer, theft, fraud, sweating (sic.), for every one
is said to have an equal chance; but it inflicts a graver damage
on the intellect. Based as it is on an organised rejection of all
reason as a factor, it removes its devotees into a positive atmosphere
of miracles, and generates an emotional excitement that inhibits
those checks which reason more or less contrives to place upon
emotional extravagances. The essence of gambling consists in
an abandonment of reason, an inhibition of the factors of human
control (Vol. 15, No. 2, 138).
Hobson was looking at the underlying psyche of those so eager to gain as much as possible while exerting as little effort as possible. But he decries more than laziness. He puts his finger on the most dangerous aspect of things like playing the lottery—the Bible calls it “covetousness.” It is an irrational, often compulsive, attempt to obtain wealth.
The BDAG lexicon defines the covetous person as “one who desires to have more than is due, a greedy person, whose ways are judged to be extremely sinful by Christians and many others. In Hellenic society this was a violation of the basic principle of proportion and contrary to the idea of beneficent concern for the citizenry” (Arndt, William, Frederick W. Danker, and Walter Bauer. A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature 2000 : n. pag. Print.). Greed is not confined to practices like playing the lottery, but it is legitimate for one to ask what motivates their play?
What is clear is what Scripture says about covetousness: it prevents one’s inheriting the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:10), it is idolatry which again prevents inheriting this kingdom (Eph. 5:5), it is a failure to love one’s neighbor (Rom. 13:9), and it is a defilement of the heart (Mark 7:22). Let’s make sure that greed and covetousness do not “have our number.”
One of the most recent lottery winners, Jesus Davila, Jr., has an interesting backstory. He once spent 12 years behind bars for the manufacturing and selling of cocaine, a felony. This week, he claimed $127 million after taxes. Sounds like a rags to riches kind of story, doesn’t it? It is interesting, and not a little sad, to read about some past winners of the lottery:
- Ibi Roncaioli was murdered by her husband after giving $2 million of her $5 million dollar prize to a secret child she’d had with another man (businessinsider.com).
- Evelyn Adams won twice, in 1985 and 1986, winning a total of $5.4 million. She gambled it away in Atlantic City and lives in a trailer park today (ibid.).
- Willie Hurt won $3.1 million in 1989, but spent it all on a horrible crack addiction, divorced his wife, lost custody of his children, and was charged with attempted murder (ibid.).
- Victoria Zell won $11 million in 2001, but went to prison convicted of a drug and alcohol-induced car collision that killed one and paralyzed another (theatlantic.com).
- Abraham Shakespeare won $31 million in 2006. He disappeared in 2009, after having spent most of his fortune. He was found under a concrete slab in 2010, a woman accused of fleecing him for nearly $2 million charged with his murder (ibid.).
- Jack Whittaker, already wealthy when he won $314 million in 2002, suffered too many calamities to mention here, but they include the death of his granddaughter and daughter and being sued for writing bounced checks to casinos. He was quoted as saying, “I wish I’d torn that ticket up” (ibid.).
- Bud Post won $16.2 million, but squandered it. His brother was arrested for hiring a hit man to try and kill him. He died of respiratory failure in 2006, living on $450 a month and food stamps. He once said, “I wish it never happened. It was totally a nightmare” (cleveland.com).
- Jeffrey Dampier won $20 million in 1996. In 2005, he was kidnapped, robbed and murdered by his sister-in-law and her boyfriend (ibid.).
To say there are mountains of additional, equally pitiful stories is to understate the matter. Certainly, not every one who wins the lottery winds up on skid row or in the morgue because of it. Yet, neither is it the panacea one might believe it to be. How many others, who can ill afford to play, squander money on a regular basis in the hopes of striking it rich? The overwhelming majority will never achieve that, but even many that do wind up worse than before they won.
In the ever-elusive search for happiness and satisfaction, mankind will come up empty when looking to material things for the answer. Jesus taught that it’s a hollow pursuit (Mat. 6:19). Paul says not “to fix their hope on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy” (1 Tim. 6:17). Jesus warned that your life does not consist of your possessions, even if you have an abundance of them (Lk. 12:15). The good news is that there is a true treasure, one that never disappoints, that never depletes, and will never go away. Peter calls it “an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you…” (1 Pet. 1:4). Strive to “win” that!