Missed largesse

Published November 1, 2000

It’s a gift for the first 50 customers today,” said the person at the drug store checkout to me after I had made a purchase on my way to work last week.

I looked at the piece of paper in my hand and what first struck me was the phrase “5 million dollars.” It was a lottery ticket!

I was so thunderstruck that I just said, “Thank you” and walked on. A lottery ticket as a gift!

For years, in private and at synods, I’ve trashed lotteries, and here I was with a ticket in my hand. I remember 20 years ago, after strong words from me in a charge to synod on the subject, some friends who thought I was seriously overreacting about it all bought some lottery tickets and put my name on them in the hope that I might win. I would then be rich and embarrassed, thus fulfilling both their goals for me.

But of course I didn’t win. The United Church, in one of its annual submissions to the government of Saskatchewan, once pointed out that statistically you have a better chance of being murdered or struck by lightning in that province than of winning the lottery.

But in the five minutes it took to walk from the drug store to the office I suddenly found myself in high fantasy mode. Five million dollars! What couldn’t I do with a wad of money like that!

Standing at the traffic lights I had created for myself the role of major benefactor, bestowing largesse on worthy bodies that would be eternally (well, nearly) grateful.

Normally, I am realistic to the point of being unimaginative, if not downright depressing. And here I was actually planning how to dispose of what I ought to know was a mirage.

However, by the time I got to my office door, reality had once again taken charge. The day of the draw passed without my even bothering to see if I had a winning number. (Someone else to whom I showed the ticket did check and discovered the inevitable truth.)

But for a few moments I had experienced the rush of fantasy and groundless hope that people say accompany lottery tickets, one of the major new social phenomena of the past 30 years.

For those moments I had lost sight of a text which has governed much of my life, the words of the prophet, “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread? (Isaiah 55.2)”

That text has been used in the puritan tradition to inveigh against theatre, movies, even literature (a 19th century moraliser said, “A novel is at best a well-told lie”). But all of those “unrealities” are clearly labelled as such, and deal with the external world.

The fantasy world of the lottery is one that attempts to deceive us about the prospects for our own life, to insert unreality into our vision for our own future.

The words of Isaiah follow an invitation to a life of abundance, an invitation echoed by Jesus’ great words about the purpose of his ministry, “I am come that they may have life, and may have it more abundantly (John 10.10)”.

But the abundance of Isaiah’s and of Jesus’ promise is predicated on “seeking the Lord” and “knowing the Father”, not on lucking in.

So I must apologize in advance to those worthy bodies who will never experience my largesse. The free sample at the drug store is not going to make me rush out and join the line-ups at the lottery stands.

Not religion, but this kind of fantasy, is today’s opiate of the people. Archbishop Michael Peers is Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada.


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