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Friday, January 7, 2011

The Parable of the Lottery Winner

Well, it's done. Jim McCullar, age 68, and the winner of one half of the $380 million Mega Millions jackpot stepped in front of television cameras, with his wife of 41 years, Carolyn, by his side, and told their tale of lottery luck. After weeks of office-place lottery pools, fueled by "Take This Job and Shove It" fantasies, the winner is a man who lives a quiet life in Small Town USA, a heart attack survivor who delivers turkeys to families having a hard time! What gives???

Look, I hate to profile, but this story is so common in the annals of lottery winners that it's almost cliche: lottery winners are people of modest means. There's the mother of 3 who works 4 jobs and living in a tiny apartment who hits the jackpot; or the man who escaped from Vietnam with his family who would live the lottery fairytale along with his co-workers in a meatpacking plant in Lincoln, Nebraska.

You get a sense that these lottery winners are somehow predestined, that they paid into the karma pool and came out with a winning ticket! I think that these stories of lottery winners are such feel-good stories because they fulfill our desire for justice in this world. That the "have-nots" will become the "haves"; that those who are hungry and desperate will find relief. This is a swift justice, not that far-off stuff we talk about in church.

There's a thunderous Gospel tune, the first line of which is, "He may not come when you want him, but he's right on time." The "he" refers to Jesus, and this line taps into a central human experience, that of people who have weathered hard times and may have sometimes felt as if their prayers and pleading to God had not been heard, only to have felt God's intervention in the nick of time. The lottery stories have become the modern equivalent of a parable in the lives of both the winners and the ever-faithful who hope one day to "hit the number." The belief is not just that the money will make right all that is wrong in their lives, but that the winning of that money is really God showing mercy, and exercising justice. The meek inherit the earth with one giant cardboard check!

But like any parable, there is the "turn". After the uplifting stories of those who have hit the lottery, there are  countless tales of those for whom their mega millions have become their personal nightmare. One man was murdered after winning $31 million, another man was the intended victim of a murder-for-hire scheme, and the crop of newly-bankrupted former lottery winners grows every year.  Just this past summer, HBO premiered its documentary, "Lucky", that followed the lives of several lottery winners. Some lost their great fortunes through bad investments, others retained their fortunes but lost friendships. They all, though, found something more profound - they found an appreciation for what was truly important in their lives.

I'm just saying:)   

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