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I was paying for my coffee at the local convenience store, and the clerk looked at me like I was an alien. “No Powerball ticket?” she asked incredulously, informing me that I was the first customer of the day who did not purchase one. The lottery jackpot apparently stands at $1.5 billion, and tickets are as little as $2 apiece. The general consensus that I hear from people in person and on social media is, “Why not buy a ticket? You never know.” I am not interested in discussing the ethics of the lottery but rather how this general attitude about low investment and high returns affects our religious views.
The simple truth is that $2 is not very much money for most people in this country. For that modest price, they get a chance of an unimaginable sum of money. If we accept that hope (or maybe the dream of something better) is actually what they are buying, then $2 seems like a pretty good deal.
I have heard and read many accounts of what people would do if they won the Powerball jackpot. The problem is that $1.5 billion is an almost unimaginable sum of money. I can wrap my mind around a few hundred thousand dollars or even a million dollars, but 1.5 billion? It is unattainable. It exists only as a dream.
I have worked in congregations and camps for many years, and I have heard many different accounts of why people pray or attend church services. This recent Powerball mania has me wondering how it might be reflective of a dominant stream of religion in this country. How many church attendees really believe in the Triune God, and how many are hedging their bets? After all, the idea of eternal life is a pretty enticing jackpot. Is it possible that all this Jesus stuff is actually true? Better make it to church once a year and throw a twenty into the offering plate just in case. I would love to say that these folks are investing ten times as much into church as they are into the lottery, but that would be to assume that they only purchase one set of numbers.
Heaven is not the Jackpot
Christian leaders bear much of the responsibility in turning Christianity into a form of cosmic gambling. The problem lies partially in heaven fever. We entice people not with the way of Jesus but rather the desire for personal reward. The way of Jesus is not about seeking our own glorification, and heaven is not the goal of Christianity. Heaven is a gift. We do not attain it, earn it, or win it by chance. It is given to us. The Kingdom of God comes to us. This is one of the most fundamental truths of Christianity, and it is the Gospel that Jesus proclaimed (Mark 1:14-15). Yet we have millions of people going to church and putting money in the offering plate because they want to go to heaven. Or, more accurately for many of them, they are willing to accept that there is chance heaven is real. Why not go to church once in a while? You never know.
Following Jesus is not a Small Investment
This brings us to another element of this cosmic gambling. It has to do with investment. We in the church know that people would get really freaked out and call us fanatics if we told them that following Jesus meant giving up everything, even their own lives. We prefer the incremental approach. Give a little more. Pray a little more. Read the Bible again. To be fair, much of this has to do with pastoral care. We want to meet people where they are and try to help them grow in their faith without totally freaking them out. The problem is that this has cheapened the grace of God, to borrow from Bonhoeffer, who says in his classic book Discipleship, “Cheap grace means grace as bargain-basement goods, cut-rate forgiveness, cut-rate comfort, cut-rate sacrament.” You can almost hear him comparing cheap grace to a $2 lotto ticket in hopes of a $1.5 billion jackpot or $20 in the offering plate in hopes of eternal life. Cheap grace hedges bets and invests the least amount possible for the hope of greatest return.
Count the Cost
Remember that time in Luke 14 when Jesus talks about the cost of discipleship? He compares it to a person who wants to build a tower, arguing that this person will sit down and count the cost of the tower before beginning construction. If he is not able to finish, he will not start. We as Christian public leaders lie to people when we tell them (or imply) that following Jesus is not that big of a deal. Jesus asks for our very lives (verses 26-27) and everything that we have (verse 33). Most people are not willing to pay that price, and yet we have no problem calling them Christians when their faith looks less like discipleship and more like a cosmic lottery.
What if we helped people understand that heaven is not a reward or a jackpot but rather a gift? What if they knew that this gift is given to all people and not just the lucky few? Might they be more willing to follow the God who opens the way to eternal life and give all that they have to building the Kingdom of God on earth?
No more cosmic gambling. No more jackpots. Instead, let’s teach discipleship and grace.