Experience shows that acquiring a large sum of money can be a problem. But, especially today, it is easy to miss or forget problems associated with money.
Unless we have a rare level of virtue, we are prone to the magnetic pull of precious metals. Money has a uniquely powerful hold on our imaginations and desires. When we hear about a huge jackpot, our mouths start to water. What if I buy the winning ticket…?
The hundred-dollar bingo jackpot at a Wednesday night church fundraiser is not the issue. We do not make plans for how we will spend our Wednesday bingo winnings. This jackpot does not alter our position in the world.
But in this last week, many of us spent time wondering aloud or in private how we would spend large, even enormous sums of money—money that has no connection to our life or work, money that would fundamentally change our state in life. It is such a sum of money that we desired, and hoped to win.
My argument is not that participating in the Lotto is in itself wrong—though, under some conditions, it could be. My contention is this: there are good reasons to avoid the Lotto altogether, and to be grateful if your ticket was a loser. An honest look at our own response to the Lotto can teach us some important lessons about ourselves, and about money.
How we come to have money makes a difference. “Winning” by chance is not a good way to come by a large sum of money. In Aristotle’s understanding of the man who is virtuously generous with wealth—the “liberal” man or the “magnificent” man—a central characteristic is that he is prudent about both to whom he gives money, and how much he gives. Giving too much money or giving to the wrong person is a serious mistake. This is intuitively clear, for to give too much money often injures the recipient.
To appreciate this point, we need to remember two truths about money. Money is a tool for the purpose of providing the things necessary for human life. It is also a tool that is uniquely prone to misuse, since it appeals to our unlimited desires. Fittingly, the usual ways of coming into money tend to prepare the owner-to-be for the challenges of having money. Money received as just compensation for labor will tend to be seen for what it is: a kind of place-holder, a token of real wealth. Money received as an inheritance or a gift will at least tend to be seen as something entrusted to my care by the intention of another, usually someone close to me.
But what of money won by pure chance? It has been removed from any connection to work, real things, or people. And especially as thus disconnected, the corrupting power of money grows stronger. We will tend all the more to associate money with the fulfillment of our private desires, rather than with the fulfillment of needs, both our own and others.’ Tellingly, there is something to worry about if a homeless person is handed ten thousand dollars by a stranger.
While desires for wealth are often unlimited, our real needs are always limited. If we find ourselves in possession of more than we need, then the proper response is to share our excess with those whose needs are not being met. But too often our first and main response is to turn to extras and frills for ourselves. The ancient Greek philosophers as well as Christian sages remind us that ‘need’ should always be the focus in the use of money. The concept of need is understood in a broad sense: it includes what serves a fullness of life, not just bare survival, as well as savings for a rainy day, and some extra to help others.
Understanding ‘need’ in this sense, the desire for more money than we need is a disordered desire. Precisely this desire for more—memorialized and warned of in countless stories and fairy tales—works against us, eating away our fiber and our happiness from the inside.
Any time we have more of something than we need—and again, taking ‘need’ in the broad sense—it is fitting, and perhaps even required of us, to give away the extra. If I come into possession of extra clothing for instance, I should look to distribute it to others.
With money especially, there is another reason to give away our excess. Having a lot of extra money poses a threat to our character. As St. Thomas Aquinas wisely points out, living in wealth tends to engender in us an attachment to it.
The point here is not that money is evil. Money is a necessary tool with countless good uses. Likewise the point is not that being wealthy is evil. Wealthy people have a necessary role in society, and they can achieve great virtue in their service of the common good. Generosity with wealth is a uniquely beautiful virtue.
The point is that the desire for more money is one of the most dangerous forces in human life because it so easily becomes self-centered.
When Jesus makes the remarkable statement: “And again I say unto you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God,” his disciples are “exceedingly amazed.” They wonder aloud whether anyone can be saved. Jesus does not back down. “But Jesus beheld them, and said unto them, with men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible” (Matt 19:24-26).
The wealthy, it is clear, have a serious challenge in their obligation to use their money well. Some people are certainly called to face this challenge. By the grace of God, examples abound of those who have succeeded.
But our society treats wealth as an unqualified good, something to be desired and sought without any reflection. We would do well to remember there is good reason that wise men both pagan and Christian advise caution about having, and even more, about seeking great wealth. If we take this occasion to recall their admonitions, our failed Lotto ticket can be a reason for joy.