Down for the Count?

Gambling has been on my mind the past few days.

It began with the massive Mega Millions lottery drawing last Friday.  I don’t play the lottery in general.  But when it gets particularly high, I’ll spend $5 on a ticket.  I see it as entertainment, mostly.  I’m participating in an event that a great many people have a very heightened awareness of and interest in.  Since I don’t watch television, I see it as one occasional way I still act as part of the my larger culture.  I’d feel better about that analogy if I had some stats on how many people play vs. how many people spend way too much on playing.  
I didn’t expect to win.  Even cursory efforts at daydreaming about winning proved rather pointless.  I have no idea what I would do with that much money after a few basics are out of the way (buying a home, etc.).  I’m fairly certain that God would not let me win the lottery, as He knows it would undoubtedly only cause problems.  But I spend the $5 anyways.
I didn’t win the jackpot, but I did win $2, which I’m more than happy with.
Sunday, I included the lottery drawing and my participation in it as part of my sermon, a launching point, a modern analogy for themes I was hoping to draw out of the texts for the day.  My practice in my congregation is to make the post-worship adult Bible study an opportunity for larger participation both with the texts and my sermon take on them.  In other words, I want the people of God to be involved actively in theology, not just passively.  
So I was excited when one of my members indicated rather sheepishly – but firmly – that he was convinced I had erred greatly in my approach that morning.  As we talked, I discerned two different but related issues.  The first was his conviction that gambling in any form is immoral.  It feeds on those who can least afford to be fed upon.  It is the source of great pain in many lives due to gambling addiction or even just the momentary lapse of reason that allows someone to part with their life savings or child’s college fund.  His second point was that given this moral indefensibility of gambling, it was particularly egregious for me as a pastor to reference it in a sermon, particularly in a way that made light of it or otherwise condoned it tacitly or explicitly.
We talked as a group about the issue.  It was amicable to be sure.  I have no doubt that we parted with him still very convinced that he was correct in his concerns.  I left with lots of doubts – less on the morality of gambling than on the fragile wire that pastors are blessed and challenged to walk on.
On the first issue, we should acknowledge that there are certainly good reasons to be very careful with the issue of gambling.  I brought up two instances in Scripture where gambling is described (not commended, per se) – the soldiers gambling for Jesus’ clothes as he was crucified, and the apostles casting lots to determine the replacement for Judas in Acts 1.  In a discussion with a friend & colleague last night, he also reminded me of the sailors casting lots to determine who was to blame for the storm in Jonah 1.  
We agreed that at least in principle, the example in Acts seems to be a very different type of gambling.  Following prayer, it is an acknowledgement that both candidates are equally qualified and acceptable and that rather than leave it up to a popularity contest of some sort, it seemed wisest to allow the Holy Spirit to have it’s way in the casting of lots.  Technically gambling, but not the sort of gambling we were concerned about in our discussion Sunday.  The example of the soldiers (or the sailors) seems to be less applicable because these were not Christians, and therefore their moral codes can’t be expected to conform to Scriptural standards.
What are those Scriptural standards?  There aren’t any strongly explicit condemnations of gambling in Scripture that I’ve come up with.  Interestingly enough, my better over at The Blog of Veith posted an article on the topic of gambling and vocation this morning.  One of the folks commenting on the post challenged others to identify where Scripture condemns gambling.  Another person indicated that it would logically fall under the realm of stewardship – being wise stewards of the blessings God has permitted us precludes putting those blessings at risk through gambling.
There are certain denominations and traditions within the Church that have frowned heavily on gambling as well as other social activities such as drinking and dancing.  The Holiness churches of the last 150 years come particularly to mind, with a strong emphasis on the Christian life that manifests itself in a legalism that Lutheranism has been traditionally wary of.  As I told the gentleman in Bible Study Sunday, I have no problem acknowledging that gambling (or any other behavior, for that matter) can be sinful.  But I have a problem with the blanket assertion that gambling is sinful, always.  
This is still where I stand.  Is that a product of my Lutheran upbringing?  I have little doubt that it is.  Can I defend that point of view Scripturally?  Overall, I think so.  Is there a Scriptural defense for the alternate point of view?  I think so.  Where does that leave us?  In typical Lutheran fashion, walking a dangerously thin line.  I think that Paul’s line of thought in 1 Corinthians 8-10 is key.  An action or behavior may or may not be sinful in and of itself.  It’s sinfulness depends on two things – our convictions about it in light of the Word of God, and the impact it has on our brothers and sisters in the faith.  Not just one or the other, but both of these things.  
Which means that an action or behavior – in and of itself –  could be sinful for one person and not for another.  I can buy a lottery ticket once a year without being tempted to begin spending money on it every week.  Another person might find the temptation too great to resist.  Gambling might not be a sin for me because it has no hold on me, whereas it might have a hold on someone else, becoming sin.  
However in both cases, for both people, the sinfulness of the action also has to be gauged by the impact it has on others in the faith.  Is it proper for me as a pastor to joke lightly about something that is a source of sin and damage in another’s life?  Or to suggest – either tacitly or explicitly – that a behavior is not sinful, thereby leading a brother or sister into behavior that ultimately becomes sin for them?  In both cases no!  My actions must be governed in part with the understanding that the Christian life is a public one, and our behaviors can affect the faith of others either for good or ill.
So on the second issue on the appropriateness of me making light of the issue in a sermon – even if it was only by means of analogy or example – I need to be careful.  
A colleague and friend of mine saw in this situation an opportunity to teach the concerned person about how I as a pastor must be free to use whatever analogies or means necessary to convey the Gospel of Jesus Christ to people.  If I am constrained by worries about who might find a particular example or analogy improper or inappropriate, then my message is similarly constrained and I am no longer exercising my Calling as a pastor.  His take on the situation was that the more fundamental issue was a misunderstanding of what I had intended to c
onvey by the use of the lottery example.  
I hadn’t considered that point of view before, and it does make sense to a point.  Yet I also feel that the member in Bible Study was reminding me of a very important point – sin is a slippery thing.  Satan works in myriad ways, and he’s certainly capable and willing to use something that is not actually sinful in my life to engender sin in another’s.  We can begin the argument about just how far we are expected to go in being our brother’s keeper and ensuring that we don’t contribute to the sin of another, but that wasn’t really the issue with the second point this member raised.  
We can argue about the absolute morality or immorality of gambling, and both feel that our position is better supported Scripturally.  We can disagree honestly in the faith and remain not just brothers in Christ, but also fellow Lutherans.  What an amazing concept for our oftentimes fractious polity!  
But the other point about the necessity of me to consider carefully what I say from the pulpit is well taken.  It’s not that I don’t think about these things, but it’s a reminder that however carefully I think about them, there is always the potential for misunderstanding or offense.  My duty is to seek not to let these misunderstandings and offenses eclipse the Gospel – either in curtailing what I say, or in a contrarian attitude on my part that might seek only to shock and offend  (ostensibly for the sake of the Gospel).  Either of these responses is inappropriate.  
At the end of the day, I’m not sure I would have preached differently, but it’s a good reminder that people are listening, and I need to take that very, very seriously.  

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s