Britain’s youngest ‘Euromillions’ winner was planning to sue the parent company of Lotto for ‘ruining her life’. How was the operator alleged to have done so? By paying out a million pounds to her as the holder of a winning ticket. She had bought the ticket of her own free will, and she had accepted the money. Eventually she dropped her case, perhaps because someone had talked some sense into her. At first glance, it’s just a hilarious story; but scratch the surface and it might appear to be more sinister. Suppose she had gone to court; that would be a civil rather than a criminal case. She would have demanded compensation – what else? Almost always, compensation takes the form of money paid out to the claimant. I wonder: if a million pounds can ruin your life, how can more money rebuild it? Let me be clear about this particular story – I believe the young lady’s story of her troubles having been triggered by a massive windfall, and I’m far, far from claiming that there was any sinister intention behind the raising of her case. The scenario I’ve presented was solely a hypothetical exercise.
The invention of money has been one of the greatest in history. Money made the exchange of goods and services possible on much greater scale than old-fashioned barter. Assume you have a few sacks of grain, but you need a piece of lamb. So, you go to the butcher and you offer him one sack for half a sheep. The butcher then goes to a blacksmith and pays for his services with half a sack of grain and a leg of beef. Try to upscale this model and it rapidly becomes unwieldy. Introduce monetary value to goods and services, and trade is suddenly much simpler, easier and convenient. The Buckie Fishwives going over the hill to Keith is a great back-story for walkers following the Fishwives’ Path, but the reality of that kind of trade was anything but romantic.
It must be said that we have a problem with money. It seems that with big money come arrogance, selfishness, a sense of superiority and many other unpleasant traits. On the other hand, jealousy, sneering or outright hatred are felt and often expressed by those who are financially less fortunate. But is money – or lack of it – the cause or the trigger of those undesirable human qualities? I’d risk a claim that our attitudes, sometimes well-hidden even from ourselves, come to light when an abundance of goods make us overly confident, or a scarcity of goods strips off the varnish of well-trained but superficial politeness.
What we heard in today’s gospel is not a call to abandon the idea of money. Such an interpretation, though attractive maybe to an extreme social activist, is completely wrong. Jesus calls us to avoid being overtaken by it, to avoid becoming slaves to money – or, in fact, to any goods that money represents. The hideous murder of Helen Bailey is the most recent example of a man’s unhealthy love of money; such tragic stories make the headlines because they attract readers and viewers. But there are many people who make good use of their wealth; yet we rarely hear about them, as ‘good’ doesn’t seem to make attractive and saleable news.
Where, then, does today’s gospel leave us? Should we crave money and pursue it relentlessly, or should we reject the very notion of seeking material, earthly goods? Neither! In fact, the right attitude can make us pretty much impervious to affluence or privation. A sudden windfall will not make me into a boastful dimwit, nor a sudden stroke of misfortune turn me into a bitter green-eyed monster. Of course, either situation will certainly affect me; but it’s up to me to decide how to proceed. As the old saying has it: ‘If you’re not sure how to behave, behave decently’ regardless your material status.