Martha Stewart can’t use ignorance as an excuse like the woman from Atlanta is doing after trying to pass a $1 million bill at a Wal-Mart. After offering a Wal-Mart card that had only a couple of dollars left to spend, she tried to purchase more than $1,500 worth of merchandise with a bill that can be purchased at a novelty store. Did she really think the cashier was going to give her more than $998,000 in change? Something doesn’t add up here.
That’s also what prosecutors thought about Martha Stewart’s story about her sale of ImClone stock, which she dumped suspiciously close to its downturn. This woman–who could actually have hundreds of million-dollar bills, if there were such a thing–tried to pass off a story to investigators about selling her stock in late 2001. It was a story that didn’t add up.
The government was trying to prove that she received an insider tip the day before the bottom fell out of the stock, allowing Martha to sell her stock and save about $50,000. That’s a lot of money to the little guy, but it’s tip money to Martha Stewart.
The judge threw out the government’s case, not allowing it to go to the jury, apparently believing that the government’s case was weak and would require too much speculation by the jury for a conviction. Although the major allegation was thrown out, the irony is that Martha Stewart may actually go to jail for lying and trying to mislead prosecutors during the investigation. A jury has convicted her of false statements, conspiracy and obstruction of justice.
The Bible says: “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.”
In an effort to save $50,000, Stewart has lost between $400 million and $700 million. More than this, she may lose her freedom and spend time in federal prison.
It’s difficult to relate to Stewart in many ways. But we shouldn’t be so quick to think she is unlike the rest of us. Sure, she has more money and power, but we are just as prone to piercing ourselves with griefs because of our love for money, our desire to get something for nothing or our refusal to admit when we have made poor choices?
I remember my own final in chemistry in the 11th grade. Coach Bryan was absent and a substitute teacher had to administer the test, most of which dealt with the table of elements. The substitute was as ignorant about the test as the woman claims to be regarding the $1 million bill which she says her husband gave to her. Someone decided that the huge chart of elements displayed at the front of the room provided a good aid for the exam. Everyone thought: “That substitute’s so stupid.” We were the people with power, thinking no one would ever know what we pulled.
Ethical dilemmas abounded: Should you look at the chart while taking the exam, thus ensuring a good grade, or should you not peek and rely on your own knowledge of all the information? Should someone stand up and remove the chart, risking ridicule from fellow classmates? Should anyone become a whistle blower, confessing the sins of the whole class? If confronted at a later time, should you defend your work, maintaining that the grade you made is the grade you earned, even if you happened to fudge on an answer or two?
Life is filled both with temptations and opportunities to do what is right. Each time we make the right choice, we build character and strength for choosing what is right when the next temptation visits us. When we choose what is wrong and we get away with it, it builds within us the illusion that we are above the system; that our cleverness is a greater virtue than honesty; that we are justified in what we did because of previous wrongs done to us. Having gotten away with sins in the past, we become arrogant when confronted with our wrong decisions. We refuse to make contrition. We vow to go down swinging.
The Scripture says that “pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.” This seems to be playing out in Martha Stewart’s case. Her money and her power may separate her from the rest of us, but temptation and pride come knocking on every door. If we open the door and invite them in, sooner or later they arrange the house in a way that even Martha Stewart would find unappealing. Her house may soon be very unappealing. It will be interesting to see if she ever shows any remorse.
Michael Helms is pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Moultrie, Ga. A version of this column appears in The Moultrie Observer.
Michael Helms is pastor of First Baptist Church in Jefferson, Georgia.