We were just coming out of Advent and starting a new cycle of Sunday School material in our youth department back in January. I asked our high school teacher what he thought about the day’s lesson. With genuine enthusiasm, he said “Well, it’s Zacchaeus today, so I’m starting by talking about Bernie Madoff and the way people are treating him.”
I felt like my ministry sensibilities had failed me. Somehow, in between tearful interviews with those defrauded by Madoff and the perpetual loop of a silver-haired man in a Yankees cap being dogged by reporters, I had missed the simple comparison.
Six months later we sit on the Great Day of Judgment. Madoff’s attorney pleaded for a 12-year sentence. Those he defrauded asked for 150 years stemming from 11 different counts of fraud and money laundering. The judge agreed with the victims, sentencing Madoff to the full 150 years and calling his crime “extraordinarily evil.”
No one can argue the vile nature of such a carefully concocted scheme. It violates all assumptions of business ethics, even in the occasionally gray world of investment banking. There is no doubt that Madoff has earned everything he received, and yet the ghost of Zacchaeus lingers in the background.
One victim of Madoff’s scheme has been quoted as saying, “We seek neither mercy nor sympathy.”
It’s hard to argue with the pain of another human being, but Jesus’ treatment of the allegedly wee little man speaks a cautionary word against such sentiments.
“Today salvation has come to this house because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost” (Luke 19:9-10).
Madoff has, not surprisingly, cut off all radio contact. He offered a brief apology to the victims present during his sentencing, but he’s certainly not clamoring up Central Park trees in search of salvation. But what if he were?
Jailhouse conversions draw sneers from even the most pious believers. Many regard such transformations as inherently disingenuous, and yet we follow one who pardons tax collectors and Ponzi schemers. The scandal of grace is that it always cuts both ways, at least when Jesus has anything to do with it.
Whether or not there are any signs of genuine remorse, only time will tell. I’m not holding my breath expecting Madoff to repay four times what he has stolen, but I do wonder what our sense of “justice” says about the grace we have – or haven’t – received.