Monday, December 13, 2010

Sins of the Fathers

Mark and his younger brother Andrew grew up in New York with privilege that knew no bounds, with outrageous wealth and with the status of a father whose brilliance as a money manager guaranteed their lifestyle. Not surprisingly Mark and Andrew both joined their father’s business from college and rose to senior positions. Mark seemed to have a life that was envied by most: a beautiful wife, two children and an apartment in the up market SoHo district of Manhattan, all evidence of his multi-million dollar lifestyle.

Then just a few days ago on 11th December, Mark was found dead with a suicide note explaining his despair. The date was significant as it was the second anniversary of the arrest of his father, Bernie Madoff. Madoff senior is serving a 150 year gaol sentence for operating the largest fraud in the history of the USA. The family business was in fact a $40 billion (no one knows the exact figure) Ponzi Scheme that operated for over two decades. The scheme never invested any money – it simply paid generous returns on any money invested by using the next person’s money in the scheme to pay the interest for the last person who invested. Much like a game of musical chairs, it worked until the music stopped - but when it did stop, everyone realised that the chairs had been stolen. The scheme conned thousands of people including famous investors like Stephen Spielburg and many huge Jewish charities and banks from all over the world. Mark Madoff and his brother had repeatedly claimed that they knew nothing of what was going on, but in recent times they had been named in a civil lawsuit and speculation was growing that the sons would face criminal charges. With his father in gaol, his mother forfeiting the family's $80 million worth of assets and apparently now working delivering meals to housebound people in Florida, and with pressure building up, it all seemed too much for Mark.

It is a tragedy all round. When the Bible talks about the sins of the fathers passing down the generations, people assume that God is vindictive in His judgment. In fact, the Bible warns us repeatedly about sin and its dangers precisely because God wants us to avoid the pain that our sins can cause to us, and sometimes, our descendents. The language of sin in the Bible is unfashionable today, as we like to ignore evil and its consequences. But every so often our sinfulness and the sin of others stares us so aggressively in the face that we cannot ignore the ugliness of what we see.

The Bible’s call to repent is not some outdated irrelevance, but an ever present warning that what we do in secret may one day be revealed for all to see. The Bible's call to avoid temptation is not a wowserly whine but at a courageous declaration that character matters more than income, that integrity matters more than success, and goodness is better than evil.

Do not hold against us the sins of the fathers; may your mercy come quickly to meet us, for we are in desperate need. Help us, O God our Saviour, for the glory of your name; deliver us and forgive our sins for your name’s sake.” Psalm 79: 8-9

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