Behind the Scenes at Bernie Madoff’s: A Parable

Bernie Madoff
Image Credit: <a href="">Thierry Ehrmann</a>

Matthew 25:14-30

Its like Bernie Madoff leaving on a trip, called his employees and entrusted them with his fortune. He gave one of them $81.5 million. He gave another $32.6 million. And to a third he gave $16.3 million. Then he left.

The one with $81.5 million went off and invested it, and doubled the money. The one with $32.6 million also invested it and doubled the money. But the one with the $16.3 million went home and stuffed it under the mattress.

After a long while, Madoff came home and called them all in to audit their accounts. So the one who had started off with $81.5 million came in with $163 million and said, “Look, I’ve doubled your money.” And the Madoff said, “Well done! Dang, you’re good! Since you’ve done so well with this little bit, you’re getting a promotion! And, by the way, you should come to my office New Year’s eve party.”

Then the next employee, who started with $32.6 million came in and said, “Look, here’s your money doubled: $65.2 million.” And Madoff again replied, “Well done! Dang, you’re good, too! Since you’ve done so well with this little bit, you’re getting a promotion. And, by the way, you should come to my office New Year’s eve party.”

So it was the third employee’s turn, the one who started with just $16.3 million. He came in and said, “Boss, I know you’re a hard-ass, and you’re a robber baron, and you’re the worst kind of venture capitalist. I was so afraid of losing any of your money, I kept the whole wad under my mattress, and here it is, safe and sound.”

Madoff replied, “You lazy bastard! If you knew that I’m the worst sort of venture capitalist and a robber baron you should have at least put the money into a CD so I could have had some interest on it. Your fired! I’m reallocating your money to the guy with the $163 million. It takes money to make money, but I’m going to wring every penny out of the little guys. And send this no-good former employee to slums where he can cry and worry himself to death.”

Again we have the kind of story that is traditionally interpreted as an allegory in which the Madoff character stands for God, the Christians are the employees, and somehow, this situation is supposed to be like heaven.

But this story doesn’t sound like any kind of heaven, and if the world’s Madoffs are stand-ins for God, it’s a religion to which only the Madoffs would willingly ascribe. So what’s really going on here?

This is the third of four apocalyptic parables Jesus tells in Matthew’s gospel following his teach-in at the temple. As such, it’s not about what the kingdom of heaven is like, but what it’s like at the apocalyptic moment on the verge of that kingdom.

Jesus has already admonished his followers to be able to read the world’s signs of the approaching change in the same way changes in a fig tree indicate the approaching change of season (Matt 24:32-33). These four parables are the signs. And they’re not meant to be cryptic. They’re pretty obvious. Then and now. They’re signs that the present reality is simply unsustainable. Madoff’s ponzi scheme fell apart.

Note, this is not just sour grapes at some people being rich. It’s about a social order that leaves people with only two options: Either participate in the robber baron’s crime or live in a state of perpetual weeping and anxiety. Either choice is a losing proposition: to be complicit in the crimes against humanity is to be swept from power when the whole thing crashes (as it will in the next parable). But the one who ends up in crying and worry has been worried all along. So his situation is the same whether he’s in or out of the robber baron’s graces.

So the sign that the kingdom is near is the simultaneous widening of the gap between the haves and the have-nots, and the narrowing of options to the two end states of complicity in inhumanity on one hand, or misery and fear on the other.

At that point, where people have been reduced to the point of having nothing to lose, a third option becomes thinkable: leaving the old social, political, and economic system altogether and letting the cards fall where they may. And that is exactly what Jesus was contemplating on the Mount of Olives.

Two days later, he’d be crucified.

A generation later, the temple would lie in ruins.

Who knows what empire may fall tomorrow.

Things that Go Wrong at Weddings

wedding at midnight
Photo credit: Joe Shlabotnik

Matthew 25:1-13

The moment when goal happens is like this:

Ten women, five foolish, five wise, took flashlights and went off to the wedding. The foolish among them brought their flashlights, but failed to bring spare batteries. The wise brought spare batteries along with their flashlights.

As it happened, the groom was late, and everyone fell asleep waiting. But at midnight someone shouted, “Look! The groom is finally here! Everyone come! And the women all woke up and turned on their flashlights.

The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some batteries, our lights are going out.” But the wise women replied, “If we give our batteries to you, we won’t have light ourselves. Go to that convenience store down the street and get some for yourselves.” But while they were gone buying batteries the groom came, and those who were ready went with him to the wedding behind closed doors.

Later the other women came and said, “Let us in, too.”

But he answered, “I’ve got no idea who you are.”

So, be ready! You never know when it’s going to happen.

First, the word often translated bridesmaids is the same parthenos translated virgins elsewhere. And, while it makes a certain sense, given the wedding context of the story, to call them bridesmaids the early church of Matthew’s community would have also understood this term as referring to that new class of women within the first generation church capable of making their own decisions. One might think of that famous line from the Spiderman movie, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

The other details surrounding the wedding make very little sense as weddings go: the delay of the wedding (though I did officiate at a wedding a year ago to which the groom was over 2 hours late), the midnight hour, the need for everyone to bring their own lamp, it’s taking place behind closed doors, and the groom’s sudden amnesia (which may correspond to his being so late and, come to think of it, is no so rare). But this also relates to the point, which is that the wise will be prepared, even when the world seems out of joint.

And that is exactly the situation, as Matthew tells it. Jesus, having staged his teach-in at the temple and having been repudiated by the religious and political authorities there is now having his apocalyptic moment: the moment where the world is coming unhinged and is on the edge of choosing to be remade into another day or plunge into eternal night. It’s the midnight hour.

The situation of Matthew’s community a generation later is similar. Following the desolation of the Temple and with it the whole system of government and social order it represented, they are also in their apocalyptic moment.

In 2011 as the tides of the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement, and unprecedented climate change sweep around the globe, it may be yet another apocalyptic moment.

So, what are people newly capable of making their own decisions to do when the world seems to be coming unhinged?

The wise ones will be prepared.

Give Yourself Away

Photo credit: Patricia Soransso

Matthew 23:1-12

Then Jesus said to his followers and the crowds:

“The traditionalists and the legalists have inherited Moses’ formal authority. So do as they say. But don’t do as they do. They don’t practice what they preach. They rope people into carrying impossible burdens without lifting a finger to help. Everything they do is self-promotion. They wear their religion on their sleeves, and show off their fancy clothes. They go to charity dinners, not for the charity, but to get noticed. They cater to the Wall Street crowd and want everyone to call them by their titles.

But don’t use titles, even if you have them; you are all equals under one cause. Don’t call anyone Leader: your leader is God. And don’t claim to know it all – that’s God’s place alone. The greatest among you are those who serve. The high-fliers will fall. But give yourself away, and you’ll soar.

Formal authority only gets you so far. If you use it as a yardstick to measure your self-worth, it always comes up short. And, if you depend on it to get people’s compliance, it earns you only disdain. Witness the TSA. Lots of formal authority. Hardly any real credibility. Universally abhorred by anyone who has to deal with them.

Being born with a silver spoon or making it big-time can buy you the life of Riley. But (and this has been scientifically proven now) money really can’t make you happy. Witness the messy divorces, addictions and suicides of the rich and famous on Entertainment Tonight.

It goes without saying that using “I’m a Christian,” as an appeal to competence, reliability, or character is completely meaningless. And we all know that beauty is only skin deep. Seth Godin wrote recently about being invited to a charity gala dinner. But even though it feels like a welcome invitation, he reports, it’s a venue fraught with peril.

But if all these common measures of people are false indicators, the only remaining assessment of the value of human life is that “all are equals under one cause.” And the only real indicator of greatness is service. Real service. As in, What have you done for someone else lately? Without expecting someone to do something for you. Again, the divine paradox: the only way to benefit from a gift is to give it without any expectation of receiving any benefit.

And the only reason Jesus’ saying it is credible is because he did it.

Jesus Takes (and Gives) a Bar Exam

exam questionMatthew 22:34-46

The legalists huddled up when they heard that Jesus had confounded the traditionalists. Then one of them, a lawyer, tried to give him a bar exam starting with the question: Which commandment in the law is the greatest?

Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind,’ is the first, greatest commandment. And there’s another wording of the commandment says the same thing: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Everything else in the law, and everything the truth-tellers have said, is a footnote.”

Then, while they were still gathered there, Jesus asked them a question: Whose protégé do you think will save the world?

“Our nation’s Savior is the CEO of the David Company,” they said.

“Then how is it,” Jesus asked, “that David, Sr. said, as if it were the wisdom of God:

God said to my boss,
Stick with me
And I’ll take care of your competitors.

“What kind of savior takes orders from someone else’s boss?”

No one was able to answer this question. And after that, nobody had the gall to ask him anything else.

It’s tempting to separate this passage into two parts:

  1. The lawyer’s question and Jesus’ answer, and
  2. Jesus’ question that’s impossible to answer.

It’s tempting to drop the second part (too confusing), and hang onto the first (love, love, love).

But the lectionary is right to keep the two together in the same reading. Because the answer to part 2 is the same as the answer to the question in part 1. And the lawyer (and many Christians along with him) failed his own bar exam.

What kind of savior takes orders from someone else’s boss?

  • The savior who loves God with everything she’s got.

Which is the same as:

  • the savior who loves his neighbor as himself.

And, Jesus’ question prompts the lawyer (and us) to connect the dots and see that this is also the same as:

  • the one who makes the rules (the boss, the king, the president, the CEO, the Session, the Board of Trustees, the Deacons, and the Pharisees) making the rules so that they take into consideration the well-being even of the competition. (“Oh… that kind of take care of!”)

(Bonus: Until I put your enemies under your feet indicates the consummation of the divine project in which “all things are reconciled” to God. While the traditional interpretation has taken this to mean that the enemies are vanquished, the gospel’s understanding – Jesus’ re-appropriation of the tradition – is that all things are made whole and brought into their proper place. They are not squashed; they are made friends. It’s this misunderstanding of the psalm that stymied the lawyer, the Pharisees, and many others.)

What is the greatest commandment then? As far as Jesus is concerned, it’s to participate in a community where, whoever you are in whatever position, everyone is taken care of. And that means everyone.