Idol of Materialism: Bernie and Mark Madoff
By Kevin Probst
"Bernie" Madoff, a grandson of Jewish immigrants, pled guilty to eleven federal crimes in March of 2009. Madoff ran a massive Ponzi scheme that swindled nearly $20 billion from trusting investors. He was sentenced to 150 years in prison. The investigation into his crimes continues as other family members and employees face charges. Thousands of people were affected by his deception and greed. The latest victim to fall in the avalanche of pain and shame was his son, Mark Madoff, who committed suicide in his New York apartment where his body was found on December 11, 2010.
Mark was 46 years old and leaves behind a wife and two children. Exactly two years before Mark's suicide, his father asked to meet with both Mark and his brother, Andrew. He confessed that he had built his entire financial empire on deception and fraud. Mark called the FBI and turned his father in. He had not spoken to his father, or his mother, Ruth, during the two years that led up to his suicide.
According to Eleanor Squillari, (1) secretary to Bernie for 25 years, Mark was more interested in fly fishing than in Wall Street. His job was not associated with the Ponzi scheme and he knew nothing of it until his father's confession. However, Mark and his family were being sued by victims trying to recover their losses. Diana Henriques, (2) a financial journalist for the NY Times said "The drumbeat of litigation had become an enormous burden. Things were building." So, after two years of living under the darkest of clouds and finally realizing that the tunnel in which he existed had no light at its end, Mark Madoff chose the only path he could find to escape, he chose suicide.
What does Bernie Madoff have in common with most other Americans? He believed the same lie. Most of us believe that money and accumulated wealth can bring happiness. We overestimate the importance of wealth.
A couple thousand years ago a young man went to his father and asked for his inheritance. What he was really saying was, "I can't wait for you to die so I want my share now." Instant gratification is a problem for the ages. His father granted his request and the prodigal took his newly found fortune to a distant country and spent it on riotous living (3). Finally, it was gone. "A fool and his money are soon departed."
A recent poll revealed that 77% of Americans believe money can buy happiness as opposed to 23% who see no correlation between money and happiness. America now has over 600 billionaires. In spite of being a most difficult year economically, billionaires increased by nearly 12% last year. Many of these billionaires are NOT happy. An ancient billionaire named Solomon once stated that "A good name is more desirable than riches."
Julia Hartley-Brewer, a British reporter, says that the country's lottery is “Britain’s biggest marriage wrecker” A full 1/3 of lottery winners declared that their new found fortunes had brought shipwreck to their lives and families. Unfortunately, Callie Rogers is not atypical. She won a vast amount of money in Britain's lottery as a teen-ager. Now, all the money is gone. She holds down three jobs and has attempted suicide at least once. “Until you win such a large amount of money at such a young age, you don’t realize the pressures that come with it,” she said. (4)
Alex Tocqueville observed America before McDonald's had sold billions of hamburgers and before Coca-cola had saturated the world with its product. Yet, he commented on the idolatrous attitude Americans had toward consumerism, “At first sight, there is something astonishing in this spectacle of so many lucky men restless in the midst of abundance. But it is a spectacle as old as the world; all that is new is to see a whole people performing it.” (5)
Americans have always been tempted by the idols of consumerism and materialism. This sort of misconstrued worship characterized by greed is described in Romans 1:25 "They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator" We are obsessed with the accumulation and storage of our stuff. Jesus had something to say about that, "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."
Had Bernie Madoff lived by that principle, he wouldn't be sitting in a North Carolina prison and his son would still be fly fishing off shore in Baja.
1. ABC NEWS, Wife Called Police To Report Mark Madoff Missing Last Year, by Brian Ross and Megan Chughmach, Dec. 14, 2010
3. Matthew 15:11-12
4. The Christian Institute, Lottery winners could face lifetime of misery, November 21, 2009
5. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, ed. J.P. Mayer and Max Lerner, trans.
George Lawrence (New York: Harper & Row, 1966), 508.
Kevin Probst - Is a teacher of Apologetics and History at Calvary Christian School and Associate Pastor of Crosspointe Nazarene Church church in Columbus, Georgia.