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Independence Day

June 26, 2017

All your words are true; all your righteous laws are eternal.” (Psalm 119:160)

I recently watched the new HBO movie, Wizard of Lies, about how Bernie Madoff deceived the Securities and Exchange Commission and some of the biggest brokerage houses and financial advisors on Wall Street as well as other sophisticated investors out of billions of dollars in his Ponzi scheme—using new money invested with him to pay high returns on old investments, to entice more investors, to use the newly invested money to pay high returns, etc.   According to the movie, even after he went to prison, he maintained that the investors’ greed was the primary cause of the debacle: if they hadn’t been so greedy, they would have looked more closely into his company.

While Madoff’s refusal to take personal responsibility is appalling, there is some truth in the notion that people hear what they want to hear—which is not necessarily the truth. It reminded me of this week’s Old Testament reading.[1] The folks responded positively to the message of the false prophet Hananiah, who led them down the primrose path, but negatively to the truth spoken by Jeremiah, propelling Jeremiah to call him out on it: “Listen Hananiah! The Lord has not sent you, yet you have persuaded this nation to trust in lies.” (Jeremiah 28: 15).  Madoff’s sophisticated investors, like Jeremiah’s listeners, simply didn’t want to hear the truth that the high returns paid by Madoff weren’t earned by his financial genius on Wall Street.  They ignored the red flags in their desire to represent to their unsophisticated investors that they could get the best return for them through their “in” with Madoff.  The authorities were also bamboozled into overlooking the evidence that could have unraveled the fraud. Madoff was a good liar.

But the law finally caught up with Madoff.  Sin is anything that separates us from God. Paul explains that the law simply gives us some black and white examples of sin: “I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law” (Romans 7: 7b).   When his house of cards was about to come tumbling down (he couldn’t find enough new investors to keep paying high returns to existing investors), Madoff realized that he had to give it up. Paul tells us that one of the benefits of the law is that following it can keep us out of trouble, a lesson that Madoff was too arrogant and power hungry to take to heart.

Paul goes on to explain that Jesus did not come to abolish the law, which serves as a deterrent to many—but instead to offer us freedom through Christ’s grace. God’s law shows us our sinful selves.   The law highlights how much we need a savior. Christ, our savior, frees us from the condemnation of sin: “We have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit . . . “ (Romans 7: 6).   We serve God through the love and grace of the Holy Spirit, not by earning brownie points by following the rules. Instead, by letting the Holy Spirit guide us in the ways of Jesus, we learn to serve him in love and gratitude.

The accolades, adulation, and material rewards that come with success and power are winsome sirens that lure us from the things of God. The movie depicted Madoff as having an insatiable appetite for the power he wielded by convincing greedy people to invest in his fraudulent schemes.  Jesus warns that if we grasp at earthly treasure, we risk losing the most important things in life: “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39).

In a few days, we will celebrate one of the things that we as Americans cherish most deeply—our freedoms. This Independence Day, in addition to celebrating the freedoms we enjoy as Americans, go a step further.  Resolve to become independent of the things that bring you down—a death grip on material possessions, a desire to acquire more and bigger things–trophies, money, prestige.  Make a conscious effort to work on ridding yourself of anxiety, addiction, pride, jealousy, anger, fear, and whatever else keeps you from God.  Ask the Holy Spirit to help free you from anything that separates you from him. And enjoy your newfound freedoms. Happy Independence Day!

Diane Cieslikowski Reagan



[1] The Scripture texts for the Fourth Sunday After Pentecost are Jeremiah 28:5-9 (10-15); Psalm 119: 153-160; Romans 7: 1-13; Matthew 10: 34-42.

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