Yesterday I was reading a Times article. I almost fell out of my chair when I read this quote.

“It is not possible for him to atone for all the damage he did,” the rabbi said, “and I don’t even think that there is a punishment that is commensurate with the crime, for the wreckage of lives that he’s left behind. The only thing he could do, for the rest of his life, is work for redemption that he would never achieve.”

Who is this rabbi talking about? Bernie Madoff. Madoff ran a large, exlcusive, trusted investment firm in New York. His client list reads like a who’s-who of the global elite. He also controlled a lot of wealth for the most respected hedge funds. Until the whole thing collapsed. Turns out, it was a giant Ponzi scheme, where early investors were paid with the money of later investors. Madoff was arrested on Dec. 11 and allegedly confessed to losing $50 billion (that’s billion, with a B) of his clients’ money. Many individuals, as well as pension funds and charitable foundations, have literally lost all they have. It has been catastrophic.

Many have wondered how Madoff could have done this. Christians should not be surprised. I am reminded of Abraham putting his wife at risk through a web of deception to save his own skin. I think of Jacob, stealing Esau’s blessing. And, of course, there’s Peter, who denied Christ out of total self-interest. But you don’t have to go with the marquis names in the Bible. What about Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 4, who blatantly cheated the early Christian church? What about the gluttonous Christians in the Corinthian church who ate all the food at their weekly fellowship meal so that latecomers got nothing (1 Cor 11)? And what about the favoritism shown in the distribution of food to widows in the early Jerusalem church (see Acts 6; the Jewish widows were favored over the Greek widows) leading to the appointment of St. Stephen as Deacon to oversee this ministry (incidentally, today, Dec. 26, is the Feast of St. Stephen). The human problem seems to be we seek always for ourselves, and really only care about ourselves. We invent ways of covering this up, but the assertion of self over others (and over against God and his Law) is always there. As Jesus said in Mark 7:21: “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery.” Joseph Conrad was just picking up on this darkly illuminating insight from Jesus when he called his 1902 novel “Heart of Darkness” (upon which Apocalypse Now is based).

Why this reflection on such a dark topic? Well, it’s Christmas. And as millions of Christmas cards proclaim, “The people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Isaiah 9:2). The light of Christ can only be seen once we understand the darkness of the heart. We don’t rejoice at our Savior’s coming until we reckon our own need for saving. Why do we need a savior? Because we are lost without one.

If not for Jesus, our only option would be, as the rabbi said about Madoff, is to work for the rest of our lives on a redemption we could never achieve. The rabbi declared, “It is not possible for him to atone for all the damage he did.”

This is an accurate description of all of us. None of us can atone for our sins. The Law of God is inviolate and unassailable. Its demands are total. And yet we have these dark hearts that lead us to repeated shipwreck on the immovable cliffs of the Law. That’s why we need a Savior. The Christmas carol “Joy to the World” says Jesus “comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found.” The curse is universal. Which is why it is right to say “let heaven and nature sing” when Someone comes to remove it.