1 Samuel 2:11-36; 3:1-20
John 1: 43-51
“Now the sons of Eli were scoundrels; they had no regard for the Lord or for the duties of the priests to the people” (1 Samuel 2:12-13).
The story of the sons of Eli, the high priest and final Judge of Israel before the rule of kings, is almost a footnote to the “main event” at the beginning of 1 Samuel. The lectionary focuses on the calling of Samuel by the Lord to prophecy (Samuel would later go on to prophesy the rise and downfall of King David). The sons of Eli, Hophni and Phineas, were assisting with the priestly duties at the time that the young Samuel was serving in the Temple under Eli.
In some of the more literal translations, Hophni and Phinehas are called “sons of Belial” – a major demon. However, the Hebrew “beli yo’il” also translates as “without worth” – ne’er-do-wells, scoundrels. The sons of Eli liked to help themselves to the sacrifices of meat that the faithful would bring to the Temple as offerings and restitution to the Lord for sins: “When anyone offered sacrifice, the priest’s servant would come, while the meat was boiling, with a three-pronged fork in his hand, and he would thrust it into the pan, or kettle, or caldron, or pot; all that the fork brought up the priest would take for himself” (1 Samuel 2: 13-14). The boiling meat was not the only thing to which the sons of Eli helped themselves: “… they lay with the women who served at the entrance to the tent of meeting” (vv.22).
It is important to note that, at that time, pilfering holy sacrifices was a lot more that just material malfeasance. Because these were offerings that were set aside as holy (qadosh) to the Lord, profaning them for personal use was considered to be blasphemy – the use of the Lord’s name for trivial or hateful purposes. Lest we forget, blasphemy is in direct violation of Commandment #3 – and the penalty for violating any of the Ten Commandments was death. As it turns out, the whole reason that young Samuel was called to the Lord in the first place, was to prophesy against the family of Eli. In the Lord’s call, YHWH said to young Samuel, “On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. For I have told him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them” (1 Samuel 3: 12-13).
Well, you may ask, what is the point of all this? Try this:
“June 2011 – Eun Tae Lee, 50, of Fairfax, Virginia, was sentenced to 1 year in jail and ordered to pay restitution for embezzling more than $700,000 from Seed International Inc., a missionary company sponsored by the Korean Central Presbyterian Church for which he had served as Chief Administrative Officer. According to authorities, Lee gained control of Seed International’s bank account and wrote checks to accounts he had set up in his own name. The thefts are believed to date back to at least 2006. Lee is reported to have used the ill-gotten gains to finance a lavish lifestyle including the purchase of a Porsche Cayenne sport-utility vehicle” (Marquet International, “Banishing the Scourge of Church Embezzlement”, July 5, 2011).
This report is just a sample from the 21 major incidents of church and faith-based non-profit embezzlement that occurred in 2011, totaling $11 million in direct losses (ibid.) According to financial analysts Marquet International, the typical duration of church embezzlement (seven years) is much longer that that in other institutions, mainly because of the trust factor involved – “Dear old Mrs. McGillicuddy has been doing our books for decades. She would never do something like that!” In addition, church embezzlement cases, once discovered, are much more likely to go unreported to the authorities – leaving the scoundrels involved free to go to other churches and do the same thing.
But the damage done to churches that have been pilfered is far more than financial. The spiritual wounds caused by this kind of crime are far-reaching and long-lasting.
When people feel that they cannot trust the Church with their hard-earned money, which they are sacrificing to do the Lord’s work, people begin to turn away from the Church and go elsewhere. In South Korea, after several well-publicized church embezzlement cases, one news outlet reported in 2011 that “the number of Protestants has made a sharp downturn [ko] from 8.8 million to 8.6 million people. Christianity is becoming more unpopular as it is seen to be becoming more powerful and greedy. Wealthy pastors have lost credibility over appropriating vast amounts of church money for personal use …” (South Korean Church Embezzlement Case article). Some groups have even proposed revoking churches’ non-profit, tax-exempt status in the country, as one observer quipped “Is there any solid reason for churches’ tax exemption? They do not fear God, but fear tax inspection” (ibid.)
It is interesting to note that, in the Torah portion for this week, God punishes Eli as well as his sons – because Eli did nothing to stop them from their pilfering. When high financial crimes take place in our churches, the church as a whole is punished by the loss of credibility – we will pay for this blasphemy. It is up to average parishioners to prevent these kinds of crimes – by taking steps such as regular audits and rotating bookkeepers – and to report these crimes to the authorities once they are discovered. It may also be advisable to literally anoint bookkeepers before the congregation upon their hiring or appointment, to remind them of the sanctity of the trust they are being given – and the duty of the parishioners to hold them accountable. Only then will we keep the “sons [and daughters] of Belial” from taking the church down with them.