Thursday the news services carried the story of two priests in Delray Beach, Florida who allegedly embezzled $8.6 million in offerings and gifts made to their parish over several years. Specifics on how the money has been spent or where the remaining amounts are have not been determined but apparently the two priests have taken some trips and gambled a good bit of it away. It should be noted that the attorney for the priests claims that the money is more like $325,000 rather than millions. The seizure of funds began in 2001.
The actual amount of money stolen is important but my point of reflection focuses on the act, not the amount. How can two “holy men” do this? I’m not concluding that these two priests are already guilty. I’ll let the courts do that. But today’s news also carries the story from the West coast of a pending legal situation concerning a priest who allegedly molested boys and young men. I also don’t cast my reflection upon Catholic priests only. There are plenty of stories about protestant clergy.
How can those entrusted with the spiritual care of people and given stewardship over resources abuse that trust? This isn’t a case of someone “slipping” and falling once and repenting and getting back up. All of us do things we know are wrong and that most of the time we don’t want to do. Regular confession, repentance and forgiveness are the means of getting back on the right track.
But what I’m highlighting today is long-term, systemic sin, even while continuing to carry out ministerial duties of prayers, mass, communion, blessings, etc. How does that happen?
Long-term, systemic sin (sin habits) happens to all of us. You have “pet” sins and I have sins that tug at me to repeat them over and again. Maybe our sins don’t get into millions of dollars or make newspaper headlines, but our sins grieve God and leave us separated from God no matter how “insignificant” we deem them to be.
Sin habits and even addictions happen when we don’t immediately repent from a sinful act. For the priests, this would have meant that the first time they embezzled in 2001, God no doubt convicted them of this wrong and stirred them to repent (i.e.: stop, turn around and go a different direction). If they had chosen to repent there would have been some immediate consequences but they would also have been set free from the sin becoming a “master” that had power over their lives.
Every time they were convicted in their hearts and failed to repent, their hearts hardened. The human heart is capable of being so hard and our thinking can be so double-minded, we can literally perform ministry while stealing millions.
I share all of that to say this--Guard your Heart. The scary thing about the priest’s story is that it can and does happen to all of us. Again, just because you don’t make the headlines doesn’t diminish the importance of having a clean heart before God.
An unchecked lusting heart will lead to emotional or physical affairs. An unchecked greedy heart will lead to theft. An unchecked selfish heart will lead to a narcissistic, self-centered life. I could go on. Guard your heart.
If you are unclear about how to guard your heart, get involved in a church and a small group of trusted Christians that are all committed to “heart care”.