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As we make our way through this series on the 10 Commandments this summer, I am once again surprised at God’s concern for the big things as well as the little things in our life. I doubt that anyone is very surprise to hear that God wants us to ‘have no other gods besides Me,’ and ‘we not misuse His name,’ and ‘honor the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.’ These are the kinds of things that everyone expects God to be concerned about.
But what we have been seeing as we make our way though the 2nd Table of the Commandments is that God is just as interested in what we typically call the ‘ordinary’, and ‘down to earth’ things, such as our families; “You shall honor your father and mother,” and our physical body; “You shall not murder,” and our marriage; “You shall not commit adultery.” And now this morning we hear that God is also concerned for, of all things, our material possessions; “You shall not steal.”
Does it surprise you like it does me, that the almighty God, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, is concerned about things like your boat, and golf clubs, and fly rod, and your wardrobe and jewelry and car, and your I-pad and I-phone and your toys?
Does it surprise you that ‘true religion’ is a whole lot more ‘all encompassing’ than we either think it is or maybe even than we would like it to be? You mean that God is involved in my ‘stuff,’ and my neighbor’s ‘stuff?’ Maybe we’d like to keep our religion on a much more ‘spiritual’ level. Maybe we want our ‘money’ and ‘possessions’ to be exempt from anything to do with matters of faith and the life of faith.
“You shall not steal.” Four words in the English, just two in the Hebrew of Exodus 20:15. “Lo tegenav.” (If nothing else, we're learning a little Hebrew this summer.) “Lo” is the negative – 'not.' “Te” is the prefix that makes it 2nd person singular – “you.” “Genav” is the verb – “to steal.” To take what is what belongs to someone else.
The New Testament word is much more familiar. “ou klepto.” “Kleptomania” is an irrational urge to steal regardless of economic need. It’s not that you can’t afford to buy something, or even pay the price that it’s worth, or that you actually even need it. It’s stealing simply for the sake of stealing.
In his famous “Confessions,” St. Augustine was shocked to discover that he was by nature sinful and unclean. He realized this one day when he and few of his friends stole a few pears from someone’s pear tree. When he thought about what he had done he realized that he wasn’t hungry and the pear tree in his own back yard had much nicer pears on it.
Listen to Augustine. “I had a desire to commit robbery, and did so, compelled to it by neither hunger nor poverty, but through a contempt for well-doing and a strong impulse to iniquity. I pilfered something which I already had in sufficient measure, and of much better quality. I did not desire to enjoy what I stole, but only the theft and the sin itself.”
As I searched out all of the places where “genav” and “klepto” are used in the Scriptures, I was surprised that there wasn’t one case of either word being used for someone who stole something for the sake of survival.
It’s not that the Bible condones stealing if it’s a matter of survival. It’s just that that’s not really what this is all about. If it was, this Commandment would probably not apply to most of us. But this is about “kleptomania,” which as Augustine discovered, apply to all of us more than we might think.
“You shall not steal.” As he does so well, Luther captures both sides of this commandment in his explanation. 'We should fear and love God so that we do not take our neighbor's money or possessions, or get them in any dishonest way, BUT help him to improve and protect his possessions and income.'
In his Large Catechism, Luther says that ‘stealing is taking advantage of our neighbor to his loss in any sort of dealing.’ “Any sort of dealing.” That covers a lot of ground doesn’t it? That covers criminal acts of theft. But also the daily economic dealings that we engage in with others that may be perfectly acceptable from a legal perspective, but that clearly ‘take advantage of our neighbor to his loss.’
So we should think about these words as we sell or buy a house or a car from someone; or in the way that we do the job that we are being paid to do; or the way that we pay others to do the work we hire them to do; or the way that we repay what has been loaned to us; or carry our share of the expenses.
This Commandment then calls us to think not just of ourselves, but of the person whom we are dealing with. It challenges us to think of their possessions and income at least as much as our own.
This Commandment is simply another specific application of what it means to “love your neighbor as yourself.”
With a definition of stealing as broad as this then, Luther goes on to say that “if all who are thieves but do not want to admit it were strung up on the gallows, the world would soon be emptied and there would not be enough gallows and hangmen.”
So, on the one hand we hear the Old Testament Prophets rail against the merchants who use ‘weighted scales.’ “A false balance is an abomination to the Lord, but a just weight is his delight.” (Proverbs 11:1). God is condemns dishonest business tactics and is delighted with something as simple as an honest sale.
On the other hand, when farmers harvest their crop, God commanded that they were not to go back over their fields a second time to collect whatever they didn't get on the first harvest. The 'gleanings' were to be left for the poor. A businessman like Boaz was not to suck every last dime of profit out of his crop that he could. In consideration for the poor, such as Naomi and Ruth, he allowed them to pickup as much as they could carry so that they could 'improve and protect their income and possessions.'
You don’t have to dig too deeply into this Commandment before you begin to realize that it presents serious questions for a society that operates with an economy like ours. How free is ‘free enterprise’ from a biblical perspective? How much profit is ‘fair?’ How do stock-holders balance their demand for more and more prophets and care for company employees and customers?
I’m not suggesting that there are any ‘easy answers’ to these questions. But the 7th Commandment demands that we keep the person on the other end of every ‘deal’ in mind. Is the transaction, whether it be a purchase, or a day’s work, or a ‘deal,’ that may not be ‘theft,’ but that I know is such a ‘steal,’ that if I were on the other end of it I would feel cheated?
Before he was elected President of the Synod, Matthew Harrison had been the Director of LCMS World Relief. In 2008, he wrote of very good book “Christ Have Mercy – How To Put Your Faith In Action” – a theology of mercy based on the Scriptures, the Lutheran Confessions and his personal experience. He talks about his habit when he would visit 3rd world countries where you can get great deals on things at the local markets. The common practice is to ‘bargain’ with the merchants and see how low you can get them to go before buying their product. His practice is to ask how much and offer more. One because it’s still a great deal, two because he can afford it and three because the merchant probably depends on this sale for his survival. You can just imagine the doors that this opens for communication and discussion. 'We should help our neighbor improve and protect their income and possessions.'
Like I said, maybe we really don’t want God involved in our ‘dealings’ as much as He is. Religion like this threatens to interfere with the way we deal with others economically and materially.
I should warn you that in my search through the Scriptures, I discovered something that I had never really seen before. Stealing is so offensive to God that ‘thieves’ are mentioned as those who will not inherit the Kingdom of God. Listen to Paul who writes to the Corinthians, “Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, NOR THIEVES, not the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, NOR SWINDLERS, will inherit the kingdom of God.” (1 Cor. 6:10).
Maybe this might be a good time for us to rehearse the 7th Commandment and Luther’s explanation together. What is the 7th Commandment? 'You shall not steal.' What does this mean? 'We should fear and love God so that we do not take our neighbor's money or possessions, or get them in any dishonest way, but help him to improve and protect his possessions and income.'
If there is any ‘gospel’ in this Commandment, any ‘grace of God,’ it is that Jesus seems to go out of His way to associate with ‘thieves.’ If there was anyone in Jesus’ day who was guilty of breaking the 7th Commandment the way that we have been talking about it, it was tax collectors. Tax collectors were notorious for cheating and overtaxing people as much as they possibly could. Yet Jesus is constantly accused of not only associating with them, but entering into a close association with them. He ate with them.
One such tax collector was a man named Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus was a 'chief tax collector.' One day, Jesus invited Himself to Zacchaeus' house so to eat dinner with Him. And Zacchaeus' life was forever changed. Just listen this “chief thief” who was as guilty as they come according to the 7th Commandment after Jesus Christ came into His life.
“Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” That’s what real ‘repentance’ looks like. A change of heart, from taking advantage of others as much as we can, to ‘helping them improve and protect his possessions and income.”
What joy Jesus must have had in saying, “Today, salvation has come to this house.” (Luke 19:8-9).
Jesus has come into the world for ‘thieves.’ ‘Thieves’ like, Zacchaeus, like Augustine, like you and me. And this morning, He comes here to eat a meal with us, a very special meal of His own body to eat and blood to drink, given and shed for ‘thieves,’ for our forgiveness, for our repentance, for His joy.
“We should fear and love God so that we do not take our neighbor’s money or possessions or get them in any dishonest way, but help him to improve and protect his possessions and income.”