The Fifth Midweek in Lent
March 24-25, 2009
Text: Exodus 20:15
Dear Friends in Christ,
You shall not steal. This is the new slogan for the plastics industry, right? You know get rid of all the metal products and replace them with plastic ones. No, you don’t think that’s right? I know, it’s the campaign slogan for those who oppose Republican party national chairman Michael Steele. Oh, you don’t think that’s right either. Oh, I know it’s an environmental slogan opposing foundries. I see you’re still shaking your head. That must not be it either.
You shall not steal. What is this all about. It’s about property. Yes, the Bible affirms the idea of private property. The Bible considers property and wealth a blessing from God. But it also condemns those who take it from others. We need to take this apart to understand what God is saying to us.
What is the Biblical understanding of property? It has two meanings. The first is the fruit of ones own labor. Throughout the Old Testament, blessing is described and planting and harvesting. Curse is described as planting and someone else harvesting, such as a foreign invader. So it is mine because I have earned it. I have put the time and sweat in so it belongs to me, to do with as I please. The second meaning of property is that which is freely given as a gift. Interestingly, here there is greater responsibility. A gift is also a trust. Whereas what you have earned it yours to do as please. You can use it wisely or foolishly. It is your call. But what is given to you is a trust. It must be used for the purpose it was given. The recipient is responsible to the giver for the use they make of it. One of the most common forms of gift in the Scriptures is an inheritance. We might say well, what responsibility is there with that. The giver is dead. But the Fourth Commandment requires us to bring honor to their name. So we must use the gift in a way that brings honor to their name. So property is what we have earned and what we have been given. What we have been given is always the more precious of the two.
Stealing or theft is the taking of that which we have not earned and have not been given. So what are some common forms of theft today among the supposedly “good” people. Disputing a will. Unless one can show that there was some manipulation of the deceased, this is theft. So lets say a hired care giver is dishonest and convinces an elderly person to rewrite their will to favor the care giver. It would be right for the family to dispute this and have that will set aside in favor of an earlier will. But they would not be free to claim anything they pleased. In a story, an elderly lady felt so pressed upon by greedy relatives and other gold diggers that at the last moment before her death, she left everything to her lawyer. Knowing that the will would be challenged, the lawyer simply distributed the estate fairly, so that everyone got a share, but at the same time were thwarted as well. He kept only his fees. That lawyer displayed the proper honesty that is expected of all of us.
What about law suits. Even the laws of Moses provided for what we today call civil suits. The Lutheran Confessions teach us that if we have a dispute of a legal nature, the court has been put into place by God to resolve such things. But there’s a catch. We are to go to the courts to demand justice. Lets say our property has been damaged by the actions of another person. We can demand that they pay to put it right. Perhaps we can demand a little extra for our time and hassle, and of course of legal fees. But if we ask for money far beyond what was done, that is stealing. When I was in Indiana, one of my predecessor’s wife fell on a wet floor in a public building. They sued and got a big settlement so that they could retire in grand style. But the lady was not seriously injured. So there, this pastor, was guilty of theft in demanding compensation far beyond the injury that was done.
Can the government be a thief? Certainly. Government’s role is defined by God. It is there restrain evil. It does that by having a police force, military, courts and the like. It is not put in place by God to be our nanny. The government is not charged with taking care of us. It’s charged with protecting us. So when the government seizes property for purposes other than public use, they are a thief. In one case, a church wished to relocate. They spent years buying up small parcels of land until they had about forty acres. They were just about ready to start building when the city came in and seized the land so that they could sell it to a shopping center developer. Even though they offered compensation, this was theft by the government. Sadly our courts have permitted this sort of the thing to happen. Likewise all the attempts at redistributing wealth result in the government being guilty of theft. I would indeed charge the wealthy to be generous in helping their fellow man. That is good, right and salutary. But when the government takes that same money by force, to give out to those it chooses, it is theft, plain and simple. We must see it as such. For such things are grave injustices before God.
You shall not steal. We might think this is one we don’t have to worry about. But stealing is all around us. Many of the “good” people are in fact thieves. Often we ourselves are thieves. We’ve become so calloused by our society and our bad laws that we often don’t even see our thievery. And so we must repent of this also. But we do not repent without hope. For we know that in Christ our sins are forgiven. We can turn to Christ with certain that hope that He will indeed turn a gracious eye to us, as He once did to another thief. We know that we also will hear those words of assurance from the lips of Christ - “Today you shall be with Me in Paradise.”