The summer is quickly coming to a close – just three more Sundays prior to Labor Day. And hopefully we’ve made it past the last-ditch effort of the Summer to make us miserable with the past week of 100 degree days.
We have three weeks left to finish up our focus on the Ten Commandments. Notably, the past two Sundays have been challenging sermons to write and preach – I can’t imagine they were favorites of the congregation either. Who wants to go to church to hear about the prohibitions against killing and adultery. But these coming three weeks, they should go quite swimmingly. While there may be great debate over what constitutes killing and adultery, we’re all of one mind regarding stealing, lying, and coveting as unfavorable for the kingdom of God and the world. Yes?
As with each previous week, our goal toward reclaiming the Ten Commandments for faithful living today begins with our appreciation for the commandments as they were first offered to the Israelites who were wandering in the wilderness, seeking a new life and new home apart from captivity in Egypt.
Today’s verse simply states, “You shall not steal.” Such an easy command to understand and interpret – or so it seems. At its core, to steal – even in ancient Hebrew – means to take from another, and to do so by stealth – that is, attempting to take from another without their explicit knowledge of your taking.
In the context of the ancient near east Israelites, the primary challenge in understanding this text is that taking another’s possessions is one of the only commands that doesn’t require death for breaking. It seems almost too marginal of a command to be included in the top 10. The only exception, the only time death is prescribed as the punishment for stealing, is if the object being stolen is a person.[i] If “being put to death” is our synonymous link between the Eighth Command and the others, especially those that are prohibitive commands, identified as the “thou shall not” commands, then this command is first and foremost about protecting individuals. “No member of the community shall appropriate any other member of the community illegally or against their will for economic gain or advantage.”[ii]
Such a reading seems faithful to God’s intent, which is first and foremost about setting right our relationship with our Creator, and secondly about our relationships with one another. Who are we to take away the human freedom of another, given the premise that each of us was created in the image of God. To enslave another, to put someone to work against their will, can and should be likened to the prohibition against killing (the Sixth Commandment), as it takes away the full identity of someone God has created. To command another to do as you wish is also, in effect, putting yourself in the place of God, demanding another succumb to your will. Such a mentality breaks the First Commandment, effectively deeming yourself a god to be worship along side the Lord God. Finally, in line with the Eighth Commandment, to appropriate another in the community as your servant against their will is stealing. “Every attempt to enslave, to restrict the freedom, and to coerce and force economic production from one’s neighbor [is a violation of the Eighth Commandment.]”[iii]
So, to be clear, slavery (forcing another into a position that provides for your economic gain at the expense of their freedom) breaks not one or two, but quite directly violates three of the Ten Commandments.
Understanding the prohibition to be against taking a person’s life seems faithful to the intent of the commandment, and we should be very blunt in naming the breadth of modern day slavery, which needs a clamoring voice of justice in the midst of harsh reality. This not only speaks against punitive totalitarian dictatorships that still exist in our world, but even speaks to the injustices of our practices in the United States against immigrants who, though not given legal status, are certainly seen in God’s eyes as equals protected in the commands as part of God’s created. It also calls into question the practice of capitalism, which graciously affords for the wealthy on the backs of the poor. Such examples, while not limited to, certainly include the failure of contractors and home owners alike to follow through on promised wages for day laborers, the hidden yet rampant human trafficking issue, which enslaves over 27 million individuals world wide (mostly women and children), and it brings into question the minimum wage laws, which often fail to provide adequate pay for persons to afford even the most basic of necessities. The command to not steal calls into question any practice that takes from another their God given identity as created individuals who should, because they were created in the image of God, have equal worth, value, and status in community.
Such a focus is demanded by the Eighth Commandment, but such a reading is perhaps a bit limited in scope. The commandment does not have a direct object in its original penning, it simply says, “you shall not steal.” To read the commandment with a sole focus on the stealing of persons, albeit the most directly connected given the punishment attributed, is surely too near-sighted a focus for this text.
Quite often, the privileged seek to limit the scope of this command to be a direct prohibition against a less-wealthy individual taking from the abundance of their wealth. Those who have much wind up sounding like the seagulls in Finding Nemo, stuck in a cyclical repetition where only one word is comprehendible, “mine,” “mine,” “mine.” Indeed, there are many rules in our modern law books regarding the prohibition of stealing. Accordingly, property crime in the US, as defined in our society, occurs almost once every 10 seconds.[iv]
Surely property crime is included in the Eighth Commandment. The commandments were created to set right our relationship with God and one another, and there is little question that taking from the property of another is no way to make good friends or to maintain a healthy community. However, given there is no direct object to the command, if we are to widen the scope of what it means to steal from another, we will not be justified in attributing our selfish parameters to the command. Once we begin to widen the scope, we must consider all possible understandings for the text.
“As Walter Eichrodt, [a German Old Testament scholar,] says, ‘the commandment does far more than protect personal property. It warns against taking advantage of a brother (or sister) in need. It stands against all exploitation of the weak, and is a guide for all social and economic action and restraint.’”[v] When we broaden the scope, an acceptable and necessary task for understanding God’s true intent in such a command, we have to identify and claim in violation any and every act that lessens the image of a person, or any act that works against the intended cohesiveness of community.
A few examples, “When workers fail to render a day’s work for a day’s pay, they steal from their employers. When employers fail to provide fair payment and fair benefits for workers, they steal from their employees. When teachers fail to provide students with their best instruction, they steal from those students. When lobbyists unduly influence legislators or others to support damaging policies, they and their employees steal from the public.”[vi] And what about when an entire country, or a cultural group on the whole, that over uses the limited goods of the planet? “Is that not stealing from those who deserve a more nearly equitable share of these gifts of God?”[vii]
The Eighth Commandment certainly has at its core the prohibition of taking from another – and if we move beyond our near-sightedness, we find that taking from another includes more than the purse snatcher or the car thief. It includes the banker who takes and benefits from the financial turmoil of others. It includes the for-profit prisons that charge exorbitant fees for the most basic of supplies, allowing the wealthy to benefit at the detriment of others. It is seen in the nearly trillion-dollar military industry, where privately owned contractors are making bank at the expense of the loss of life by others around the world.
And then there’s the all-encompassing lack of stewardship in general. “Poor stewards steal from the current generation, but they also steal from the generation to come.”[viii] Not to mention, poor stewards also steal from God, who has entrusted each of us with the proper care of the resources of the earth. For, just as much as this command is about the prohibition of taking from another, it is also about “rightfully giving back to God as God has commanded.”[ix] To not return to God as God has commanded, is stealing from God.
As we look toward a more faithful application today, it does us well to look forward from the Old Testament and the ancient Israelites to see how this text has been faithfully lived in Christian communities. In Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus, we find that Paul is reiterating some of the commands for the early Christian societies. In so doing, he is summarizing Christ’s teachings on the commandments. In verse 25 of Ephesians 4, which we had read this morning, Paul says, “let all of us speak truth to our neighbors.” We will touch on this commandment next week; this is Paul’s reiteration of the Ninth Commandment, “You shall not bear false witness.” In verse 26, Paul says, “be angry, but do not sin … do not make room for the devil.” This picks up on Christ’s teaching regarding the Sixth Commandment to not kill, when Christ says, you shall not even have anger in your heart. Anger, when festered, leads to angry action, which can result in the killing of another.
Then in verse 28, Paul touches on this Eighth Commandment to not steal. The passage reads, “Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy.”
In this verse, we find not only words of guidance for how we should live and work, but also the purpose for which we are living and working. “Rather than taking from others, the members of the church are called to work so that they are able to pass something along to the poor. … This is not a call to keep your head down and just pay attention to your own ‘honest work.’ Rather, it is a call to pay open-eyed attention to the needs of those around us, so that we can discern the good thing that our neighbor’s need and then do it.”[x]
Again, the focus of the commands is to put us in right relationship with God and with one another. How can we be in right relationship with God if we are abusing others of God’s own creation? How can we be in right relationship with God if we are taking advantage of others and not fulfilling the will of God by using the gifts, ideas, resources and passions God has given us as co-creators called to participate in the epiphany of the kingdom of God here of earth? And how can we be in right relationship with another if we would rather see others suppressed and arrested than to empower them to use their God given gifts to the benefit of community? How can we be in right relationship with others if we expect them to fulfill their call toward faithfulness while being treated as modern-day servants who don’t have the sustainable resources to maintain even the most basic of life’s necessities?
As Paul explains this command, he names that positive action for the good is expected, which means that passivity and inaction are prohibited. Such a call means we must “watch for the economic endangerment of other members of the community and not hide from it behind gated communities and the walling-off, literally and figuratively, of the ghettos of the economically endangered.”[xi]
The command to not steal, which seems like such a simple statement, is perhaps not as easy to live as one might expect in a world that praises accomplishments and wealth, even at the expense of others.
Hear then this final summation of the Eighth Commandment for faithful living today. Stealing would be better identified “as any activity that damages or destroys a person’s or a community’s opportunity for a tolerable life in community – consisting at least of adequate food, clothing, shelter, work, and hope for the future.”[xii] These are not surprising necessities – they are the basics of which Christ affirmed were to be offered to all persons in community. When did you see someone hungry and gave them no food? When did you see someone without clothing and gave them no robe? Christ says, that which have not done to any of these, you have not done for me. They are commanded in the Eighth Commandment and by Christ. And Christ is the one who came to make possible for each of us a hope for the future. Anytime we fail to share the love of Christ with another, we have stolen from them that which is God given – love, hope, and a covenant for a better world: a world ruled by the love of God.
So do not steal, but put yourself to honest and good work, that you too may share that which God has shared with you will all who may have need. Amen.