READ : Exodus 20:15
Don’t be a taker. Be a giver instead.
Welcome to the eighth in our series on the Ten Commandments. Remember again, dear friends, the background of saving love from which these commandments come. As the apostle John says, “God’s commandments are not burdensome.” Those who know the goodness behind them say along with the psalmist, “Oh, how I love your law!” We’ve seen how God calls for a response to his love in worship, in family life and relationships. Today we see how he claims our obedience and service in another vital area. He lays his hand on our economic life. He wills to be Lord in the way property is acquired and distributed, by which trade and commerce are carried on. Here too, God says, you are to respond to my goodness and love. He reminds us of the important part played by possessions and money in a person’s life.
The Right to Own Property
Human well-being depends more on economic circumstances than we who are relatively affluent sometimes realize or admit. I have a number of Ugandan friends who have been here with us in this country and they say something like this: “When you pray ‘Give us this day our daily bread,’ you may have a month’s supply of food in your refrigerator and freezer. When we pray, ‘Give us this day our daily bread,’ we aren’t exactly sure where it will come from that day.”
A person needs food, clothing and a certain amount of leisure from toil to be able to respond to God in full humanness. “Man does not live by bread alone,” we know, as the scripture says, but we do live by bread.
Mary Slessor, the missionary, went to the tribes in Nigeria to give them food for their souls by preaching the gospel. She found that their moral and spiritual condition couldn’t be raised until their standard of living went up. She taught them the self-respect that comes from owning property and trading. She showed them her own possessions, invited them to possess and to gain a better living by honest trade. It was only then that the effective evangelizing of the area began. Food for the soul is much more easy to receive if we have enough food for the body.
This matter of not stealing involves the right to own property. When we’re commanded not to steal, the clear implication is that what is stolen belongs to someone else.
Now this is unknown in some cultures. In some of these, people don’t have any personal possessions. Everything belongs to the group. And in some ideologies, like communist Marxism everything belongs to the state. But private property, though it can be abused by human selfishness and greed, has many benefits. It provides provision for a person’s basic needs. As Paul says, “If we have food and clothing we will be content.” It provides also an incentive to work. People found out in Russia that if nobody gains from what is grown in the fields, no one is going to work very hard. But when a small percentage of the land that was being farmed would be for the benefit and the use of the person farming it, the leaders found that the produce from that little part of ground was far greater than from all the rest because it provided that incentive. Isn’t it a stimulus also to learning? People want to learn a trade and master some kind of vocation in order to be able to support themselves and receive financial income.
It’s also an arena for character development. How we gain and use possessions is one of the clearest tests of character. We learn about industry, thrift, honesty and cooperation. And perhaps best of all, owning property makes it possible for us to give, to share. I heard just the other day about what went on in Nazi concentration camps where each inmate would share even a bit of crust with others. The sharers tended to be the survivors. The one who ate everything himself was, in the eyes of others, moving toward death.
What is Forbidden
What does the commandment forbid? When we think about stealing, what usually comes to mind? Robbers on the road, burglars in the home, embezzlers, pick pockets, shop lifters, car thieves? And those are certainly instances of stealing. But it’s interesting that what the Bible chiefly emphasizes is the stealing of the rich from the poor, how rich landowers exploit the people who work for them and withhold their wages and take from them what they need for their survival. The prophets in such powerful ways what landowners will do to the poor.
Other forms of stealing: weights and balances where people cheat in the way things are weighed out and measured. Stealing can be related often to other crimes: conspiracy, false witness, even murder. Think of that tragic case of Naboth and Ahab: the king wanting Naboth’s vineyard and Naboth unwilling to give it up because it was his family inheritance. And then through Jezebel, Ahab’s wife, a conspiracy was arranged and scoundrels bore false witness against Naboth and he was killed. And then as a result, Naboth’s vineyard passes over to King Ahab – stealing through murder.
All kinds of other crimes are committed in order to pursue some theft. The ultimate theft we read about in the Old Testament is stealing human beings themselves as slaves, robbing them of freedom and dignity, the right to order their own lives. Often stealing on a massive scale is the reason for war. People want the oil, the gold mines, the seaports, the farm land, the lakes and rivers of another country. James talks about that: “you want something and do not have it, so you commit murder” (James 4:2).
Our Predicament and God’s Program
A part of this is simply our human predicament, one of the greatest mysteries is the unequal distribution in the world of human intelligence and ability. You know, if you took all the resources that everyone has and divide them equally among all, that situation would quickly change. Within a week, there would again be a real division in what has been accumulated by some and lost by others. Rich people own rich lands. They have a bumper crop. It’s too much to fit into the barns and so they build in order to accumulate more.
But the poor have very little opportunity to get wealth. Someone has said, “The rich get richer.” Water tends to flow downward. Wealth tends to flow upward. As we say, “It takes money to make money.”
And part of the human predicament is our insecurity and anxiety. Even when we’re very wealthy, we wonder if we will have enough and so the desire to keep on accumulating is triggered by our worry and uncertainty about our future.
Because wealth tends to flow toward the rich, God made many provisions for the poor to keep them from abject poverty. One Israelite’s land could not be sold away indefinitely. No matter how much land some person accumulated, it would eventually return to the original owner as his means of livelihood. Further, if you made loans to the poor you couldn’t mortgage their future with exorbitant interest or usury. Also no Israelite had to stay in a state of slavery. And listen to these words that check the greed and acquisitiveness of the wealthy and teach compassion: “You don’t glean your field completely. You leave some of it for the poor and the needy. You don’t go back and strip the vines of all the grapes but you leave something there.” In so many ways God seeks to deal with the situation of inequality by making provisions for the poor.
Now underlying this eighth command and all the Bible’s teaching about the use of wealth is the reality of our stewardship. We are not the absolute owners of anything. It all comes to us as a trust which God places in our hand. “All in heaven and earth is His. Riches and honor come from Him. It’s in His hand to make great and to give strength to all.” God is always reminding his people in the book of Deuteronomy that it’s he who gives them power to get wealth, that every good and perfect gift comes down from him, and we are stewards called to use our gifts for others. With whatever gift you have, Peter says, serve others, each looking out for the interests of the other.
I was wondering: Is failure to give to the poor and the needy a form of stealing? Was it so for the rich man who shared nothing with the beggar Lazarus? Should we not look on part of our wealth as in the ungleaned field as belonging to the poor, some portion of it to be regularly given to them? If Paul was a debtor because the gospel had been given to him in trust, aren’t we that – debtors to those who have so much less?
Giving Instead of Taking
The happy alternative to theft that we read about again and again in the Bible is giving. Paul says to those who have stolen that they are to steal no more but rather to work with their own hands that they will have something to give to those who are in need. Give up stealing. Then labor, work honestly, and then you’ll have something to share with the needy. Here love is seen as the fulfilling of the law. Steeling expresses hatred of others, envy of others, disregard for others. Stealing takes. It schemes how it can wrest away things of value from another.
Love, on the other hand, plans and labors in order to give. Love wants the other to have and to be enriched. Remember how in the early church people would sell their land and give to the poor because the Holy Spirit had brought the love of Christ into their hearts? And then remember supremely our Lord himself. Think of these words,
You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor so that you through his poverty might be made rich.
Doesn’t that make you want to become a little bit poorer so that someone else can know something of riches?