What's yours is NOT mine.

Original Date: 
Sunday, October 30, 2016

Exodus 20:15 The Ten Commandments: What is Yours is NOT Mine

A Tale of Two Libraries
I went to seminary at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. That’s in Deerfield, IL, which is a northern suburb of Chicago. Just down the road from us was Northwestern University, in Evanston.
While I was there, one of the things that struck me as ironic was the contrast between the two school libraries.

You see, Northwestern came from a worldview that believed in the essential goodness of humanity. They didn’t believe that a concept like sin existed. They believed that we are all born as morally blank slates and that if we did bad things, it was the result of our environment.

Trinity, on the other hand, came from a worldview that believed in the fallen nature of humanity. They believed that there is sin in the world and that, in fact, we are all born with a predisposition to sin. Trinity taught “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”

So here’s the irony: Northwestern’s library was locked down like a fortress. You could not gain entrance to their library without a proper student I.D. and there were electronic monitoring devices on every door designed to make sure no book was taken out without proper check out procedures.

Trinity’s library, by contrast, had no such security. No I.D. was required to get in. They did not yet have electronic monitoring devices on the doors. They expected people who wanted to take a book to stop at the desk and check it out first.

And wouldn’t you know: theft of books was huge problem at Trinity. Every year the school lost thousands and thousands of dollars because books disappeared from the library. We even got an all-school memo about it, asking us to please stop stealing books from the library and offering a one month amnesty for all library books that had been improperly taken to be returned. This school full of men and women preparing to be pastors and serve in the church had an issue with the 8th commandment.

You Shall Not Steal
We are in the midst of a series on the 10 Commandments. We are looking at how these 10 rules set the basic framework for our society, reveal our need for a Savior, and guide out relationship with God and with each other. And today we come to commandment number 8. Exodus 20:15:

You shall not steal.

In Hebrew, it’s just two words. Lo ganaf. The strongest possible prohibition. Like the command against murder and adultery, God is grabbing us by the snout and saying: “NO! DO NOT! NO STEALING! NO!” The word ganaf means to carry something away, as if by stealth. It means taking something that doesn’t belong to you. Taking something you have no right to have.
God is opposed to stealing. We do not love our neighbor as we love ourselves if we are taking our neighbor’s stuff.

Like last week, I’d like to consider this command by asking and answering three questions. I’m going to ask:
1) What is stealing?
2) What is wrong with stealing?
3) And, what should we do?

From the Catechism
So, first: What is stealing? On the one hand, that’s an easy to answer question. Don’t take something that belongs to someone else. Every toddler understands this at a basic level. At least they know they don’t want you to take something that belongs to them.

But, on the other hand, this commandment covers a lot more territory than we usually think. More than saying it is wrong to stick somebody up in an alley, this command also tells us it is wrong for a business owner to knowingly sell an inferior product or for any of us to throw out perfectly good food.

Each sermon and book chapter I read on the 8th commandment included a section talking about the various ways stealing can take place. For example, one sermon said:

These would constitute stealing: embezzling, unreasonably high interest rates, unfair payday loans, rigged gambling, break-ins, unjust taxation, burglary, larceny, highjacking, shoplifting, extortion, racketeering, underpaying your taxes, filing false insurance claims, governmental waste, excessive national debt, falsely billing clients and/or falsely billing your employer, misappropriating company funds, killing time at work, not paying your employees, taking supplies and/or stocked goods from your employer, taking intellectual property, plagiarism, illegal downloads, etc (Mark Driscoll, “Do Not Steal”, http://markdriscoll.org/sermons/vii-do-not-steal/)

And even that list is not comprehensive.

So here’s how I want to tackle this. The Heidelberg Catechism is one of the standard documents of our church. Written about 400 years ago, it gives a pretty good summary of what we believe about God and salvation and the Bible and so on. And the Catechism has a section on the 10 Commandments. Here’s what it says in Question and Answer #110:

Q. What Does God Forbid in the Eighth Commandment?
A. He forbids not only outright theft and robbery, punishable by law.
But in God’s sight theft also includes cheating and swindling our neighbor by schemes made to appear legitimate, such as: inaccurate measurements of weight, size, or volume; fraudulent merchandising; counterfeit money; excessive interest; or any other means forbidden by God.
In addition he forbids all greed and pointless squandering of his gifts.

As I look at this answer, I see three classifications of stealing that we should avoid.

At the top is what I’ll call basic theft. This is what the Catechism calls “outright theft and robbery.” This is what most of us think about when we hear the command not to steal. Physically taking something that does not belong to you. Looking around to see if anybody is watching you, then casually picking up some item that does not belong to you and slipping it into your coat or pocket. Shoplifting. Purse-snatching. Breaking and entering. Stealing a car. Robbing a bank.

This also includes stealing supplies from hospitals, building sites, or hotels. The hotel might give you the shampoo bottle and the bar of soap as a complementary gift, but they do not mean for you to take home the towels, the robe, or the coffee pot. Even here at church, we’ve had problems with diapers disappearing from the nursery and toilet paper missing from our supply closet.
Outright theft and robbery. Physically taking something that does not belong to you.

But there is also what I’ll call sophisticated stealing. This is what the Catechism calls “cheating and swindling our neighbor by schemes made to appear legitimate.”

A guy who walks into a bank with a mask on his face and a gun in his hand is called a basic burglar, but the bank employee who steals from his bank is an embezzler. A person who goes to a government facility and steals is called a thief but when a congressman or senator misuses the money of the nation-that is called “misappropriation of funds.” So, this variety of stealing is more complicated than simply physically taking someone’s property. It includes things like “insider trading” and “white collar crime” and “fraud.” (Mark Adams, http://www.redlandbaptist.org/sermon/stop-thief/)

Deceitful advertising is a form of stealing. Using dishonesty to sell an inferior product at a higher price. The Bible calls it “using differing weights” or inaccurate measurements. We call it bait and switch.

There is also a lot of theft at the workplace. And not just taking the office stapler home, but filling in false time cards or generally wasting time at work. One estimate I read, from Salary.com, says the average American worker wastes 2.09 hours a day. That’s one quarter of the work day—for which we are getting paid—spent surfing the internet, making personal phone calls, making small talk with a co-worker, or just staring out the window. (Cited by Driscoll) Another estimate says employee theft of property and time costs American businesses and investors 200 billion dollars a year. This affects all of us. By one analysis up to one third of a product’s cost goes to cover the various forms of stealing that occur in the marketplace. This “theft surcharge” is a drag on the whole economy. (cited by Ryken, Exodus, 643)

And, of course, employers often steal from their workers. Not providing a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work. Expecting longer hours than the employee is contracted for, and then failing to compensate for them.

If you are student, cheating is stealing. Taking those answers to questions that you did not come up with yourself; plagiarizing someone else’s work and claiming it as your own, that’s stealing.

If you are a taxpayer, cheating on your taxes is stealing. Jesus said that we should render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. That means obeying the tax law even when we don’t like what our taxes are being used for.

If you are in debt, and you let your debts hang on and on, that is a form of stealing too. If you have borrowed something, you have an obligation to repay it in a timely manner.

And, of course, if you are lender, then you should charge reasonable and fair interest rates. The Bible condemns usury, which is excessive interest, especially charged against those who are the poorest and least able to handle the payments. Payday loans, rent-to-own, pawn shops: almost all charge interest rates that could be considered stealing.

John Calvin said: “Let us remember that all those arts whereby we acquire the possessions and money of our neighbors—when such devices depart from sincere affection to a desire to cheat or in some manner to harm—are to be considered thefts.” Scott Adams, the author of the comic strip Dilbert, says that much of our human interaction—especially with regards to business—falls into the Weasel Zone—that “gigantic gray area between good moral behavior and outright felonious activities.” (both quotes found in Ryken, p. 644)

The Catechism takes it one step further though. The eighth commandment applies not just to taking from or cheating our neighbor, but also to keeping more than we ought. The Catechism says that God also forbids “all greed and pointless squandering of his gifts.”

When we have more than we need and we are unwilling to share it with others; when we hoard our possessions and our money while there are people in need: God says we are being fools (Luke 12:20). Listen to what James—the brother of Jesus--has to say about greed:

Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. 2 Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. 3 Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. 4 Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. 5 You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. 6 You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you. (James 5:1-6)

Hoarded wealth, wealth that is squandered and clung to when it could be used for good, is a form of stealing. And God does not like it. He does not like it one little bit.

Love Others, Love God
So that’s what stealing is. It is taking what belongs to, or could be shared with, others. Now, second question: What’s wrong with stealing? I suppose, if you’ve ever had something stolen from you, the answer is fairly obvious. Nobody likes to have their stuff taken away from them.

But I want us to think it through a little bit. Why did God choose to make this a part of His top ten list? Why does God take such an interest in this particular command? And I think there are two answers, and they have to do with the two sides of the law.

Remember, we’ve been saying that the law can be divided according to Jesus’ summary of the law. When Jesus was asked what the most important command is, He answered by saying: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment.” That, we said, is the first tablet of the law. Technically, the first four commands, which have to do with our relationship with God. Then Jesus went on to say: “And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” That’s the second tablet of the law. The last six commands have to do with our relationship with others.

But they are also connected, right? One of the ways we love God is by loving those made in His image. So we can think about the eighth commandment in terms of how it affects our relationship with God and our relationship with others. I’ll take them in reverse order.

So, for one thing, stealing is wrong because it hurts our relationship with our neighbor. When we steal from someone else we are robbing them of what God has provided for them.

Now, it is important to note here that the Bible believes in the right of ownership. Sometimes we read the Bible—especially the parts about the early Christians sharing everything in common—and we think that the Bible sort of endorses communism. The perfect society, we think, is one where everybody just shares everything. Then nobody would have more than anyone else, and nobody would have less than anyone else.

But the Bible definitely believes in private property rights. The eighth commandment is founded on the assumption that I have certain things, and you have certain things, and what is yours is yours and what is mine is mine and we need to respect one another’s rights of ownership. The Bible believes in private ownership, and it encourages generosity. The thing about those early Christians who held everything in common is that they chose to do so—they were being generous with what they had—but they had every right to hold onto what belonged to them (cf Acts 5:4).
So we do not have the right to take what belongs to someone else. In fact, that’s something we need to think about: “rights.” We are very good at defending our rights. We have the “right” not to be stolen from. We have the “right” to protect our own property. We are good at thinking about our rights. But what we don’t often think about is how our rights come with responsibilities. Because not only do we have the right not to be stolen from, we also have the responsibility not to steal from others. Those things go hand in hand. And we need to think about our responsibilities as much as we do our rights.

All of which leads to this thought: God loves your neighbor as much as He loves you. That’s why this commandment exists. Because God loves your neighbor as much as He loves you.
One of the trends in Christian thinking is about how much God loves you. God wants to bless you. God wants to provide for you. God is going to take care of you. All of that is totally true. But the focus becomes so much about what God is doing for me that I forget that He cares about everybody else just as much. And He wants me to care about them too.

So instead of thinking that a little theft here and there might be o.k., because God wants what is best for me and if I just had a little bit more that would be good; we have to see that God cares about our neighbors and He is not interested in blessing us at their expense.

So, one of the ways we love our neighbor is by not stealing from our neighbor. If it belongs to them and I take it, it might bless me, it might provide for me, but it hurts them. And God cares about that. Because God believes in private property and God believes in doing what is best not only for you but for your neighbor as well. And that means you don’t steal.

But that’s not the only reason stealing is wrong. Not only does it hurt our relationship with our neighbor, it also hurts our relationship with God. Because when we steal we are making a statement about what we believe about God. When we steal, we are saying to the world—whether we realize it or not--that we do not believe that God can be trusted.

Think about it. Whenever you go into the grocery store and slip a piece of produce into your coat; or whenever you overcharge a customer for work that you didn’t actually perform; or whenever you greedily hold on to more than you need instead of being generous; or steal in any other form; you are saying in effect: “I do not believe that if I do the right thing that God can be trusted to provide me with what I need, want or desire; and so rather than wait until I can acquire it in the right way I am just going to take it now.”

Stealing reveals a lack of trust in God.

Consider Hebrews 13:5-6:

5 Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said,
“Never will I leave you;
never will I forsake you.”
6 So we say with confidence,
“The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid.
What can mere mortals do to me?”

John Piper writes:

What this teaches is that the craving for things which drive us to steal is owing to unbelief in the promises of God. The Lord who owns all the cattle on a thousand hills, who has the wisdom to design the DNA and the Milky Way, who rules the world down to the death of little birds in Bangladesh, and who did not spare his own Son—that Lord of lords and King of kings has promised his people, "I will never leave you nor forsake you!"

I ask you, can you believe this and yet steal just to add a little to your security or your pleasure? (http://www.desiringgod.org/messages/dont-steal-work-and-give)

When we steal we are saying: “I don’t believe that God will never leave me. I don’t believe God will never forsake me. So I have to take what I want now.” When we steal we are saying: “I do not believe the Lord is my helper. I’m afraid of what I’m going to miss.” When we steal we are saying that we do not trust God.
Philippians 4:19 says:

19 And my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus.

Author Ron Mehl writes:

[In the eighth commandment] God is saying, ‘I don’t want you stealing because I am your Provider. I want you to understand and believe that I am the One Who will supply all your needs. I don’t want you to feel responsible for securing your own future. (quoted by Adams)

But when we steal, we are saying: “I will be my own provider in this instance. I don’t trust God to meet all my needs, and if I don’t take it now, I will be the loser.”

God is against stealing because He wants us to understand that when we place our trust fully in Him, we NEVER lose. When we resist the temptation to steal we are making a decision to trust God to provide us with what we need, with what is best for us.

Ephesians 4:28
So, third and final question: What should we do? For an answer, we can turn to Ephesians 4:28, which is essentially the New Testament’s version of the eighth commandment. Paul writes:

28 Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need.

There are three things here. First, steal no longer. If you have been stealing, stop. If you have been taking things that don’t belong to you, stop. If you have been cheating your customers or giving less than a full day’s effort at work or hiding your income so that you can save on your taxes, stop. Steal no longer.

We can even take this a step farther. Not only should you stop, you should repay. If you have been stealing, you need to return it. In Exodus 22, just two chapters after God gives the 10 Commandments, the Bible talks about what to do if someone steals livestock. It says: if they stole a sheep, they should pay back 4 sheep! If they stole an ox, they should pay back five head of cattle. (Exodus 22:1)

It’s called restitution. And it is a reminder that it is not enough to be sorry that you took something, but you need to make up for the damage you’ve done. In the New Testament, after Jesus comes to the house of Zaccheus and Zaccheus repents of his felonious tax collecting, he vows to pay back four times the amount of what he has taken. (Luke 19:8)

It can be scary thinking about paying back such large amounts. But it’s possible when you trust Jesus to be your provider. When a Christian revival swept through Belfast in 1922-23, the story goes that so many converted shipyard workers brought back tools and equipment to their worksites that additional store sheds had to be built. I’d love to tell you that Trinity’s library had to put up extra shelves because so many books were returned, but I honestly can’t tell you if they even got a single book back.

Then, second, work. Instead of taking, earn. Take responsibility for yourself and earn the things you need and want. Be productive. Be a productive member of society.

Our translation says “doing something useful with their hands.” That doesn’t quite capture the force of what Paul was saying though. More than just being useful, Paul is calling us to do good. Literally, it says “perform the good.”

God cares what you do for a living. Make sure that the work you are doing is honorable to Him. Don’t justify a job which hurts or takes advantage of others with “I just need to put food on my table.” Make sure your job is useful and good.

Then, third, share. More than working to have, work to give. Make it your goal not just to have for yourself, but to be in a position to bless others.

God’s goal and purpose for us is not just that we would stop stealing. And it’s not just that we would earn our own way. But what God really wants for us is that we would work to have so that we can be generous with what is ours. God wants us to reflect grace.

Our model in this, of course, is Jesus. Jesus did not selfishly hold on to what He had, but gave it up in order give His life away for us. (cf. Phil. 2:6-8) In the same way God is calling to stop being takers, and begin being givers. Steal no longer. Instead, work and share.

And let me remind you that it was between two thieves that Jesus died. Jesus died for thieves. And, in fact, the first person to directly benefit from Jesus’ death was the thief who said to Him, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answered by saying, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:42-43)

He gives the same answer to every thief who turns to him in repentance and faith. If you have been stealing, stop today. Repent, and find your forgiveness in Jesus.