Text: Exodus 20:15-16 “You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”
You matter. What you do matters. It is not right that you not have good work to do to support yourself. The truth about you matters. You shouldn’t be lied about by anyone else. If we feel frustrated it often involves fear either of what people say, what people think, or what people are doing to hurt us. Jesus Christ knows all too well what it is to be lied about and what it means to live in an unjust society that perpetuates theft and deceit as virtues. He was crucified for our sins and rose from the dead for our salvation. In Christ we can become transformed nonconformists: people of God who perpetuate justice and truth-telling, who practice confession of sins and repentance, and disarm the Principalities and Powers that would bind men and women into systems of theft and deceit.
Let’s go to the Lord in prayer.
Heavenly Father, your Word (Ps. 119:1-8, NRSV) says that we are “happy when our way is blameless, when we walk in the law of the Lord.” We are “happy when we keep your decrees and seek you with our whole hearts, when we do no wrong, but walk in your ways.” You want us to “keep your precepts diligently. Oh that our ways would be steadfast in keeping your statutes! Then we shall not be put to shame, having our eyes fixed on all your commandments.” Lord “we praise you with upright hearts when we learn your righteous ordinances. We will observe your statutes, do not utterly forsake us,” because of your great mercy demonstrated in sending your Son, Jesus Christ, as a sacrifice for our sins.
I chose this text from Scripture today because I believe God’s people need to hear anew the eighth and ninth commandments. They are only a few words, but they are packed with power. “You shall not steal.” It seems pretty simple, doesn’t it? Don’t take away from someone else their personal possession in order to do with it what you want. It might seem too simple, too broad. We can fit under “stealing” many illicit actions that do harm to people. Theft is its own form of violence. Other sins can also be described as forms of stealing. Murder and rape are also ways of stealing a life’s dignity and personhood. How bad is stealing? And why would God command his people that they must not do it?
In order to understand why stealing is prohibited; you have to understand why possessing personal property is important. To understand why personal property is important you have to understand people, and I believe that to understand people, you have to understand God. God created people to glorify him, to care for his created order, and to live in community with one another. He didn’t create men alone, he didn’t create women alone, he created them together. He didn’t make them to dominate their environment and attempt to dominate each other. But that is what they did.
We have been living in the reality of their brokenness ever since. Adam and Eve had paradise and they chose instead the unknown. They chose to believe that God was putting one over on them. They took and ate what they were told not to touch or go near. God made something for them to be ignorant of, something they couldn’t possess, and something they couldn’t tend. They chose to disbelieve God’s word and to steal what belonged to God alone. They called “dib’s” on the only thing they couldn’t have, because they thought they might get more power.
God made us humans with the desire to possess and care for things. We are meant to have personal property. We can’t share everything. It’s a nice thought. But it just doesn’t work that way. We can’t share things like underwear, toothbrushes, or twin size mattresses. We’d dress very different and look really funny if we all took turns wearing the same clothes. Here in America people really need to have their own homes and spaces. Our church shares its space with a lot of people temporarily, and as a pastor here I can testify, people want their shelter stay to be short because they want their own place!
But here in America it is only getting harder to assist most homeless people to back into their own housing. Because of our broken housing system: the way properties are governed, maintained, subsidized, and protected, more people than ever are living precariously housed (paying more than 30% of their income) and may soon become homeless. What makes it worse is that most people who can do something about it don’t want to believe that it’s really happening. We all know that when there’s a leak in the basement and we just don’t want to go down there, somebody better do something soon or the property will be damaged. When there’s a fire in a house next to yours, assuming someone else will call the fire department won’t save your house.
But when hundreds more people in this region are experiencing homelessness for the first time, everyone assumes that someone else better do something. They assume that with so many great universities in the area training social workers, the job is getting done. They assume that with agencies like United Way getting regular donations no one is becoming homeless. They even assume that Larry Rice and NLEC will shelter everyone homeless. I’m here to tell you that it’s not so. Now here’s the uncomfortable truth about possessions. You’re not just a thief when you steal someone’s lunch, or their cell phone, or their car. The Word of God tells us that we don’t love God and that we are stealing when we allow the poor to go unwelcomed in from the cold before our very eyes. That is the uncomfortable truth.
I was at a church retreat a few weeks ago and a woman from my church was standing in line with me waiting for food when she said, “You know, there’s this little old man who lives in the doorway of this business across the street from where I work. And he’s right between two churches and a synagogue! I went up to the door of the synagogue and I said to the person at the door, “Can you call somebody about this man sleeping here?” and she said, “no, I gotta go” and slammed the door on me. With so much well-meaning in her voice she said, “I just wish someone could do something.”
Here is what the apostle James and John say to us Christians who are so well-meaning and know something is wrong and think “someone somewhere should do something right away”:
“If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (James 2:15-16 NRSV).
“We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action” (1 John 3:16-18, NRSV).
“St. John Chrysostom vigorously recalls this: “Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life. The goods we possess are not ours, but theirs.” “The demands of justice must be satisfied first of all; that which is already due in justice is not to be offered as a gift of charity”: When we attend to the needs of those in want, we give them what is theirs, not ours. More than performing works of mercy, we are paying a debt of justice” (From the Catechism of the Catholic Church, accessed here: http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p3s2c2a7.htm).
“Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom. 13:8-10, NRSV).
After Adam and Eve stole from God, even though he had given them everything, they began lying about each other, blaming each other for their shared decision to steal (Gen. 3:12-13). Adam blamed God for giving him Eve, and he blamed Eve for giving him the food. Eve turned and blamed the serpent that God made. In short, it was a dramatic mess. The ninth commandment says, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” God made us to be truth-tellers. He made us to share our lives together. Bearing false witness drives a stake firmly through the heart of community. Those words “bear false witness” make us think of standing in a court room (or a city Board of Public Service hearing) and speaking under oath words that are not true about our neighbor. Certainly we don’t find ourselves in such official circumstances every day, unless we’re attorneys. But they should remind us that God is a witness to everything we say.
To be around people who are bearing false witness is painful. To hear people lie about things they have no knowledge of is painful, or it should be painful. When we begin to ask the questions: “Does he or she really know? How are they related to what happened? Do they really seem to care? Why are they even bringing it up? Do they want to take responsibility or just flame the person, place, or thing?” we may come to realize that we are hearing and telling lies so often that we don’t even know it is happening. Other terms for lying include: “talking trash, talking smack, blowing smoke, or even just “relating what I heard”.
What’s really sad is when we Christians say “let’s pray for this person,” and then begin to “tell about the situation,” and then in effect, slander and bear false witness. Very often the conversation doesn’t end in prayer. How much “fellowship” is actually the attempt to complain and slander? I firmly believe that we would find ourselves a lot more prayerful and quiet if we began to take the ninth commandment seriously.
Howard Thurman’s book, Jesus and the Disinherited, is a powerful treatise on how Jesus relates to those who are poor, crushed by society, discriminated against, lied about, and killed for being different. His chapter title “Deceit” speaks to how the socially poor relate to lying. In an imbalanced world in which people have to steal food just to survive, it is impossible to talk of Christian values without acknowledging the wickedness and disparity in our society. Nevertheless, the only thing that can truly save us is the truth itself! Lives of sincerity can only come from being right with God. Thurman said,
“Unwavering sincerity says that man should always recognize the fact that he lives always in the presence of God, always under the divine scrutiny, and that there is no really significant living for a man, whatever may be his status, until he has turned and faced the divine scrutiny. Here all men stand stripped to the literal subsistence of themselves, without disguise, without pretension, without seeming whatsoever. No man can fool God. From him nothing is hidden.”
God cares about the truth because we are meant to be blameless people. Reverend Thurman again: “The penalty of deception is to become a deception, with all sense of moral discrimination vitiated. A man who lies habitually becomes a lie, and it is increasingly impossible for him to know when he is lying and when he is not. In other words, the moral mercury of life is reduced to zero.” We all want to be trusted, because we want other people close to us. I know from experience that when the person I loved most in the world could no longer trust me, the jig was up entirely. I remember the day I went for a hug and I was informed, “You’re not the man I married. I don’t know who you are.” She recoiled from my embrace. That was a bad day.
It took a long time—years, actually, for my wife to say to me, “I trust you. I’m so thankful for you. When God gave me you he gave me everything I could have asked for and more.” God gave all that back to me when I began a life of recovery and repentance. I had to begin to learn fearless honesty. This is what our churches need right now. And today we are tasked with reseeding our churches with people of sincerity, people who care about the truth. People who find it too painful to lie.
All my life I have heard people talk about the need for revival in our churches. I grew up in the neo-Pentecostal/Charismatic tradition which emphasized the gifts of the Holy Spirit at work in God’s people. People were given gifts to pray and sing in tongues, heal the sick, give words of special knowledge, and so on. But the one thing we seem to have been short on is a revival of justice, of sincerity, of compassion. I don’t mean to say that revivals haven’t led to hospitals and missions and better laws. But we need a revival that doesn’t just fill churches and increase tithing; we need a revival that makes us into Biblical people. Revivalist churches have often been churches that split and form new denominations. Revivals should lead to more love for one another and for the well-being of our communities. Jesus says, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn.13:35).
These words of Jesus should haunt our souls:“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ (Matthew 7:21-23, NIV). That is the worst kind of recoil from embrace!
Now before you imagine you know someone else whom He is surely talking about, look to yourself. Are you full of the Love of Jesus? (John 15:9-15, 1 Cor. 13:1-12) Are you full of the fruits of the Spirit? (Gal. 5:22-26)
If we want to see more sincerity in our politicians, in our children, in our schools, and in our neighborhoods, then we must start in our churches. Church is the place where the truth that hurts is the truth that will set us free. Church is where we go to learn to love one another. At least Jesus tells us it should be. Lord, send a revival! And let it begin with us! Let us return to God with all our hearts.
Let us go to God now and ask for his mercy.
“Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent. For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen.
Almighty God have mercy on us, forgive us all our sins through our Lord Jesus Christ, strengthen us in all goodness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit keep us in eternal life. Amen” (The Book of Common Prayer, pg. 320).
Yours in Christ,
Rev. Chris Rice