Exodus 20:15 - Thieves and Stewards
August 31, 2014 Speaker: Series: Exodus
Topic: Sunday Worship Passage: Exodus 20:15–20:15
[Exodus 20:15 - "Thieves and Stewards"]
[Pray - Our Prayer for Illumination this morning was written by King David centuries ago and is recorded in Psalm 25, verses 4 – 5. Let us pray:
Make us to know your ways, O LORD; teach us your paths. Lead us in your truth, and teach us, for you are the God of our salvation; for you we wait all day long. Amen.]
[Read Exodus 20:1-15 for context]
It was only unlocked for an hour but when I went outside, my bike was gone. And I felt sick. I should have known better than to leave it unlocked. Plenty of bikes were stolen in my neighborhood back then. And I felt guilty because I didn't lock it up. My dad gave it to me and it was mine to take care of. But I felt more anger than guilt. I shouldn't have to lock up my bike because people shouldn't take what ain't theirs.
I loved that bike. It was my baby, my wheels; it was my freedom. With it I went on adventures and jumps and met friends. It wasn't anything fancy and it even left me with a few scars. But it was mine. And then it wasn't. Because somebody stole it as their own. Anyone who's ever had anything stolen from them feels the wrongness of theft.
As Israel stands at the foot of this mountain hearing the Law of God, they're painfully aware of the wrongness of stealing. 400 years earlier, this people of Israel, the family of Abraham - the people to whom belonged the promises of God - these people were stolen by Pharaoh. The kings of Egypt claimed Israel as their own. Israel had been taken by cunning and kept through brutality (Exodus 1). So, Egypt was guilty of man-stealing, kidnapping. And they stole the labor of Israel, making them work as slaves. Israel built the monuments of Egypt with nothing to show for it but whip-stripes and scars and graves in the sand. If ever there was a people who understood the wrongness of stealing, it was Israel.
But, as they hear this command Israel hears that God, too, understands the wrongness of stealing. Because Israel was his before they were stolen by Egypt. His chosen people were taken from him. The people he'd chosen to bring redemption to the whole world were stolen as slaves. The opening of Exodus underscores the wrongness of the whole thing as Israel cries out in their suffering.
But God heard them. And now this God has rescued them back for himself. Remember how this chapter opens, how God calls Israel to remember what he's done for them before the Law ever came - "I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery." (Exodus 20:2) Through powerful signs - plagues and the parting Red Sea - this God reclaimed his stolen people. Now, in the command, he calls his people to hate stealing as much as he does.
That's the same call that is on us as Christians. This command has come to us as those brought into the people of God through faith in Christ. When we were stolen by sin and death, Christ reclaimed us for himself through powerful signs - becoming sin for us on the cross and passing through death back to life. If we would love what Christ loves and hate what Christ hates, then we must love our neighbors. And because "Love does no wrong to a neighbor..." (Romans 13:10), we have to hate stealing, too.
So, what does it look like to obey the command, "You shall not steal"? Like the rest of the commandments there's a negative and positive aspect to obedience - something to avoid and something to be done.
For Israel, obedience would, of course, rule out kidnapping (Exodus 21:16). The penalty for that was death. And both secret theft and forceful robbery were held to be deeply wrong – a caught thief would have to pay it back and then some extra (Exodus 22). But the command went deeper than that. Because forbidden for Israel as well was buying up acre upon acre of land so that the poor have nowhere to live free (Isaiah 5:8). That, too, was a form of stealing. Those who became wealthy by paying their workers next to nothing were truly thieves (Jeremiah 22:13-17), as were merchants whose weights for measuring out grain were two sizes - one for buying and another for selling - each mislabeled to maximize profits at the expense of the farmer or customer (Deuteronomy 25:13-16). A leader who padded his pocket at the expense of those under his care would be guilty of breaking this command and even the stones and the wooden beams of his fine house would cry out for justice to be done against him (Habakkuk 2:9-12). Jesus himself would speak against those religious leaders whose pretend piety was a pretense to "devour widow's houses" for profit (Mark 12:40).
Now, we might feel some distance between Israel and us, between our time and theirs. But there's nothing new under the sun. So, what does stealing look like today? Well, kidnapping - man-stealing - is still a reality in this world. Whether it's by ISIS fighters or a spiteful parent who lost custody in a divorce - such people-stealing still happens. And there are still leaders who grab what they can from those without the power to stop them.
But there are other ways to take what isn't ours - whether it's stealing cable or stealing time from an employer by wasting work hours on Facebook, we're taking that which doesn't belong to us. We steal a deal by haggling down beyond a fair wage or price, pretending in the moment we're dissatisfied but gloating afterward (Again, that's nothing new. See Proverbs 20:14). We can steal looks at what isn't ours to look at. The Bible introduces a term for when we manipulate someone, fooling them into doing what we want. It's called "stealing the heart"  and it happens in advertising as often as families. Whether it's breaking-and-entering or stealing a person's work through plagiarism, all such stealing is deeply wrong. God calls his people in all times to run from such sin.
But "not stealing" isn't all God requires. There is the positive side of the command. Because before the first thing was ever stolen, God had a plan for his people. Human beings were called to work - and to work as stewards, care-takers of that which belongs to God.
In Genesis, the people of God are introduced to their God as the Creator. By his word he brought all things into existence out of nothing. The first two chapters of Genesis present God as a great King, ruling over his creation with his absolute power and goodness on display. And his absolute power and goodness and rights over his creation never change in this Story of Redemption we call the Bible. By Moses God says, "...all the earth is mine" (Exodus 19:5). Through David God says, "The earth is the LORD's and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein..." (Psalm 24:1). We confess with Job that the Lord gives and the Lord takes away because everything is ultimately his in the first place (Job 1:21).
But the God who owns everything has given the earth to the children of men (Psalm 115:16). Right from the beginning, we see this God committing his creation into the care of human beings. Our first parents were told "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth." And God said, "Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food." (Genesis 1:28-29). Then God put them in the Garden to work it and take care of it, to expand it's borders until the Garden filled the whole earth (Genesis 2:15).
When God entrusted his world into our care, he called us to act as stewards of God's world, care-takers of creation as well as one another. It is a call that endured through Israel's time even to today. It's the call to work while understanding we're not working for ourselves. All we have (and all our neighbor has) is not really ours (or theirs). It's God's. It belongs to him. Our part is to take care of what has been entrusted to us specifically - and to help our neighbors do the same.
That's why our brothers and sisters from the past would say this about the Eighth Commandment - God requires "that I promote the advantage of my neighbor in every instance I can or may; and deal with him as I desire to be dealt with by others; further also that I faithfully labor, so that I may be able to relieve the needy." (Heidelberg Catechism #111). If I'm working in line with my calling as steward of God's creation, if I'm working in love for my neighbor, then I'm going to work for the good of myself and others, which is the opposite of stealing. Stealing advances only self. Love advances my neighbor and the purposes of God.
So, how might it look to work this way instead of stealing? How might it look to walk in love for a neighbor by promoting their advantage while, at the same time, working as a steward of the King? Think about how that might look when it comes to figuring out a "fair wage."
Whether we're talking about our salary or what we're paying someone doing work for us - a plumber, a painter, a carpenter - there is no magical way to discover what a "fair wage" is. When two people are coming together to figure it out, we can only talk about it and (hopefully) negotiate peacefully. But the question is this - what is the paradigm we are using to figure out what “fair” is? What filter are we looking through as we talk about what "fair" is? Are we answering “What is fair?” through a filter of love of self, trying to advance ourselves only? Well, then, of course a "fair wage" (if we're the person paying) is as low as we can get it. But if love for neighbor as ourselves is in our hearts, held together with an understanding of our calling to be good stewards of what we hold from God, then I can only imagine that a "fair wage" will be a different number than before. The different answer comes from a different heart that functions under a different economy - in God's economy rather than man's.
We can take the principle of love and stewardship and apply it to everything - from academic honesty to the minimum wage; from charitable giving to retirement plans. But why don't we? Why is it that our hearts have such a hard time working that way? Why is it that we're so often focused on "looking out for #1," by which we mean us, not God. Why is it so hard to truly work for the good of our neighbors? Why is it so easy to see something that isn't ours and think, "That's mine."
We see the answer in the Scriptures. In a way, the Story of Redemption we call the Bible is a story about stealing. God made all things. All things (including us) are his. And even though he put the earth into human hands, there was one thing that didn't belong to humanity, one thing God said they couldn't have. "And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, "You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die" (Genesis 2:16-17).
But our first parents saw what wasn't theirs and they took it. And ever since our first parents stole that fruit we all became thieves, taking the things of God as our own and using them for our own selfish ends. We stewards steal - from God and from one another. But when we do - we do not find ourselves enriched. We find ourselves impoverished by our sin and enslaved to the cosmic thief, Satan, who is himself trying to tear from the hands of God a kingdom for himself. The "thief" comes only to steal, kill and destroy (John 10:10). And we have followed him thinking we have something to gain.
So, we steal from God and from one another. Stealing money, stealing hearts, stealing time. But the stealing simply displays what's going on in our hearts. We want what we want. And we're willing to take it by force or by secret; by coercion or manipulation; by cleverness or lazily waiting for someone to give it to us. And we reject our role as stewards of God's world because steward is too lowly a role for us - our hearts would rather be king. It's why we don't want to give money to the kingdom of God - we're afraid to lay up treasures in heaven because we might not have enough here. It's why we steal time from employers and steal looks and steal whatever isn't nailed down. Because our hearts would sit on the throne of God, we look at whatever we see and say, "Mine."
But what do kings do to thieving stewards? For them he builds prisons and gallows. But where the kings of the earth punish thieves with whippings and death, the God of the Bible sent Jesus his Son to steal thieves like us back to himself, to restore the people of God to their rightful owner.
In the Gospel of Matthew (12:22-32, passim), Jesus rescues a man from demonic oppression. For years, it seems, he was blinded and silenced by the power of Satan – ‘til Jesus found him and sent the demon away. Some of the religious folks said Jesus was able to command demons because he was working for Satan. But to them Jesus said, "Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand. And if Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand? And if I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. Or how can someone enter a strong man's house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? Then indeed he may plunder his house."
Jesus speaks of the kingdom of Satan and the arrival of the kingdom of God. He speaks of a strong man and one who binds and plunders the strong man. The strong man has a house and goods – that’s his kingdom, people under his power and authority. But those people are all plundered, stolen away from him by one more powerful. And isn't that what the people just saw with their own eyes? Jesus had reclaimed for himself one held for years by the strong man, Satan. The strong man had kept his slave in silent darkness. But Jesus plundered Satan's kingdom and led the blind man out to see and to shout for the arrival of God’s kingdom.
This one man's release from Satan pointed to the greater work Jesus was about to do. Because through his death and resurrection, Jesus "...led a host of captives..."(Ephesians 4:8) out of the kingdom of darkness to and into his marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9). Like Israel led by Moses out of slavery in Egypt, the crucified and risen Christ leads those who trust in him out of slavery to sin, out of the kingdom of Satan and into the kingdom of God.
In the Gospel of Jesus we hear that he has come to plunder the kingdom of darkness. But though he came like a thief, though he died between two thieves, he himself is the rightful owner of all. He is the Creator come in the flesh to reclaim was belongs to him - that includes you and me. And in the Gospel we hear that the owner once again wants to give you what is his – his mercy, his grace, his forgiveness, his righteousness, and all that we need for life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3). Both now and more fully on the day he comes again, he wants to give you all that is his, because through faith in Christ, you are fellow heirs with him in the kingdom of God (Romans 8:17).
When we confess ourselves to be thieving stewards, but set our hope on Christ who died for thieving stewards, then we have the promises of God that by the blood of Christ we have what we could never take for ourselves. We have his love and his forgiveness. And we have new hearts, implanted in us by his Spirit - hearts that are beginning to want what he wants, to faithfully serve him and love our neighbors as ourselves. He has reclaimed us as stewards of the King, serving him instead of ourselves only.
But it’s not as if he doesn’t care about us. In Christ, we hear that while he may not give us what we want – God will always provide for our needs because he cares for us (Matthew 6). That applies to every aspect of life – food, clothing, relationships. Our part is to trust him for these things, seeking first his kingdom, not trying to steal one for ourselves. And trusting Christ, we learn the secret to true contentment. With Paul we can say, “…I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:11-13)
But in the Gospel, as restored stewards, we hear the call to faithful take care of what has been entrusted to us while – at the same time – demonstrating love for our neighbors in need (both in and out of the Body of Christ). Because Christ makes us instruments in his hands, his agents of blessing to someone else. So, we work for God’s glory and for the good of those around us. It is written, “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.” (Ephesians 4:28) We don’t need to spiritualize that. We work so that we can share with those who need it. Some of our own body here is in need. And through the Deacon’s fund, we together try to meet those needs. Medical and basic needs that would be ignored or unpaid can be met as the people of God share what they have.
I’m not talking about communism. I’m not talking about giving all you to the poor or never taking a vacation. I’m talking about that love and stewardship principle at work. And when it’s at work it’s beautiful to see. It’s Christ at work in his body, turning us selfish thieves back into stewards. It’s Christ who loved us leading us to love one another. And that’s a work Christ will be faithful to continue in us until the day he comes again, making all things new, taking away our poverty and hunger and need completely. The day is coming (like a thief, Peter says in 2 Peter 3:10) when the kingdom of God arrives in its fullness and all those belong to Christ receive their inheritance. Because Jesus who died still says to repentant thieves what he said - to the one who died beside him. To all who repent and believe in him he says, "Truly, I say to you...you will be with me in Paradise." (Luke 23:43).
[Pray – Father, this world and all that is in it is yours. Forgive us for trying to claim it for ourselves. And we thank you for sending Christ to die like a thief for us thieves. In him we hope, O God, that you have and will further still restore us to the role you established for us in the beginning – as stewards and care-takers of your world. What mercy we have from you, what love you have shown that you would send Christ to die to reclaim us for yourself! And what dignity you set on each of us that we would become stewards of what is yours! Father, while we wait for Christ to come again, help us to faithfully do our duties – managing well what you have given and loving well our neighbors as ourselves. And help us to faithfully steward the Gospel of Jesus we have heard in your Word, telling others of the hope we have in him. You have called us as ministers of reconciliation because you are reconciling, reclaiming this world to yourself in Christ. Help us to be faithful, for your name’s sake and for the glory of Christ our Savior. In his name we pray. Amen.]
[Benediction – from Number 6]
The LORD bless you and keep you;
the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;
the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.
 In Genesis 31:20, what is translated as "tricked" (in the ESV) literally reads, "Jacob stole the heart of Laban...."