Thou shalt not steal
Before we begin, I want to ask you guys a question. Who remembers Church in the Park? Yeah, it was a great time. Don’t you remember getting there early and then completely soaking your feet and having wet feet for the rest of the day? Or in the morning shivering and being so cold, and then at the end just sweating buckets and having sunburn and just feeling awful? I know some of you guys were smarter than me, but I just tended never to bring a jacket in the morning or a tent, so I was always sweaty and sunburnt. But it was a great time. Seriously though, so many people at this church put forth such a great effort into helping us do Church in the Park during that time. As well as the Lord just provided for us in the exact way that we needed to still gather with one another during that hectic time. And I’m so thankful for that.
If you have a really good memory, infallible recall, you’ll remember that I got to preach, to share a message in the park. That one message that I got to preach was on the 10 commandments. It was one of the 10 commandments, and one of the 10 was, “Thou shall not murder.” And today, I want to follow up with the sequel of, “Thou shall not steal,” which is found in Exodus 20:15. That is what we’re going to be talking about today.
All right, so when you read this or when I say it, what is the first thing that comes into your mind? I mean, for different people it might be taking that cookie from the cookie jar when you were young, right? Or maybe someone stole your iPod or your phone or some other valuable when you were young, and you remember that because someone took something that was of great value to you. Or perhaps you think of Bernie Madoff and the 2008 Ponzi scheme that was about 20 to $65 billion that led to the global financial crisis in 2008.
When I think of stealing, I have a very clear picture in my head of being in Milwaukee with my family. We drove my brother’s car out there, and we were going around the city. And when we got back to the car, his rear passenger window was smashed in. And all the equipment, the CD deck, the bass… I mean, he spent thousands of dollars on tricking out his car like that. He scraped and saved for working minimum wage at a grocery store and everything was gone. What I remember most is the horror and shock on his face. I’m saying this to prove a point, a point that we have all have encountered stealing at some point in our lives. Stealing is just as prevalent or common today as it was back then before the 10 commandments, ever since the 10 commandments. It’s been almost 3,000, 4,000 years since then, and people still steal. The effects of which are obvious to us all. Whether it’s big or whether it’s small, it erodes trust, and it destroys relationships, whether it’s as big as Bernie Madoff or whether it’s as small as a cookie from the cookie jar.
There are pictures in our mind that come to us because we live in our time in our place with things like cybercrime, such as identity theft, and fraud, and all the different stuff that happens to us now but not necessarily what Israel would’ve dealt with. Because they existed in a much different time and place, but they were still people, and they still dealt with stealing. I think, this is just a hunch, that when they saw or when they read, “Thou shall not steal,” they thought of a very specific story.
Now, how many of you guys are familiar, you don’t have to raise your hands, with the story of how they got their name? Their name comes from one of their fathers, the patriarch Jacob. Now, Jacob was renamed Israel. If you remember the story of Jacob, Abraham gets called by God to leave his land and go to the promised land. And then he has the child of the promise, Isaac, and then Isaac gives birth to Jacob and Esau. The name Jacob, the name that he get, means heel-grabber, someone who is latched at the heel, which is a strange name for a kid, right? And it’s because he’s a twin, and when he was born, he came out second grabbing the heel of his older brother, Esau. Heel-grabber is the literal interpretation of the name Jacob, but it also means deceiver, cheat, or one who supplants. And supplanting simply means taking the place of someone else. When there is a president or a king, and people want to replace that king or president with another leader, which is called a coup, the people planning the coup, orchestrating the coup are people who are supplanters.
Which is a pretty accurate name for Jacob, right? He takes the place of his brother Esau. First, he steals his birthright, or he makes a trade, which is practically a steal. Esau, as the older brother, and with the customs of the time deserves the greater share of the inheritance of his father, Isaac. But one day, Esau goes hunting, and he’s out there for a long time. Apparently, he’s not a very good hunter because he doesn’t get anything. Or maybe some of you hunters in the room can sympathize with Esau, right? He doesn’t get anything, and he comes back, and he’s so hungry. He sees his brother, Jacob, making some soup and he goes, “Jacob, please give me some soup, I am famished.”
And Jacob seeing this situation and going, “Man, I got some real power here. How about I’ll give you a bowl of soup if you give me your birthright?” And Esau, remarkably, agrees to this trade. He’s like, “What good is my inheritance if I am dead?” He trades this bowl of soup for his inheritance. I mean, Isaac’s got sheep, he’s got goats, he’s got servants, which all translates to wealth back then. I don’t know the exchange rate of goats to dollars or sheep to Bitcoin or the rate of inflation since 1500 BC, but I’m pretty sure this is the most expensive bowl of soup that has ever happened, all right? And who knows if the soup was any good.
That not only happens, but later, Jacob steals Esau’s blessing, right? If you remember the story, Jacob ends up dressing up like his brother. Puts on these furs because Esau is really hairy. He talks like him, he tries to smell like him, so that when he goes into Isaac’s tent, he tries to convince his dad that he is Esau so that he gets blessed. Esau is not only cheated out of his physical birthright, but the promise of God towards Abraham and Isaac gets taken from him and given to his younger brother, Jacob. They were stolen by his younger brother. Esau starts plotting his revenge. Jacob finds out about this plot, and he ends up running away because his brother is going to kill him. I wonder why.
He goes back to the land of his grandfather and his mother, and he meets his uncle, Laban. What goes around comes around, and when he meets Laban, he starts working for him, and he starts getting cheated, and he starts getting deceived. Jacob gets seven to 20 years of his life taken away from him. Depending on how you look at it. Laban tries to cheat Jacob out of his flock, and Jacob leaves secretly because partially because his uncle is a jerk, his father-in-law is a jerk. But mainly because God has called him back to the promised land where Esau lives. When they leave, his wife, Rachel, ends up stealing the household idol of Laban. Laban finds out that his idol is missing, and he goes running after them. He’s like, “Why did you steal from me? Why did you do this evil?” There’s this big kerfuffle that happens, and they end up getting away with it.
When you’re reading this story, you realize pretty quickly that these people are messed up, right? They keep stealing. They keep deceiving. They keep cheating one another. It’s easy to see that this dismantles any sort of trust that they have with one another. It dismantles, it destroys their relationships amongst even their own family. I’m sure some of you here know firsthand what that is like. And even if you haven’t experienced what that is like, it’s not hard to figure out what that would be like. It’s very hard to rebuild the trust that is lost when someone steals. And to have a close relationship with someone that you don’t trust is pretty much impossible.
Jacob really has nowhere to go because of the cheating and stealing that he has done and what has happened to him. Yet, he eventually decides to return to the promised land to obey God. Yet, he is still fearing for his life and thinks that he’s still going to die. What’s awesome is that before Jesus… before Jesus… Before Jacob goes back, he says this prayer, and this prayer is an amazing prayer, a prayer that we find in Genesis 32:9-12 which says this: “Then Jacob prayed, ‘O God of my father Abraham, God of my father Isaac, Lord, you who said to me, “Go back to your country and your relatives, and I will make you prosper,” I am unworthy of all the kindness and faithfulness you have shown your servant. I had only my staff when I cross this Jordan, but now I’ve become two camps. Save me, I pray, from the hand of my brother Esau, for I’m afraid he will come and attack me, and also the mothers with their children. But you have said, “I will surely make you prosper and will make your descendants like the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted.'”
The night after this, he wrestles with the angel, and he receives the new name, Israel, meaning one who contends with God or one who is triumphant with God. Jacob realizes something before he goes back to Esau, before Esau spares his life. He realizes that it hasn’t been his trickery, it hasn’t been his conniving that has made him prosperous. In fact, if anything, it has brought him much more pain and hardship being on the run and working practically as a slave, and that was his reward for that. But it has been the constant blessings of God in his life that has given him so much. He realizes that he hasn’t deserved it, but God has still been kind and faithful to him. Even after Esau forgives him, what he does is he gives Esau a ton of gifts, A, because he is afraid. But also I think it’s because he realizes everything that he has is a gift. Everything that he has now is a gift from God. They’re not his. Because God is gracious to him, he is gracious towards others. And he responds in worship and in prayer.
This is a remarkable turnaround from someone who has been selfish and conniving their whole life to someone who is instead gracious in his relationships and generous with what he has. And it comes from the place of humility, understanding that all that he has isn’t something he’s earned but has been given. Instead of scheming, he trusts in God, and God blesses him. His new name is the name that they carry and his descendants carry even to this day. They are not Jacobites, but they are Israelites. This reminds them, “Thou shall not steal.” How? For everything that they have is ultimately from the hand of God. It’s not Israel’s schemes that make them prosper, but it’s the hand of God with them. This story in the Bible, throughout its pages, is a testament to that truth. It reminds us of this truth. Because this is not just true for Israel, but it’s for all of God’s people.
It’s very easy to understand the horizontal effects of stealing, meaning the effects that it has on one another and the destroyed relationships that happen when we steal. Most societies have the idea of property rights or punishments for stealing. Because without that, there really couldn’t be a currency or there really couldn’t be anything of value because what belongs to someone else you could steal, and it wouldn’t really work. But harm inflicted by stealing or the consequences are not sufficient for the law “Thou shall not steal.” All right, so it’s not just our horizontal relationships that make this law, even though it does harm other people I want to demonstrate that, because if our goal was only to minimize harm towards other people, then we could justify a lot of stealing.
We could justify a lot of stealing if the only purpose of not stealing was to not harm others, right? We would say things like, “They don’t need this. I don’t think they would miss this. They have so much more than me, and I’m just helping people who need it more.” Whether that be shoplifting from a large organization like Walmart or Amazon or pirating movies or CDs or taking from the rich, if you took from one guy who had more and gave it to two who had less, whether you included yourself or not, you could make the argument that you are maximizing the minimization of suffering. Even if the one guy didn’t have very much.
If there’s one thing people are good at it is rationalizing our behavior to get what we want. So we need to ask the question, “Why is stealing wrong?” Because we all know it’s wrong, we have a gut reaction to it, but why? Well, Jesus sums up the law and the prophets with two commandments. He recites what is known as the Shma, right? “Love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your might, and all strength, and to love your neighbor as you love yourself. These are the two great commandments, and this contains the law.”
The thing is stealing doesn’t only violate one of these commandments, it violates both of these commandments. The word sin, as you might know, is an archery term, and it means to miss the mark. When you’re shooting something, whether that be an arrow or a gun or a throwing axe, you’re usually aiming at a target. When you miss, that is what is called sin. Sin is a falling short of what you are aiming at. This means that there is a target or a standard that we are all aiming at. And that target and standard, because we are made in the image of God, is the character of God.
And so you have to ask the question, “If that’s the case, what is the character of God? If that is the target in which I’m aiming at, what is His character?” Well, it’s quite evidently displayed in scriptures, but the 10 commandments actually do a really good job at explaining who God is, right? Why is adultery wrong? Well, God is faithful to His promises. Adultery is a breaking of a covenant, and God is faithful and true to His promises and He keeps His covenants, and you’re missing the mark when you break yours. He is a God of truth and justice, and bearing false witness is a perversion. It is a missing of the mark of truth and justice. As well as, “Thou shall not kill.” Who is He that gives life?” It’s God. And who are we to take that away?
If man is made in the image of God, there is a reason that we are, and it’s to reflect His image properly. And sin is missing the mark of His image and distorting who He is. It is a missing of the mark. Romans 1:18-20 says this: “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people who suppress the truth by their wickedness since what may be known about God is plain to them because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world, God’s invisible qualities, His eternal power, and divine nature has been clearly seen being understood from what has been made so that people are without excuse.” You see, what this is saying is that the character of God, His divine nature, is understood as people through His creation. Yet, we as people reject that and suppress the truth in wickedness. People know what the mark is innately. They know that stealing is wrong innately, but we often don’t want to hit it.
So the question needs to be asked, “What is stealing missing the mark of?” Well, let’s listen to Paul in Listra or Lystra, who gives a sermon to the people of Lystra. And unlike most of the people Paul and the other apostles preach to in the New Testament, he is preaching to a specific Gentile audience who have no understanding of the Old Testament. And so, Paul is going to use these invisible qualities of God to prove to them who God is. And he says this in Acts 14:15-17, he says, “Friends, why are you doing this? We too are only human like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God who made the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything in them. In the past, He let all the nations go their own way. Yet, He has not left Himself without testimony. He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven, crops in their seasons. He provides you with plenty of food, and He fills our hearts or your hearts with joy.”
God gives. It is the most essential and self-evident attribute of God that I can think of. How are we alive? Did any of us by our actions earn being born? The answer is no, God gives it. It’s who he is. God has gifted us with everything that we have. He has blessed us with life, with rain, with food, and He has filled our hearts with joy. And you know what Paul is saying here? “You want to know who God is, eat a steak, right? Eat some bacon.” Well, I mean, maybe he wouldn’t say that. “But eat some food. That food bears testimony to the character of God, that He is gracious and good and everything that we have comes from Him, whether it’s the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, the life we’ve been given, the people around us, and the ability that we have to enjoy them.
God not only gifted us with food, but He gifted us with taste buds. He gifted us with rods and cones so that we can perceive color. And not just that, but He has given us hearts and minds that are stirred and moved by beauty in sunsets and with the mountains and with the changing of fall colors. He is the one who fills our hearts with joy and has allowed us to enjoy these gifts. James 1:17 says this: “Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow.” The attribute of God that we are talking about is, of course, God’s grace, which is fundamental to understanding who God is, our relationship with Him, as well as, “Thou shall not steal.”
Why? Because everything that we have, whether that is a talent, whether that is a resource, is fundamentally not ours. But they are gifts given by God for the time being. For what does anyone really own or really belongs to them? Everything that we have will expire. If we’re lucky, we’ll live 80, 90, 100 years, and we have those years to accumulate stuff. When we are gone, all that stuff is either gone or with someone else. We aren’t owners of anything but stewards of God’s grace while we are here. A steward isn’t someone who owns something, he is a manager of something. And a manager to use what they’ve been entrusted with well and for its purpose. What is the opposite of being gracious, of having grace towards someone? The opposite, of course, is taking. It’s stealing. It’s cheating. Not only are you taking something from others, which is harmful to them and doesn’t belong to you, but what you are also doing is taking, and not just taking from them but rebelling towards the God who has given it to them and who has also given you everything.
You take the place of God when you take something that doesn’t belong to you. What you’re saying when you do, implicitly, is that “God, you had this wrong. You were unfair. Now I’m going to make it fair. I’m going to make things right.” You proclaim that He has made a mistake and that He has somehow cheated you of something that belongs to you. We assume the place of God wanting to be the owner of something and wanting to be the gift-giver or the distributor, yet we are only stewards. When we talk about stealing, we are not just talking about someone’s property or what they have. The commandment, “Thou shall not steal,” is probably the most open-ended of all the commandments. What do I mean by that? I mean, every single commandment can be summed up with, “Thou shall not steal.”
We are all capable of stealing someone’s life, someone’s spouse, someone’s dignity, someone’s property, someone’s honor. You can make a solid argument that every single one of the 10 commandments can fall under, “Thou shall not steal.” Read Exodus 20:13 with me. It says this: “You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear witness against your neighbor. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife or his male servant or his female servant or his ox or his donkey or anything that belongs to your neighbor. What is murder but the taking of an innocent life or committing adultery but stealing from your spouse or the spouse of someone else, or bearing false testimony but robbing someone of their dignity or their character? Usually, you do it to get something out of that. Coveting on the other hand is the heart which produces stealing. Honoring your mother and father is the one that we didn’t talk about, is not giving something that belongs to them. You’re taking something from them. And you can say the same thing with the other commandments that talk about giving to God what is God’s.
Stealing, ultimately, is an action that is birthed out of mistrust in God and selfishness. That is what produces stealing, and it is what Adam and Eve did. They took from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil because of mistrust in God and selfishness. Satan said, “The day you eat from the tree, you will be like God.” They thought, “God’s holding out on us. He’s not giving us what we really deserve,” and they took. Think about that for a second. Why is that? Stealing puts you in the place of God, allowing you to determine what belongs to who. We’re all biased, spoiler alert, we’re all biased towards ourselves. So naturally, if we’re putting ourselves in that position, we are going to benefit ourselves. And guess what? We are not gracious gods. We are not gracious gods. Any cursory knowledge of world history or, I don’t know, knowing myself, I am not. Think about it, we have all at some point in our lives have taken something that doesn’t belong to us, whether that be cheating on homework, stealing a cookie from the cookie jar, gossiping, or slandering someone, or not honoring our mother and father.
And that means we are guilty of breaking the commandment, “Thou shall not steal.” We’re guilty because even though we didn’t know the laws of God, the laws of God are written on our heart. And the Bible tells us that the same consequences that were there for Adam and Eve are the same consequences for us. Romans 6:23 says, “The wages of sin is death.” But thank be to God that righteousness, meaning a right relationship, a right standing with God, is made possible apart from following the law. Listen to what Paul writes in Romans 3:21-24. He says this: “Apart from the law, the righteousness of God has been made manifested, been witnessed by the law and the prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe. For there is no distinction for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus.
We’ve all sinned. We’ve all mistrusted God at some point in our lives. And we’ve all been selfish and taken something that doesn’t belong to us, and that condemns us before God. But guess what? God saved us. The very attribute of God that we have all transgressed is the very thing that He saves us with. Justified by a gift, justified by His grace. God gives, it’s who He is. God being rich in mercy redeemed us. He paid our debt. He paid the price for our sin by dying the death that we deserved, to give us grace that we haven’t earned. While we are yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly. We cannot earn righteousness with God, but Jesus selflessly gave himself on the cross so that we might be justified by His grace.
Ephesians 2:8-9 says this: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith, and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God, not by work so that one can boast.” We worship and serve a gracious God without which we would have no hope. But because of His grace, we have hope everlasting. It is amazing the rich depths of grace that Jesus has shown even His enemies. And guess what? Guess what? As His followers, we are called to do the same. He has also called us to be gracious, to live grace-filled lives in the same way, to give to people life even though they might not deserve it.
Jesus doesn’t just say, “Thou shall not steal,” but Jesus says, “Thou shall give.” Matthew 4:43-48 says this: “You’ve heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, ‘Love enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” So that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven, for he causes His Son to rise on the evil and the good and sends rains on the righteous and unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even task collectors do the same? If you greet only your brother, what more are you doing than others? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same?”
He is gracious. And because of this, who He is is that He gave His one and only Son to die on our behalf so that we might receive this gift, the gift of eternal life. He gives, and giving has the exact opposite effect of taking. Taking burns bridges. Giving builds bridges. And just how stealing is birthed out of mistrust and selfishness, mistrust in God and selfishness, giving is an act that is birthed out of trust in God and selflessness. My prayer, and my hope and desire, is that all of us here as a church, as people who live in Utah County, would be grace-filled towards one another and towards the outside, the world. And that we would be radical disciples filled with grace so that we could demonstrate and show who Jesus is to each other and to everyone else.