Sunday, April 10, 2016

ET18: Thou shalt not steal.

This is the eighteenth post on Christian ethics in my ongoing series, theology in bullet points. The first unit in this series had to do with God and Creation (book here), and the second unit was on Christology and Atonement.

We are now in the third and final unit: The Holy Spirit and the Church. The first set of posts in this final unit was on the Holy Spirit. The second set was on the Church. The third set was on sacraments. This final section is on Christian ethics.
Thou shalt not steal.

1. The basic meaning of the commandment not to steal is clear enough. Don't take other people's stuff. Both Exodus 20:15 and Deuteronomy 5:19 simply prohibit stealing without any expansion or commentary. In the New Testament, the command is similarly stated more than once in its basic, simple form (e.g., Matt. 19:18; Rom. 13:9). The command seems straightforward.

As an example, Exodus 22:1 states simply, “When someone steals an ox or a sheep, and slaughters it or sells it, the thief shall pay five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep.” The chapter continues to address various scenarios in which one person's grain, crop, animal, or possession is lost for some reason when some other person is involved. "Restitution" is often required, where the person under whose watch or action the possession was lost replaces that which was lost. In general, it does not seem to matter whether negligence or bad intention was involved.

This is of course part of Israel's civil law. The important thing is thus not the specifics but the general idea. Don't take other people's stuff. The laws are very specific and very concrete. If I have food in my refrigerator that is there so that my family does not starve, do not take my food.

2. Of course everything that exists in the world technically belongs to God. God owns everything. Nothing I have is really mine. I'm just a steward of it. “The world and all that is in it is mine,” God says (Ps. 50:12). "Every wild animal of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills" (50:10). When Haggai speaks of the wealth of the nations flowing to the house of the LORD, God says, “The silver is mine and the gold is mine, says the LORD of hosts” (Hag. 2:8). "The earth is the LORD's and all that is in it" (Ps. 24:1).

So you might say technically that anything I "own" is really God's stuff that he has let me use. This is one reason why the farmer thinking he will hoard his grain for years to come is offending God (Luke 12:15-21). It is not his grain, and God gets to decide what happens with his life. We come into this world naked, and we will be forced to relinquish all our possessions when we leave (e.g., Job 1:21).

We are thus to rely on God, not on our possessions. God is our true Patron, not any other human who might appear to have material resources (Jas. 1:17). We are to store up treasures in heaven, not on earth (Matt. 6:19-20). The Lord will clothe us (6:30). The Lord will feed us (6:25).

Because everything we have belongs to God, it is not really ours to do what we want with. Malachi 3:8-10 chastises the people of Israel for "robbing" God by not giving the temple a tenth of their crops. So also John calls someone with resources a murderer who would see a brother (or sister) in the church in need but who would withhold assistance (1 John 3:15-17).

3. Work is not part of the Fall, but part of God's intention for the creation. After God creates humanity in Genesis 1, they are told to “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen. 1:28). Adam's toil is intensified in consequence of the Fall (3:17-19), but his work does not begin there. When God first places the man in the Garden, he is charged with tilling and keeping it (2:15).

Ephesians 4:28 makes a correlation between stealing and not working. "Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy." (Eph. 4:28). The person in mind here is someone who could work to provide for him or herself, but who chooses instead to take from others. But interestingly, one of the purposes of work is apparently to be able to provide for those who cannot fully provide for themselves for whatever reason.

The sense we get is that God smiles upon work. We may go through phases of life where we fall on hardship and have to rely on others, and God expects those with excess to come to our assistance when that comes. However, there may come another time when we will have excess and our brother or sister is in need. Then we must come to their aid.

4. 2 Thessalonians has stern words for individuals in the church who could work but do not. “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living” (2 Thess. 3:10-12). This is of course the "Protestant work ethic" that featured prominently in Puritan New England--"He who does not work, shall not eat." [1]

The picture we get is of individuals who could work but who instead have chosen to rely on the charity of the church. They are content to let others in the church work and provide for them. God thus expects everyone to contribute who can. We all play a role. No one is merely the mouth of the body of Christ, if that person is able at to play some positive function in the body.

1 Corinthians 12:24-26 says that "God has so arranged the body... the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it." So we each play our role when we are able, and God will raise up others when we are not able.

There will always be those who are incapacitated or who have very little they can contribute. Jesus' ministry to the marginalized suggests that God expects us to care for such individuals. In biblical times, these were individuals like orphans and widows (e.g., Jas. 1:27; Matt. 23:23).

5. So there is a fairly straightforward sense to the command not to steal. I am not to take your stuff. However, there are other lines of obligation and we must remember that everything we think is ours is really God's. God expects the community of faith to help each other when we are in need. But he also expects us all to do our part.

Next Sunday: ET20. The Bible views hoarding wealth as a sin against God and neighbor.

[1] No doubt in the early days of New England, all hands were needed on deck to survive.

1 comment:

Paul Tillman said...

For our 2016 Fall All-Church Spiritual formation, we'll be studying the 10 Commandments. (first promo video here: Live the 10 promo 1 on YouTube) My plan is to rephrase each commandment in the positive. ("Do not covet" becomes "Be content.") "Do not steal" has been the most challenging. My initial thought was "Be generous," but your post flushed out for me why I wasn't completely satisfied with that phrasing. "Work" and "Trust God" are also important components. What would you choose at a positive statement of this command? I think, based on Eph. 4:28, that "work" would be the/a strong positive rephrasing and the other aspects of generosity and trust could be flushed out as what we do with the fruit of our labor.