Be Content: The 8th & 10th Commandments
As we continue our look at the Ten Commandments, we're going to cover two at one time, and the reason is that they are two sides of the same coin. Exodus 20:15: “You shall not steal.” And Verse 17: “You shall not covet your neighbor's house. You shall not covet your neighbor's wife or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”
This is the word of God for the people of God. We pray with me. Gracious God, open our minds to these words and open our hearts to the living word of Christ, that we may be changed today and forever. Amen.
So let's take a look, beginning with commandment number eight: no stealing. Now, if you look at any news website or any viewing of TV around six o'clock or ten o'clock, you will find countless reports of robberies, burglaries or some sort of theft. Stealing is one of the more pervasive forms of crime in our nation.
When I was in college, I worked as a security guard at Kmart. Anybody remember Kmart? It opened my eyes to the reality of stealing. Shoplifting and employee theft are a huge problem in the retail business. We had a sign in the security office that read “in God, we trust all others pay cash.” All kinds of people, some of whom you would never imagine, all go for the five finger discount. Rich and poor, women and men, young and old, all the same. The desire to steal is a sin that can affect anyone.
Now, things weren't so different back in biblical days. Thievery was common, but it was also more serious, because then most people lived on the absolute edge of utter poverty. The theft of what little property they owned could result in their ruin or possibly even in the starvation of their families. It was far more than just an inconvenience such as filling out a police report or filing an insurance claim. It was quite often, very literally, a matter of life and death.
That is why ancient cultures took stealing so seriously. In many societies, the penalty for theft was cutting off fingers and then, as the seriousness progressed, cutting off entire hands. That is a penalty still prescribed in some cultures around the world. Judaism took a different tack.
While stealing was still treated very seriously, Jewish law was more concerned about restitution, the paying back of stolen property. That is why, when Zacchaeus came down out of the sycamore tree to follow Jesus, he began to pay back all those from whom he had stolen fourfold. He was making amends.
In Ephesians 4:28, Paul writes: “he who has been stealing must steal no longer but must work doing something useful with his own hands that he may have something to share.” Now here's the kicker. Paul was writing to church folk it's not the people on the outside. Now. You may have been sitting there thinking well, “I haven't robbed a bank lately, so I'm in the clear.” Well, not so fast, thou shall not steal goes far beyond overt thievery.
In discussing this passage, the founder of the Methodist movement, john Wesley, wrote these words: “this command forbids us to rob ourselves of what we have by sinful spending or the use and comfort of it by sinful sparing, and to rob others by invading our neighbor's rights, taking his goods or house or field forcibly or clandestinely, overreaching in bargains, not restoring what was borrowed or found with holding just debts, rents or wages, and, which is worst of all, to rob the public in coin and revenue or that which is dedicated to the service of religion.” I think Mr Wesley pretty much covered it there.
You see, it isn't about levels of theft. In the kingdom of God there is no distinction between misdemeanors and felonies. Stealing is stealing and it's all sin.
There are lots of ways in which theft occurs. People steal from others by turning back an odometer when they go to sell a car, or raising prices during an emergency, or cheating people on home repairs, but I know none of you would ever do any of those things.
So let's get a little closer to home. Sometimes stealing is a little more subtle and sometimes it's done without really thinking it through. For instance, selling a house or a car knowing that there are major defects but not revealing them to the potential buyer. How about fudging on our income tax return, figuring that the government gets enough money anyway?
Well, let's meddle a little more. How about taking office supplies or tools home from work? Anybody ever done that? How about copying movies and music illegally?
According to Billboard Magazine, music piracy is on the rise and the United States is a serious trouble spot. It seems that Americans, among the wealthiest people in the world, are third most in the world likely to stream ripped music and file share illegal songs and movies. Don't forget that the people who are involved in the music industry, in the movie industry, make a living off of copyrighted material. When we illegally steal their product, we may be cutting in their ability to provide for their families. We steal from each other, we steal from our employers, we steal from the government, we steal from businesses.
But we can also steal from God, and that is the most serious theft of all.
In fact, the strongest language of condemnation used by Jesus was directed at our failures to accept responsibilities as stewards of what God has given us. When we choose to withhold from God what is in fact his to begin with, well, we're stealing from the one who provides. You see, biblical giving is not just about giving God one-tenth, you see, it's all his 10-tenths. And how we use what he provides shows who we truly love.
In the fifth chapter of the book of Acts, we find the story of Ananias and Sapphira. They had sold some property and decided to make a donation to the church. All well and good, except that they began bragging on how they were such sacrificial givers. The whole time they had took away part of that money for themselves. Well, the pastor, St. Peter, calls them on their deception and they are both stricken dead. How's that for a stewardship sermon? Conversely, god tells us that when we follow through on our obligations to God and we don't steal from him, that we receive God's blessings.
Malachi 3:8 and following says, “Will a man rob God? Yet you rob me. But you ask how do we rob you? In tithes and offerings? You are under a curse, the whole nation of you, because you are robbing me. Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,’ says the Lord Almighty, ‘and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it.’”
Stealing is a serious problem that impacts our relationships with one another and, most of all, our relationship with the Lord. And the eighth commandment is a heads up that we need to be careful.
So on to the flip side: Coveting. As we have seen for the last several weeks, we are really called to get behind our actions and deal with our attitudes. Time and time in Scripture we are told that it is the motivation that leads us to sinful deeds. It is the heart of sin, and that is what is at issue with commandment number 10. You shall not covet.
Well, the word covet means simply something that we desire. In and of itself, that's not a bad thing. For example, our bodies need nourishment. Thus we desire food, we want a place to live or a car to drive, so we hopefully desire a job to pay for those things. We are created to be in relationship with one another, and so we desire friendship and love from others. We're even told in the Bible to desire God's grace.
In discussing spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians, chapter 12, Paul writes this: “But covet earnestly the best gifts,” and then he goes on to tell us that love is the greatest gift of all and we should desire it with all our being.
When coveting becomes bad is when we desire what already belongs to someone else.
The idea of grasping for more, something that is beyond our reach, an inordinate desire of having that which will be a gratification to ourselves, but perhaps at someone else's expense. It's an envy of our neighbor's circumstances. Coveting, in the 10th commandment, is desire that has run amok.
Abraham Lincoln one day was out on a walk with his boys, ted and Robert, and they were fussing with each other and carrying on like boys do. A passerby asked Mr Lincoln what the problem was. He replied, “What is wrong with them is exactly what is wrong with the whole world. I have three walnuts and each boy wants two.” Wanting more and more without bounds, whether it is possessions, power or position what we covet shows a lack of faith in God's provision for our lives. And that, my friends, is simply sin.
And it happens all the time in our daily lives. Someone thinks they deserve a co-worker's position, and so they begin to undermine that person. A student wants the starting position on the team or first chair in the band, and so they start to trash talk their competition. A pastor wants the big steeple church down the road and lays awake at night figuring out how to manipulate the system in order to get the appointment they feel they deserve.
And it starts off at the very beginning of our lives. Have you ever noticed how children are perfectly content to be playing with the toy that they have until another child walks in the room with a different toy? And immediately that kid reaches out for that other toy and fussing and fighting and serious unhappiness ensues.
I think that's at the heart of our nation's current economic troubles. It's not really just about financial checks and balances, it's not just about Washington versus Wall Street. It is about the struggle between good and evil.
The sinful nature apart from humanity leads us to greed. And when God is not offering grace, we desire what others have and doing whatever it takes to get that. Madison Avenue has made a fortune off of feeding that sinful desire for us to want what we want when we want it, and we will be willing to do whatever it takes to get it.
Now it should not surprise you that I am not really up to speed on the perfume industry, but I have noticed a particular brand of fragrance that is marketed by actress Sarah Jessica Parker. The advertising copy says this that it is a new fragrance that is impulsive, indulgent and irresistible. An ultra feminine fragrance, created with a seductive blend of precious fragrance notes. And the ad shows Ms Parker so overcome with desire for this perfume that she eventually smashes in a storefront display glass window in order to steal this perfume.
And then the commercials end with her in jail, staring out through the bars with wild eyes and expressions, saying in a very scary voice, “I just had to have it.” The name of the perfume? Wait for it… Covet.
Jesus said, “Take heed and beware of covetness, for one's life does not consist in the abundance of the things they possess. Be satisfied with your circumstances and celebrate in the success and joy of others.”
Here's the bottom line for these two commandments: Be content with who you are, with what you have, with your circumstances. Rejoice in what God has provided. Don't lust after what someone else has to try to keep up with them, or take it for ourselves or desire that has run amok. Don't do those things, because they will destroy our relationships with one another and they will destroy our relationship with God.
Jesus said, “so do not worry saying what shall we eat or what shall we drink or what shall we wear, for the pagans run after all these things, and your Father in heaven knows that you need them, but seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” Amen, amen and amen.