Sweetwater Presbyterian

Small in size, Big in Faith and Love

The 8th Commandment

The Eighth Commandment

This was a conversation I had with one of my children one afternoon when they were elementary school age. We were in a park and I looked over and my child was playing with one of those expensive Tonka Trucks. I said, “Where did you get that?” The answer which is often a universal child answer especially when they want to avoid answering a question was “I don’t know”. “Oh” I said “You were sitting on that grass and all of a sudden this truck just appears in front of you and you begin to play with it?” “Uh-Huh” they nodded. “I really doubt that is what happened, where did you get it?” Now my child knew me and knew how persistent I was and knew that at some point the truth had to come out so the next attempt at an answer was “Over there”. “You got the truck over there? Want to be a little more specific?” “Over there” and the finger pointed direction. “You are doing better” I answered “but you haven’t quite located the origin of this truck yet. Come one, let’s walk and see where this truck came from.” So we did and we came to a blanket someone had laid out with picnic supplies and other toys laying on it. “From this blanket?” I asked. “Yes” my child said a little sheepishly. “And you didn’t think that maybe it belonged to someone else since it was on someone else’s blanket?” I got one of those child eye looks that said, “Yes I know I did wrong but I’m cute and you won’t hurt me will you?” So I said, ‘Put the truck back where you got it and don’t take things that don’t belong to you. OK?” “Ok” the child with a hanging head said and the truck was returned to where it came from.
The 8th Commandment - Don’t take things that don’t belong to you. Easy? Simple? Yes and No. Like all the other commandments we have looked at, there is so much more to this command other than just not taking things that don’t belong to you. This command also involves not providing for others, stealing someone’s dignity, not giving what we owe, withholding our help.
As you read through the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy where the God takes the 10 Commandments and turns them into specific rules and regulations there are an abundance of interpretations of this commandment that are way outside the bounds of what we think of as stealing - I go into the convenience store and take a pack of gum - stealing. I go into the store and buy a few things and when I go out I realize I forgot to pay for something and I figure it is too much trouble to go back in for a $1.00 item - stealing. I take tape from the supply room at work and take it home cause I don’t figure they will miss it - stealing. I borrow my neighbor’s rake and never take it back - stealing. My neighbor is starving and I have plenty of food and I don’t offer any to them - stealing. You don’t get that library book back - stealing. you fudge on your expense account or your print out copyrighted material from your computer or download a song you didn’t pay for cause there is a website that lets you do that even though it is technically not right - stealing.
This commandment really asks us to think about how we obtain what we have and if we have done it fairly and honestly and ethically.
One of the greatest Christian influences in my life was an older minster who I became very close to as I began my ministry. He became very ill and I would go and visit him and he said he was glad that someone would come and he could expound what he learned from his many years in ministry to someone. He had a lot of experience and had fallen on disfavor with the powers that be during his later years and was kind of cast aside. He felt he still had a lot to offer and I gave him that opportunity. And he gave me a great deal of advice and stories of what he learned and what I will never forget, and he expounded on this at every visit, was the importance of ethics in the life of a Christian, especially in the life of a minister who is to set a good example and in the life of a church who is to be ‘the light of a community’ and an example to the world. He said that the church could prove that even a group of people can make the right choices.
Ethics is simply the idea of making the ‘right’ choices - choices that may cost your more money or more time but you know it is the right thing to do and there is no hint of doing anything under the table or for the wrong reasons. Just because something is legal doesn’t necessarily mean it is right. Breaking an ethical barrier always results in stealing something from someone - even if they will never know or never miss it. Breaking an ethical barrier may not even bee a possession or a thing - but can involve someone’s feelings or ideas or principles.
God’s laws about stealing get pretty specific throughout the first 5 books of the bible - what if I take an apple off the tree in my neighbor’s orchard and eat it and don’t pay them for it. They will never know will they? And all the evidence is gone cause I ate the apple - stealing. There is even a rule that says if you steal something from someone who stole it from someone else you are still a thief yourself.
There is a whole section of the book of Exodus where this commandment is described which deals with fair business practices. It was considered stealing of you prohibited someone else from being about to do business; if you charged excessive interest rates; if you used unfair weights to measure out goods. At in this same section we are told to guard carefully what we have borrowed.
Jesus shifts the idea of stealing from taking something that doesn’t belong to you to withholding what is due someone. Render unto Caesar’s what is Caesar’s as Jesus calls us to pay our taxes fairly and if we don’t - it is stealing. Being fair in whatever we owe to someone - the attitude of trying to withhold what we owe, trying to wriggle out of responsibilities through some obscure loophole - stealing.
Then Jesus addresses stealing in the terms having two coats and not giving one to someone who needed it…. of caring for those who were hungry and lonely and prisoners - those who were in any kind of need. What we are ‘stealing’ is the opportunity to share the excess we have with someone who doesn’t have basic needs.
Fundamental to our understanding of ourselves and our relationship with God is the knowledge that everything we have comes from God. The Bible is clear that we are not given these things solely for our good - we are given things to be used for the benefit of the community. “To much is given much is expected”. And this just doesn’t mean possessions and money but our talents and abilities which we are expected to use for the common good.
The idea of hoarding is in the Bible sense ‘stealing’ for ourselves what someone else could benefit from.
We see this in the concept of gleaning which comes from this section of scripture that deal with laws about stealing. Gleaning is the Old Testament rule which tells farmers they are only allowed to make one harvesting pass through their fields and whatever is leftover from this first pass at harvesting is to be left for the poor - and if you did not follow these guidelines you were considered to be a thief - taking from those who need what is to be found in these fields.
So if stealing is not only taking something that doesn’t belong to us but also withholding that which ‘belongs’ to someone else whether in a real sense or in the idea that everyone has the right to the basic needs.
The prophet Malachi addresses ‘stealing’ in the terms of the tithes and offerings. This is Stewardship season after all and ‘tithes and offerings’ sort of creep into everything we do. Malachi points out that when we hold back our tithes, we are stealing from God and we are blocking the flow of God’s blessings and bounty through us and toward the work of God. Malachi says that if we don’t consider withholding tithes as stealing then it will be a short leap to not thinking anything is wrong with taking the Tonka Truck left alone on someone’s picnic blanket.
In the bible, the word tithe refers to 10%. The portion of one’s resources God asks that we use to maintain the faith community and its mission. The word ‘offerings’ is a Biblical word which means what we give over and above our tithe and is usually designed to special purposes. What the Bible is saying is that if everything we have is 100% and we truly believe everything we have comes from God, then God is saying that 90% of everything God has given us he has given us to use for ourselves and he asks a mere 10% for his work - and God will honor that by making it enough.
It is hard for us to hear these thought that ‘stealing’ in its Biblical use means even holding back what God asks us to give…
The 8th Commandment - don’t take what isn’t yours, and don’t withhold what you can share with others, don’t take from someone even the intangible idea of their dignity and their ideas and the value of their opinions, don’t withhold from God the things of God.

Amen!