Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Third Sunday after Epiphany: Exodus XX.15: Eighth Commandment

Opening Prayer: Almighty God, we come before you as your people, bought and purchased with the blood of Christ. We are your possessions, your holy ones, and therefore we submit ourselves to you. We know that true freedom is found in your life, and therefore we ask that you would bestow that life upon us even more now by the working of your Spirit. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen!

We come now to the Eighth Commandment which prohibits stealing. Here the reality of private property is established, but since we serve the Trinity, our understanding of possessions must necessarily be patterned after the God of Scripture.

Free to Serve
Numerous theologians and commentaries have noticed that the Bible repeatedly focuses on kidnapping as a significant part of the eighth commandment. Our passage protects runaway slaves (23:15-16), but the law flatly prohibits kidnapping and the slave trade in both the Old Testament (Ex. 21:16, Dt. 24:7) and New Testament (1 Tim. 1:10). In other words, stealing is ultimately a sort of enslavement. Remember that it was Yahweh who delivered Israel from being slaves in Egypt, and he freed them in order that they might serve him (Ex. 20:2). Freedom is not abstract; it is a highly personal reality. There is no freedom in absolute isolation. The Trinity is ultimate freedom, and there the persons give themselves to one another and defend the honor and glory of one another. Because we are God’s nobility, he bestows gifts upon us. He gives us work, food, clothing, housing, a wife, a husband, children, health, safety, and so many other good gifts. Stealing a man or woman or child is ultimately stealing from Yahweh; stealing someone’s possessions is stealing a gift that God has given them to serve him and others with.

Restitution is not penance. Restitution is not “paying for” your sin/crime; it is not appeasing God with good works. Restitution is the embodiment of repentance to the extent possible. It is embracing God’s justice. To repent is to turn away from a particular kind of sin and turn toward righteousness (e.g. Eph. 4:20-32). This means that repenting of particular sins often entails restitution. When someone has lied, they repent by not only confessing that they lied but also by telling the truth (it may also include financial restitution). The principle of restitution is ultimately embodied in the doctrine of the atonement. The wages of sin is death, and Jesus paid this penalty on our behalf on the cross (punishment) and brought us back into fellowship with God (restoration). This justice is the standard of God’s dealings throughout history (e.g. Gen. 9:6, Ex. 21:23-25, Jer. 50:29, Obadiah 15). This means that God calls his people to imitate him in this. This requires: First, restoration of accidental damage or loss (Ex. 21:28-36; 22:10-15). Second, a thief is to restore double what has been stolen and in certain cases four or five times what was stolen (Ex. 22:1, 4, 7, 9). The thief who steals and confesses must restore what he has stolen plus 20% (a tithe on the double payment due by the unrepentant thief) (Lev. 6:1-7). But if the atonement is the ultimate example of this restitution justice then it is clear that this is really nothing less than love. When we have wronged a brother or sister, love not only confesses the wrong, love takes upon one’s self the loss in order to restore the offense. This is why the prison system is so unfortunate: where restitution allows for personal offences to be repaid and reconciliation to take place, prisons create this impersonal “society” that debts cannot really be paid to.

Conclusions and Applications
First, our passage in Dt. 23:24-25 distinguishes between property damage/theft and negligible “neighborly use.” Just as it is not a crime for a neighbor to pick a few heads of grain in a farmer’s field, it is not a sin (or crime) to accidentally walk off with the bank’s pen, borrow a paper clip and forget to return it, or pick up change off the ground. Conversely, we should not be annoyed at but rather welcome this kind of “neighborly use” by others. God requires his people to be open handed just as he is (Dt. 15:7ff), and some tender consciences need to be told to let these things go.

Second, we need to be aware of the sort of theft that we are most likely tempted to commit. The prophets have harsh words for the rich: exploitation of the poor and the ignorant is stealing (Amos 8:4-6, Matt. 23:14), withholding wages from workers is stealing (Jer. 22:13-17, Js. 5:4), and refusing to care for widows and orphans is stealing (Ex. 23:11, Dt. 15:8, 11). Neglecting to tithe is stealing from God (Mal. 3:8). More generally, we must insist that certain forms of interest/usury are theft (Dt. 23:19-20), even if you’re wearing a suit and tie and call it “property tax” or “eminent domain.” If it results in forcing owners out of their homes it is stealing.

We serve the God who redeems us (1 Pet. 1:18-19). But this character of God’s is fundamental to the Trinity. The Father, Son, and Spirit eternally give themselves up for one another, eternally free the other persons of the Trinity to use their gifts. You are called to imitate the Trinity in this: love the gifts of your neighbor, rejoice in what God has bestowed upon those around you, and give liberally.

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen!

Closing Prayer: Father, we thank you for how you have blessed with so many good things. Teach us rejoice in these gifts and rejoice in the gifts you have given others. Empower us to give ourselves up for our neighbors, our friends, and even our enemies, that we might show your grace and mercy to all even as you have done as much for us.

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