God Protects Our (His) Stuff
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Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
The text for today is Exodus 20:15: “You shall not steal.”
At first blush, this Seventh Commandment seems quite straightforward: “You shall not steal.” Duhh!!! Everyone, from the youngest child on up, knows it’s wrong to take something that doesn’t belong to you. Protection of private property is fundamental to stability in any society. How can you have any sense of order if everyone’s trying to take stuff from someone else? How can you be productive if you spend all your time trying to protect the stuff you’ve already got?
But Luther’s explanation in the Small Catechism once again draws out the deeper implications: “We should fear and love God so that we do not take our neighbor’s money or possessions, or get them in any dishonest way, but help him to improve and protect his possessions and income.”
As with all the commandments, there is a negative side and a positive side to this commandment. It deals with sins of omission and sins of commission—not only the evil that we do, but also the good we fail to do. You shall not steal; rather, you shall help your neighbor to improve and protect his possessions and income.
The term steal has taken on a rather limited meaning. Today it means the brash removing of someone else’s property from the owner’s premises. In his explanation of the Seventh Commandment, however, Martin Luther provides a broad definition to include obtaining things “in any dishonest way.” Stealing is not only physically robbing another’s possessions, but it is also taking advantage of other people through any type of fraud, usury, laziness, or cheating. As Luther explains, “stealing” also includes failing to help our neighbor improve or protect our neighbor’s stuff —his or her possessions and income.
Examples of breaking the Seventh Commandment include sins most of us would readily recognize: things like robbery, embezzlement, false advertising, “bait-and-switch” tactics, cheating on taxes, and shoplifting, just to name a few. But this commandment also deals with less obvious sins like taking credit for work someone else has done, knowingly pocketing the extra change a store clerk accidentally gives you, wasting time, plagiarizing a report from the internet, pirating CDs or DVDs, sharing songs on the internet, pay day loans, cheating, vandalizing, laziness, and being careless with borrowed property.
Greed is the primary target of this commandment. The issue is not stealing itself. The issue is taking advantage of another for one’s own advancement. The issue is making someone else’s loss your gain. The issue is the idolatry of stuff. Ultimately, the issue is one’s soul. Jesus warned, “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36). St. Paul added, “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs” (1 Timothy 6:10).
It’s really a matter of perspective. How we view other people’s possessions is related to how we view what belongs to us. Possessions may appear to come to us through our hard work or shrewd management, but Scripture says that “every good and perfect gift is from above” (James 1:17). All earthly goods and possessions really come from God. In His goodness and mercy, God distributes these gifts among people—to some people more, to some less.
We often affirm, “I own this.” “She owns that.” For practical and legal purposes, these statements are true. In reality, however, God owns everything. It’s His stuff. We are only caretakers or stewards of God’s gracious gifts. “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it; for He founded it upon the seas and established it upon the waters” (Psalm 24:1-2).
As stewards, we may use the possessions God has entrusted to us as we wish, as long as we do not contradict God’s purposes. We may keep, sell, trade, or give away our possessions. But God commands us never to step over the line between what is ours and what belongs to our neighbor. God commands all people, “You shall not steal. You shall help your neighbor and improve his possessions and income.” In this way, God protects our (actually, His) stuff.
The Bible indicates that we can also rob God. In Old Testament times God commanded that the first tenth (or tithe) of all that was received was to be returned to Him (Malachi 3:8-10). God did not require the tithe because He needed the resources. On the contrary, He said, “I have no need of a bull from your house or goats from your folds. For every beast of the forest is Mine, the cattle on a thousand hills” (Psalm 50:9-10, ESV).
So, what then was God’s purpose in commanding the tithe? It was to remind His people of His ownership (Psalm 24:1) and to pour out His blessings on them. “Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in My house. And thereby put Me to the test, says the Lord of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need” (Malachi 3:10, ESV). Neglecting to tithe breeds indifference to God and robs His people of the good things God wants to give them. Tithing honors the Giver.
That is not to say that the tithe is mandated for the Church today. In the New Testament we are not bound by a set percentage, but challenged by God to give regularly, proportionately, and sacrificially in the support of His work. St. Paul instructs the church in Corinth: “On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income” (1 Corinthians 16:2). Later, he urges: “Just as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in your love for us—see that you excel in this grace of giving” (2 Corinthians 8:7).
Did you hear that phrase: “this grace of giving”? Perhaps it sounds foreign to you. Maybe you’ve never considered giving as an act of grace, especially with it comes to tithes and offerings. Many people give to meet the needs of the budget. People are by nature “needs givers.” If there are needs and the need is worthy they will condescend to give something. But good stewardship says, “I will return to the Lord in proportion to how He has blessed me.” You shouldn’t need some special program like a building project or a budget shortfall to motivate you to give. When God’s grace and Word works in your heart, it just becomes part of who you are.
As a New Testament believer who acknowledges God’s ownership of your life and enjoys His love and grace, you will be eager to give Him your total devotion, as well as a generous share of your resources. Those with large incomes have the financial ability to give beyond the tithe. Jesus said, “Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more” (Luke 12:48, ESV).
Unfortunately, many people have developed something today we might call “Cafeteria Christianity,” a pick and choose approach to the faith. They say to themselves, “I’ll follow God in these areas of my life, but I’m going to reserve some of my life for myself.”
But God doesn’t operate that way. He doesn’t in any area in which He gives direction to our lives. and He doesn’t here, regarding money and possessions. Jesus Himself spoke more about money than probably anyone else in all the Bible. And He summed up His message with the words, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21).
So, where is your treasure? Is in found in the stuff of this world or in your Lord? Is it found in the creation or the Creator? Is it found in the gift or the Giver? Your stewardship of God’s blessings answers that question more truthfully than your mouth ever could. Perhaps this simple illustration will help to explain:
A father takes his five-year-old son to McDonald’s because the boy wants some fries and a coke. And the father is not really hungry, so he doesn’t order anything. He’s just enjoying the company of his son. So the son gets his fries and pop and they are both sitting there enjoying the moment. As the father observes his son popping the fries in his mouth, he casually reaches over to get a fry. And the boy says, “Mine!” And the father looks at his son, and he says to himself, “Doesn’t this kid understand? I’m the one that gave him the fries. I gave them to him out of love. I could go and get my own fries if I want. Doesn’t this kid understand? He would only be sharing something I gave him in the first place.”
Well folks, here God showers us with His gifts, and we clutch them and say, “Mine!” Don’t we understand? We don’t, do we? Do you know what belongs to you? Nothing! Absolutely nothing! You brought nothing into this world and you will carry nothing out. Everything belongs to the Lord. You are merely a steward, a manager of some of those blessings.
Really, in many ways, the least and simplest thing you can do for your Lord is to give money. When you give money for the Lord’s work you do ministry by proxy. Through your pastor, you minister to the sick, the shut-in, of our local congregation, and provide comfort to those whose loved ones die. You help teach children in VBS and Sunday School. You help those who are lost in their sin open their eyes and see Jesus.
Your gifts go to ministry in the Minnesota South District, such as financial aid for future pastors and teachers, outreach programs, evangelism training, and the planting of new congregations. Your gifts go through our synod for work in countries all over the world feeding and clothing and housing those in need, digging wells, building seminaries and hospitals, and preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It may not look that exciting when you just drop money in the plate week after week, but you are making all that happen. And that is tremendously exciting!
In the end, your understanding of this commandment not only affects the relationship we have with your neighbor, but also gets to the very view that you have of God. How do you see God? As a harsh taskmaster and stern judge, or as a loving Father and generous Giver?
God is a Giver. God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son.” Jesus gave His life for you that you might have everlasting life, so that you might be forgiven even of your greed and selfishness. Everything that we have comes from God. Everything that God controls gives. “The sun gives light, the rain gives life, trees give shade, and so forth. On the other hand, everything that Satan controls takes. The Bible says that Satan’s purpose is to “steal and kill and to destroy.” When you steal, you are lining yourself right up with Satan; you are swearing allegiance to the prince of darkness.
God is a Giver who revels in generosity. In Jesus’ parables, God rejoices to be generous with His servants. God gives the worker who came in at the last hour the full wage (Matthew 20:1-16). He cancels the huge debt of his servant because he pleads for mercy (Matthew 18:21-35). He generously entrusts ten and five and one talents to his servants and then doubles them for His faithful ones on His return (Luke 19:11-27). The five thousand are fed until they are fully satisfied and there are baskets of bread leftover. The wedding party is provided with the good wine that will not run out. God is gracious and generous!
Thank God He is! He does not reward you according to what you deserve; He blesses you according to His unfailing generosity. The psalmist writes: “He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is His steadfast love toward those who fear Him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does He remove our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:10-12).
Our Lord died, rose, and now reigns so that He can “graciously give [you] all things” (Romans 8:32) in time and—most important—for all eternity. God generously gives every good blessing to you, including our very salvation. And then He sends you out saying, “Go, and do likewise” (Luke 10:37).
Do not steal, but help and protect your neighbor and his or her property. Be honest with your boss—on your time sheet, on your expense account, and on your phone calls. Be honest with your classmates—don’t cheat on tests and papers. Be honest with authors, artists, and composers—don’t duplicate their articles, their movies, and their songs without permission, attribution, and/or appropriate compensation. Be honest with the next generation—do not take their money and their natural resources. Be honest with your fellow citizens—pay your fair share of taxes. Be honest with your God—do not rob Him of His tithe.
This commandment calls you to live a life of integrity and generosity that reflects the characteristics and nature of our good and gracious God. God is truly a Giver! He has created you and given you life. He gives you all that you need to support this body and life and, more importantly, for the one in the new age to come. In His generous love and mercy, your heavenly Father has given you His only Son Jesus, who is the Way and the Truth and the Life. Jesus is your gracious substitute, who has willingly given His life as a ransom for your sins.
Here is stuff that endures forever, a treasure that will never fade, spoil, or rust: faith, forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life. In Baptism, God adopts you as His child and gives you His Holy Spirit and new life. In His Holy Supper, the Lord feeds you with the bread of heaven, and shares the cup that never runs out—His very body and blood—to strengthen you, body and soul, unto life everlasting. Week after week, your generous God speaks to you this gracious Good News through His called and ordained servant: “You are forgiven for all of your sins.”
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.