10. No Stealing

Meditating on the Wonders of the Ten Commandments:  10. No Stealing

Ex 20:15   You shall not steal.

This eighth command is the third of these short and to the point commands that leave no room for negotiation. These four words of this verse do not need great skills of interpretation; a child can understand them. You must not steal!  Stealing is very simply taking what belongs to someone else without their permission, for your use, not to be returned. Stealing is not borrowing; it has a finality about it. You take it and intend to keep it. That is stealing.

Stealing as a prohibition was not a new thing. People before the Ten Commandments had this sense of ownership and with ownership comes rights – the right to hold onto your possession and not have it taken away. Laban challenged Jacob as he was leaving, “Now you have gone off because you longed to return to your father’s house. But why did you steal my gods?” (Gen 31:30)

Jacob’s brothers in Egypt trying to defended themselves from his schemes said, “We even brought back to you from the land of Canaan the silver we found inside the mouths of our sacks. So why would we steal silver or gold from your master’s house? If any of your servants is found to have it, he will die; and the rest of us will become my lord’s slaves.” (Gen 44:8,9) They saw stealing from the Pharaoh as a seriously punishable offence.

No, stealing was recognized as wrong even before this time on Sinai, but here it is part of the decreed Law of God so there is no question about it: if you steal you are sinning against God. The prohibition is repeated in Deut 5:19 but also in Lev 19:11 so three times we have it in the Pentateuch.

When Jeremiah spoke against the sins of the people he cried, “Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say, “We are safe”–safe to do all these detestable things? Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching! declares the LORD.” (Jer 7:9-11)  Thieves and robbers was the accusation. It was an accusation that came up a number of times in the mouths of the prophets, especially about those who were powerful, grabbing land that belonged to the poor.

Hosea included stealing in the group of things for which he condemned Israel: “Hear the word of the LORD, you Israelites, because the LORD has a charge to bring against you who live in the land: “There is no faithfulness, no love, no acknowledgment of God in the land. There is only cursing, lying and murder, stealing and adultery; they break all bounds, and bloodshed follows bloodshed.” (Hos 4:1,2) These prophetic denunciations suggest that stealing is just one of the symptoms of a society that has become godless. Remove the presence and remembrance of God and the people feel free to do whatever they like, and so often that means taking from others that which does not belong to you.

When the apostle Paul was laying out his gospel and chiding the Jews for their unbelief over the years, he asked, “you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal?” (Rom 2:21) To be able to ask that he must have had something in mind? Appropriating what belongs to another crops up in every society where there are sinful human beings – and of course, we all are. We need the Law to inhibit us, to restrain us, to point out the things that are wrong. We live in a society in the West where increasingly it is being heard, “Who am I to criticize the behaviour of other people?” It is the language of relative thinking which undermines absolutes so that anything goes, it just depends on the circumstances whether we consider it wrong or not. Thus in a society where there are rich and privileged, we who are poorer justify our ‘Robin-Hood-attitudes’ because we see their riches as unfair, and “they probably got their riches unfairly anyway.”  All of that may be true but two wrongs don’t make a right, as they say. If their business practices have been dubious, that does not give me the right to take from them when I can. We justify our dubious behaviour sometimes in modern society until the point when someone steals from us.

Stealing, is the prerogative of the godless and it is unrighteous, in whatever form it comes. It undermines civilized society and it offends God. It is that simple.

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42. Be at Peace

Meditations in 1 Peter : 42 : Be at Peace

1 Pet 3:13-15 Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear what they fear; do not be frightened.” But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord.

The ways of life are very obvious when you think about it. For example, if you want a life of trouble and difficulty all you have to do is be nasty to people, cheat on them, lie to them, deceive them, be spiteful to them, steal from them, do your work badly, fail to pay your debts, borrow but never give back and so on. If you are a student you skip classes, never hand work in and be casual about your learning.  If you are married you be unfaithful to your partner and be unpleasant to your kids. Now all that is so obvious that you might wonder why any of us do any of these things. Surely we want a good life, a life without stress? So why do people act like this? Because of the stupidity of sin!

Peter is painting a very different picture. He is putting up some pointers to help us live the good life and has just used the Old Testament to act as a guide. He assumes we want a life that is peaceful and free from upset. OK, he says, Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good?” i.e. do good and that will stop most people from being nasty to you. People don’t feel threatened generally by goodness so they won’t attack you. If you constantly do good, you are not going to attract hostility and upset.

But Peter is a realist and he knows that in the world in which we live, although it is generally like that, there will be people so given over to the enemy that they will come against you: “But even if you should suffer for what is right.” This suffering means persecution and opposition from others; that is clear by what follows. Yes, as good as you may be there will be those along life’s way who will oppose you, just like they did Jesus for his goodness. But look what he goes on to say:But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed.” How will you be blessed for suffering persecution?

He doesn’t say but perhaps he has in mind his master’s teaching: “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Mt 5:10,11)  Yes, Jesus taught that you were blessed in such circumstances because it showed that you were a citizen of the kingdom of heaven and as such heaven will reward you. That reward may be a sense of peace that passes understanding or it may be a sense of the Father’s approval or it may be His blessing that brings further goodness into your life.

But then he seeks to reassure us: Do not fear what they fear; do not be frightened.” This would appear to be a quote from Isaiah: “do not fear what they fear, and do not dread it. The LORD Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy, he is the one you are to fear.” (Isa 8:12,13) i.e. do not fear the plotting and scheming of people. The only one to ‘fear’ is God because He is all-seeing and all-mighty. We live, as children of God, under the watchful eye of our Father and He will provide for us and protect us: “I lift up my eyes to the hills– where does my help come from? My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth. He will not let your foot slip– he who watches over you will not slumber; indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The LORD watches over you– the LORD is your shade at your right hand; the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night. The LORD will keep you from all harm– he will watch over your life; the LORD will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.” (Psa 121) That IS the truth. We would do well to memorise that psalm for it reminds us of the truth.

Then Peter takes the Old Testament teaching and brings it up to date: But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord.” The Old Testament was ‘fear the Lord’. The New Testament was ‘Jesus is Lord’. They are the same things expressed at different times with different levels of revelation. Today our submitting to God is expressed through our submission to His Son, our Saviour and Lord, Jesus Christ. So today, when we are facing opposition and wondering how we will cope, remember that Jesus is Lord and is seated at his Father’s right hand ruling in heaven over all things.(see Eph 1:22, 1 Pet 3:22, Rom 8:34, 1 Cor 15:25, Psa 110:1). Faith means we respond to these truths and the outworking of it will be peace. We will live in peace and live out peace. Yes, sometimes there will be opposition but Christ will be there and his grace will be sufficient as he works out all things for our good. Rejoice in this and be at peace in this! 

40. Misc. (1)

Meditations in the Law : No.40 : Miscellaneous Laws (1)

Lev 19:1,2 The LORD said to Moses, “Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them: `Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy.

Chapter 19 takes us into a batch of miscellaneous laws, a number of which pick up on those found either in the Ten Commandments or in the covenant laws of Exodus 21 to 23.  The point that is made from the outset is that these are laws given by God to make Israel distinctive (holy) like He is distinctive. This distinctiveness is because God is pure and perfect and this people is thus to be the same. These laws will make Israel stand out in the world, as a people who live according to God’s design for humanity, and as such they are to be a light to the rest of the world.

Immediately after this introduction we have a double relationship reminder: Each of you must respect his mother and father, and you must observe my Sabbaths. I am the LORD your God,” (v.3) echoes of the fifth and fourth commandments (Ex 20:8-12) Relationship is at the heart of community – of life with others. The family is the basic building block of society and a respect for God built into community life is the umbrella over it all. This is followed by a warning against idol worship: “Do not turn to idols or make gods of cast metal for yourselves. I am the LORD your God.” (v.4)  which echoes the second commandment (Ex 20:4,5). Hold fast to the One True God!

Verses 5 to 8 basically say, if you want fellowship with the Lord then make sure that when you bring your fellowship offerings you do it in the prescribed way. Fellowship with God is not to be equated with casualness: “When you sacrifice a fellowship offering to the LORD, sacrifice it in such a way that it will be accepted on your behalf. It shall be eaten on the day you sacrifice it or on the next day; anything left over until the third day must be burned up. If any of it is eaten on the third day, it is impure and will not be accepted. Whoever eats it will be held responsible because he has desecrated what is holy to the LORD; that person must be cut off from his people.” (v.5-8). Thus, as with the Ten Commandments, the initial commands are about relationship with the Lord. If we get that right, then there is hope for everything else to follow and fall into place.

This is then followed by instructions that were meant to bless the poor: “When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the alien. I am the LORD your God.” (v.9,10) Thus the ‘leftovers’ of harvest are to be accessible and available to the poor, as an additional form of God’s provision for them. God’s concern for the poor and needy also comes a few verses later: “Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind, but fear your God. I am the LORD,” (v.14) as an obvious protection for the disabled.

The verses that follow are a mixture of laws about property and ownership, and truthfulness in life. First the property and ownership laws: “Do not steal” (v.11a) is a repeat of the eighth commandment (Ex 20:15), “Do not defraud your neighbor or rob him,” (v.13a) is a general instruction to let there be right dealings in society, and “Do not hold back the wages of a hired man overnight,” (v.13b) takes the right dealing into the work place so that employers do not hold back what they owe employees.

The laws of truthfulness are, “Do not lie,” (v.11b) which is a simple and straight forward call for truthfulness to always be yours, followed by, “Do not deceive one another,” (v.11c) which takes truthfulness into behaviour as well as speech. Indeed part of that deception may include making false oaths, and so they are forbidden: “Do not swear falsely by my name and so profane the name of your God. I am the LORD.” (v.12) i.e. don’t try to use God’s name to bolster up your wrong doings. He is holy and so if you invoke His name in such dealings you will be in serious trouble!  This takes us into the area of justice: “Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.” (v.15) Again, let honesty prevail in society. Again, more on truthfulness: “Do not go about spreading slander among your people.” (v.16)

From there the Law becomes more general in concern for well-being in society: “Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor’s life. I am the LORD,” (v.16) but it is not only actions but attitudes: “Do not hate your brother in your heart.” (v.17a). It is not only negative or passive, it is also positive and active: “Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in his guilt.” (v.17b) i.e. if you see your neighbour moving into wrong, do something about it, go to him and talk to him. Wow, that is community care!

Positive heart attitudes will have strong effects in society: “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.” (v.18). Again and again where we have that final reminder, “I am the Lord” we are being reminded that this is to be a holy people, a people who are distinguished from the self-centred, ungodly, sinful nations of the world – or at least, that is how it was supposed to be if Israel had heeded these laws. What a wonderful society it could have been but, tragically, so often it wasn’t as they ignored or forgot about these guidelines from the Designer on how to create a good, secure and caring society. The blueprints were there, but they just didn’t follow them – just like we don’t in modern Western societies today!

10. Property

Lessons from the Law: No.10 : Respect property – and yourself

Ex 20:15 You shall not steal

Moving on from laws about specific relationships, this next command takes us into the realm of how we think about other people or organizations generally. Understand that this is first and foremost about what goes on in your mind. Stealing is simply taking into your ownership what belongs to another, without their permission. It differs from borrowing in that you take it without permission, and you take it to hold onto it for your ownership. It is an offence against another person. There is in God’s eyes a very simple principle and one which is re-enacted in most property laws: what has been bought by you, or made by you, belongs to you. It is yours and so taking it without your permission for their long-term use (ownership) is wrong. It doesn’t matter what it is, it is stealing. We may try to rationalise it by saying they don’t need it (e.g. paper from the company you work for) or don’t deserve it (evading taxes), but it still is stealing. Each such act is an expression of what you think about a person, an organisation or an authority.

Even more than that, each such act of taking what does not belong to you, reveals something about you, and it demeans you. When we take what belongs to another we demean ourselves. We may be made in the image of God and have incredible potential, but at that moment we are moving in the opposite direction where we are demeaned in the eyes of the rest of the world. I believe the act of stealing takes us down as human being almost more than anything else. It doesn’t matter whether it is taking some food from a big supermarket chain without paying, taking something from a family’s belongings on a beach on holiday, taking something from a science lab at school, or paper from the office, it still demeans us as people.

Like Adam and Eve, we rationalise it so often or even blame others: we pay too much on taxes so it doesn’t matter if I don’t declare this extra work. Or it may be, if they paid me a decent wage, I wouldn’t need to have to take things from the office. Or perhaps we say, if the government gave me enough benefit I wouldn’t need to take food from the supermarket. All of them are just excuses and even in saying them, we demean ourselves even more.

I use this word ‘demean’ purposely. It simply means ‘to put down’. Many of us have low self-esteem already but actually when we take what doesn’t belong to us, we put ourselves into a lower bracket of humanity and we can’t think well of ourselves – it’s how God has made us. Even ‘big people’ who create financial scams may flout their ill gotten gains, but deep down they know what they are really like, and life becomes a big effort to cover up the truth about what they really are like. If you ever hear someone boasting about their misdeeds, they are simply trying (desperately) to cover up the truth and pretend it is something other that it is.

Often when we steal we do not appear to do any harm because, perhaps, the organisation is so large they won’t notice it. The trouble is that you are not the only person doing it and they do notice it and so prices are put up to cover the loss and so the rest of us have to pay more because of you, and when we think about it you know what we think of you and again you are demeaned.

The previous command was about adultery and often adultery is about stealing someone else’s partner or stealing away the heart of someone else’s partner. The trouble is that it is so common today that we rationalise it and say it is quite normal and everyone does it. No they don’t and it is not ‘normal’. It is quite contrary to how God has designed us. It is stealing by another name and YOU are demeaned. You are a lesser person and you know it and we know it, however much it is laughed at or made the subject of ‘soaps’ on TV every day.

There are two particular spin-offs of stealing that we don’t tend to think much about. The first one is loss of trust. If I know that you steal – because you brag about it – I won’t trust you. If you steal from others, you may steal from me. You can’t be trusted. You are a lesser being. The other one is, of course, the fact of being caught, at which point any reputation that you might have had, immediately goes. What is sad about all this, is that there are many people who go in and out of prison, or in and out of the courts and do community service for stealing, and who simply accept their lowly view of themselves almost without thought. That’s just how life is, is a common attitude or, why shouldn’t I if I can get away with it?  What we have in every case of stealing is someone who thinks little of themselves. They have either never seen, or have lost, the sense that they could be ‘someone’. Being ‘someone’ isn’t about having wealth or power, those are only the outward trappings. Being ‘someone’ is about feeling good about yourself and not having any cause to feel guilty or defensive or afraid because of who you are and what you have done.

We may not murder and we may not commit adultery, but if we take from someone else what is not ours, we move into the bracket of a ‘transgressor’ and we have an issue with God. We may think it is only a small issue, but it is still an issue and we are lesser people for it. This is a short and simple command, but it has big repercussions.

16. Evil Men

‘WHY?’ QUESTIONS No.16

Psa 10:13 Why does the wicked man revile God? Why does he say to himself, “He won’t call me to account”?

There is a mystery in many people’s minds, a mystery about evil and specifically about evil in people. Why are people like they are? Why do dictators do the terrible things they do? Why do men and women murder, why do men rape, why do fathers abuse children, why do people steal from other people? I once led a law class where the whole class were unanimous that we needed laws to protect the weak “because people are nasty”. What an indictment of the human race!

There are two possible aspects to this verse today – the reason why men act like this, and the reason God lets them act like this. First of all, what is the reason men act like this? Why do people do wrong and then deny the presence of God? Why does the wicked man think he will get away with it?

Well there are two parts to the answer to that. Looking at Scripture, we see that we have an adversary, Satan, who comes against us to tempt us to do wrong, and he does that by getting us to think wrongly. We did consider this the other day but we will look at it more deeply now. At the Fall we find the following sequence of events: He said to the woman, “Did God really say,’You must not eat from any tree in the garden? (Gen 3:1) This was Satan challenging the truth in Eve’s mind as part of his endeavours to get her to go against God. That was followed by,You will not surely die,” the serpent said to the woman (Gen 3:4), his denial of the consequences of her actions. So we see he whispers into people’s minds that it’s all right to do this thing because who’s to say it’s wrong, and anyway, it will be all right. It is wrong and it won’t be all right – A man reaps what he sows.” (Gal 6:7) There are always consequences to our wrong doing.

Now there is a second reason men now do wrong. It isn’t only Satan; it is the fact that since the Fall, every man, woman and child has been tainted by this thing called Sin, this tendency towards self-centred godlessness which results in unrighteousness. Note that it is now a tendency within us. Once we become Christians we have a greater power within us, the Holy Spirit, who enables us to overcome the old tendency, the old nature. However until a person comes to Christ for salvation, that old nature prevails and Sin prevails in them. Godlessness is most natural; self-centredness is most natural, and unrighteousness is most natural. Now David didn’t have this understanding when he wrote this psalm, but we have all the revelation of the New Testament teaching so we should understand it and we shouldn’t be surprised when we see such things. Satan plus the old sinful nature means that evil is expressed in human beings.

But we said there is a second aspect to this verse – why God allows wicked men to act like this. This is so often the cry of lack of understanding, “Why doesn’t God do something about it?” the ‘it’ being the wrong doing of evil people. Well actually when you think about it there is an easy answer to this one. The Bible indicates quite clearly that God has given us free will. It would be a nonsense if God told us to do things if we did not have the capacity not to do them. The fact that Eve and then Adam ‘fell’, were disobedient, is a clear example of this free will. A variety of other people in the Bible also clearly didn’t do what God told them to do. No, free will is a capacity that God has obviously given us. So when we cry, “Why doesn’t God do something?” we are in fact saying, “Why doesn’t God override this person’s free will?” and that’s where it gets difficult. Put simply, where should He stop? Obviously He should stop murderers and rapists and criminals, you might say. OK, but why stop with them for there are lots and lots of acts of wrongdoing that are not criminal acts? OK, you say, do away with all wrongdoing! Ah! Including in you? Including your wrong thoughts, wrong words and sometimes wrong acts? You want God to take away your free will and make you into a robot who can only do good, whose action will be severely curtailed, and whose human experience will be radically cut back? You want God to do that, because that is your only alternative?

As soon as we come to this point we see the awfulness of Sin and the awfulness of free will, but then we start seeing the wonder of salvation that wins sinful human beings to God’s side to be good. That’s what salvation does, but we have to have the other awful freedom first. Yes, God does act into this world and sometimes He does obviously move against evil men, and yes, men do reap the consequences of their actions, but in the meantime the terrible downside of free will is that man can be evil!

Never blame God for your wrong doing and never demand He takes away free will of other people – or you! Free will is the staggering responsibility that God has bestowed upon mankind. It is, if you like, a sign of His respect for us. He gives us our lives to live as we will, with the potential to achieve wonderful things, but also to do terrible things. The choice is ours. He will be there to help us achieve the former, and His wrath will be there against the latter, but the choice is still ours. Choose wisely.