Some years ago in Adelaide two men tried to steal some money by hooking up a chain from the front panel of an ATM to their Toyota Landcruiser. They hoped to pull the panel off as they drove away. However instead of the panel coming off, the bumper bar came off the Landcruiser. They weren’t quite sure what to do, then as they realized their noise was attracting a lot of attention, they panicked and just drove off leaving the bumper bar attached to the chain, and leaving their licence plate attached to the bumper bar. Since they’d used their own Landcruiser, it wasn’t hard for the police to track them down.
I read of a bank robber who handed the teller a note written on the back of an envelope, telling them to hand over their cash, because he was armed. They did as he asked. When the police came, they turned over the envelope the robber had left, then went to the address on the front of the envelope, where they found both the robber and the cash!
Another robber forced a shop assistant to give him the contents of the till. He then made his getaway on his motorbike. To hide his identity, he had worn his full helmet as a mask. It was a successful robbery, except for one detail: he had forgotten that across his helmet, in big letters, was his name.
We like to laugh at robbers who get caught because there’s a sense of justice. None of us like having things stolen from us. I’ve had my home burgled, a car stolen, and a credit card number stolen, none of us enjoy those sort of experiences. Most of think of stealing as wrong, yet many of us also think of it as something other people do. We may not think this command You shall not steal, really applies to us. What relevance does this ancient commandment have? As we look at it today let’s ask three questions:
1. What are some ways people steal?
a) Stealing from those ‘under’ you
On the screen is a picture of man who wanted to see Jesus. Does anyone know his name? (Zacchaeus). Why is he up the tree? (He’s short, he can’t see over the crowd), but also possibly because most of the crowd hate him, so they wouldn’t let him through to the front. They hated him because he was a tax-collector. He was working for the enemy the Romans. Tax-collectors often stole from people by charging them more for their taxes than was required, and keeping the difference. They had a position of authority, but they misused it for their own gain. There are lots of ways people misuse authority for their own gain today.
Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you…You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. (James 5:1-4)
If you’re an employer but don’t pay fair wages, you’re stealing from your employees. If you’re in a business and you’re charging too much for your products or services you’re stealing. If you have a position of authority, and you’re taking advantage of vulnerable people under you for your own gain, you are stealing.
b) Stealing from those ‘over’ you
Which do you think costs businesses more money? Customers stealing from them, or employees stealing from them? Most businesses that lose products to shoplifters lose even more each year to shrinkage from employee theft.
You probably see this in small ways, like if you work in an office, in January, as the school year begins, the stationery cupboards in many businesses clear out as people take home extra supplies for their kids. It can be easy to try to justify stealing from your employer. You might say, I don’t get paid enough, so I’m just making up the difference. Yet to take things without permission is to steal. It’s not just things we steal, we might steal your employers time by spending work time chatting to friends, or surfing the net.
Similarly it’s easy to try to justify stealing from the government. You don’t declare all your income on your tax, or to Centrelink, or you do jobs for cash to avoid tax, and you say the government wastes money anyway, why should I give them more? But one wrong doesn’t justify another. Governments also use money for good, Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor. (Romans 13:7). When we don’t pay taxes or government charges, we’re stealing.
It’s the same with big companies, we might think: I’m just going to use a pirated version of that software or that music and not pay for it, because music and software companies are rich anyway. If you think it’s alright to steal from people who are richer than you, remember that just by living in Australia you are already one of the wealthiest people in the world, so what you are saying is it would be alright for more than two-thirds of the world to steal from you.
c) Robbing God
Earlier we read God confronting his people through his prophet Malachi: “Will a mere mortal rob God? Yet you rob me. “But you ask, ‘How are we robbing you?’ “In tithes and offerings. You are under a curse—your whole nation—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 there will not be room enough to store it. (Malachi 3:8-10)
The tithes were of course, the tenth of their income that the Israelites were supposed to give to support the work in God’s temple. In not bringing it, God says the people were robbing him.
Jerry Bridges talks about 3 attitudes we can have to money and possessions:i) What’s yours is mine – I’ll take it. ii) What’s mine is mine – I’ll keep it. iii) What’s mine is God’s – I’ll share it.
Which of these three attitudes do you think is stealing? The first is obviously stealing isn’t it? It’s being a taker, taking what doesn’t belong to us, but Malachi 3 shows us that the second one is also stealing, acting as though that everything we own, everything that God gives us, is for us to use for our own selfish purposes, rather than using it as God wants you to use it.
I heard of a man who gave his son a packet of chips. Then he asked his son if he could have one. The son said, no way they’re mine. The dad was thinking about that, he thought, I don’t really need any of his chips, I could go out and buy myself ten packets of chips if I wanted, yet it does seem ungrateful of my son refusing to give me even one chip, when I gave the whole packet to him in the first place. Then he thought, I guess that’s a little like the way we often treat God. Everything we have comes from him, it all belongs to him really, yet we can find it so hard to be generous towards God with all he’s given us.
2. Why do we steal?
I remember as a young child, visiting someone’s home and being shown their collection of polished gem stones. They probably weren’t hugely valuable, but as a young kid, I thought they looked great, I’d never seen anything like them. When our host was out of the room, I took some and slipped them into my pocket. Rather than being grateful for this person’s hospitality, I’d stolen from him. No one taught me to do that, why did I do it? Why are we, from a young age, often takers and hoarders rather than generous givers?
a) We wrongly think we can get away with it.
Have you seen this ad that comes up before you watch a DVD?You wouldn’t steal a car You wouldn’t steal a handbag You wouldn’t steal a television You wouldn’t steal a movie Downloading pirated films is stealing…
The ad is trying to convince you not to download or watch pirated movies. Yet the ad’s not that effective, many people won’t steal a car or a TV, but will download movies or music illegally – why? In part because they’re pretty sure they’ll get away with it. It’s harder to get away with stealing a car, unless you’re an expert, but almost anyone with a computer can steal movies or music.
When God told the Israelites to attack the city of Jericho, he told them very clearly that they weren’t to keep anything from that city, they were to devote it all to God. Yet Joshua 7 tells us one man, Achan, saw a beautiful robe, some shekels of silver and a bar of gold, he stole them, and hid them in the ground under his tent. He thought he could get away with it. But God tells Joshua someone has stolen something. The whole of Israel is all gathered together, and he might think – I feel pretty safe in a crowd of a couple of million people. What are the chances I’ll be discovered? Then out of the 12 tribes, God tells Joshua to pick the tribe of Judah – still that’s a big tribe, around 75,000 military aged men – as well as women and children, Achan might still feel safe, but he’d have to be getting nervous. Out of all the clans in the tribe, God picks the Zerahite clan, out of all the families in that clan, he picks the family of Zimri, and then out of all the people in Zimri’s family, he picks one man Achan. Even among millions of people, Achan could not hide his stealing from God. None of us can. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give an account. (Hebrews 4:13)
b) We love things more than God
Yesterday I got this email from the security software I have on my mobile phone. It said: Is someone trying to unlock your device? Lookout has detected an attempted break-in…Lock Cam takes a picture of anyone who tries to unlock your device 3 times with an incorrect PIN, password or pattern…This picture was silently taken using the front-facing camera on your device…
Would you like to see the picture it showed me? The problem is the camera doesn’t capture the whole face, have a look at it, and see if you can see who it was! Obviously, I’ve just set this up, we all know Rog wouldn’t really try to steal my phone. I asked Rog to see if he could crack the pattern on my phone, and I knew that when he tried it would take his photo. It was a bonus that he had the beanie on, he does look a little more suspicious!
The fact that I have security software on my phone, the fact that when you came here this morning, you probably locked your home, or locked your car. The fact that we all pay more for insurance and for products because of theft shows us something of the cost that stealing has on our whole community. Stealing brings harm to others, it brings harm to ourselves, but most of all it is against God. When Achan chose to steal that robe, silver and gold, he was showing that he loved those things, more than God. When we take from others, when we hoard and refuse to share with others, we show we love things more than God.
3. How can we move from being takers and hoarders towards being generous givers?
a) Make restitution for what you’ve stolen
Zacchaeus, the tax collector whom so many people hated, was chosen by Jesus, Jesus showed him love and grace, and Zacchaeus was transformed. We see how much he’s changed by God, when he stands up and says to Jesus, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”(Luke 19:8).
This man who’d previously loved money more than God, is showing that his heart has changed. The Old Testament has this principle of restitution, paying back what was stolen, sometimes even for our five times. Giving back what you’ve stolen, giving back even more than you’ve stolen can show that God’s changing you from being a taker to a generous giver.
90 years ago in 1923, there was a revival in Belfast, and many shipyard workers were converted. When they became Christians, they began to bring back tools and equipment they had stolen over the years. They came back in such large quantities that in one place they had to erect a whole new storage shed to hold them all. It was very visible evidence that God was changing their hearts. If you’ve stolen things, you need to give them back.
b) Work, so you have something to share
Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need. (Ephesians 4:28)
The opposite of stealing is sharing with others, loving God and others by being generous with what you have. The goal of working and earning this verse says, is not just so you can provide for your family, though that’s a good thing, it’s not so you can spend it on yourself, or hoard it, but so you’ll have something to share with others, so you’ll be able to be generous.
c) Gratefully imitate God’s generous giving.
When we look closely at this commandment, we realise we’ve all broken it. We are all thieves in some way, we often take and hoard rather than give generously. Jesus was crucified between two thieves. One of those thieves insulted Jesus, the other it seems insulted him at first then repented, and trusted Jesus. Jesus said to that thief – I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise. On the cross, Jesus who had never stolen from anyone, received the punishment thieves like us deserve. On the cross, Jesus shows us God’s generous giving. God has given us so much, he has given us life and all the good things we enjoy, and in Jesus he gave us his one and only Son, so we could be forgiven through faith in him.
But since you excel in everything—see that you also excel in this grace of giving … For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich. (2 Corinthians 8:7,9)
By nature we are self-centred, we are takers and hoarders, but through the grace of God, we can become generous givers, grateful for what we have, seeing all that we have as being entrusted to us by God. Wanting to share with others, not to earn God’s love, but because we are loved. Through Jesus we can grow in generous giving, we can learn to enjoy the privilege of giving, as we grow in grasping his generous giving to us.
(Edited transcript of sermon preached at MEC 30 June 2013. You can listen to or download the sermon here )