Saturday, October 20, 2007


The Ten Commandments as Grace and Law

Exodus 20:15; 22:1-14; Matthew 19:16-26

Each week we have reminded ourselves that in their original form the Ten Commandments were probably only one or two words each in Hebrew, and that the words around them, together with the other 603 rabbinic laws interpreting the commandments, were written centuries later. As a part of our quest, we have sought to understand how the ancient Israelites first understood the commandments, how Jesus understood the commandments, and the way they were interpreted in his day. We have done that to help us think about what the commandments mean for us in our day.

We looked at the first five commandments with a view to what they could tell us about our relationship to God, and we have started to look at the last five with a view to what God expects of us in relating to our neighbors.

The first of the last five commandments, the one forbidding murder, is a recognition of the value of human life. The seventh commandment is a recognition of the importance of sexuality in human life. The eighth commandment -- "You shall not steal." -- is recognition that certain goods are necessary for life with dignity. Those goods of another person, say this commandment, must not be seized.

Some scholars have pointed out that the verb "steal" used here in Hebrew also means, "stealing a person," or "kidnapping." Some have even suggested that the forbidding of "stealing a person," was the primary meaning, thus having the capital crimes of murder, adultery and kidnapping the sixth, seventh and eighth commandments. Most scholars, however, assume that the commandment forbids stealing in the broadest sense.

That was certainly true of the ancient Israelites when they wrote down what they understood this commandment to mean hundreds of years later. In the passage from Exodus 22 there are the laws of restitution and punishment for stealing. For example,

- When someone stole an ox and slaughtered it, they had to repay the owner with five oxen. If the ox was recovered alive, then the thief only had to pay double. (22:1)

- If a thief was discovered breaking and entering during the night, the occupants could kill the thief without being liable for murder. If it was during the daytime, the occupants could be liable for murder. (22:2)

- When someone's livestock got loose and grazed over someone else's field, restitution was to be made from the livestock owner's best field. (22:5)

One might assume that the eighth commandment is the simplest and least ambiguous of all the commandments: "Don't take another's property and don't steal a person." When the Hebrew prophets emerged as the social and religious conscience of the people of Israel eight centuries before the birth of Christ, they had a lot to say about "stealing," but most of what they had to say was addressed to rich and powerful people "stealing" from poor people, not the poor stealing from the rich. The prophet Isaiah's harsh criticism was that people with money and power made and used the laws to take advantage of the poor. Listen to his words: "Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees, who write oppressive statutes, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be your spoil, and that you may make the orphans your prey!" (Isaiah 10:2)

What Isaiah and the other prophets wrote about centuries before Christ, Woodie Guthrie sang about in the first half of the twentieth century. Probably the most important folk singer of the first half of the century, the Oklahoma-born Guthrie saw first-hand the devastation wrought to the land and people by the "Dustbowl" and the "Great Depression." But, like the Hebrew prophets, he saw how rich and powerful people took advantage of poor people in these catastrophes. In his song about the Oklahoma outlaw, Pretty Boy Floyd, he sang what he saw: "Some men will rob you with a six-gun, other men will rob you with a fountain pen."

We understand what the prophets railed against and what Woodie Guthrie sang about -- how "white collar crime" deprives vulnerable people of the goods necessary for life with dignity. We understand that this is a reality of our day and we understand that "stealing" done in the name of corporate policy is still "stealing," don't we?

There is another way that theft is practiced: it is what I call "stealing the future." When we take actions that will unfairly deprive people who come after us of the goods they need for life, that too is "stealing." For several years, I lived on a small farm in Georgia. I did my best to preserve the land on which I cultivated, both for fruit and vegetables. I didn't use herbicides and I tried not to use pesticides. (However, I never did figure out how to grow peaches in Georgia without the use of some pesticides.) For my children and their children, I wanted to leave the land in just as good condition, or better, than I found it.

One day a neighbor called and told me to turn on the television. When I did I saw pictures of a farm just up the hill from mine. Hidden within a grove of trees along the bank of a creek where water flowed down toward our property, there were fifty to sixty barrels of what would later be determined to be toxic waste. The barrels were leaking and the waste was seeping into the creek. An elderly widow who hadn't farmed the land for years was the owner. Two men had come to her and offered to rent the land, telling her they wanted to farm it. But they didn't want it for farming, but as a place they could dump toxic waste without having to dispose of it properly. I took some satisfaction from the fact that the two men were the first to be convicted under a new Georgia law making the dumping of toxic waste a felony. They went to jail, but the effect of their actions would be destruction of the environment far beyond their jail terms and beyond their lifetimes. By their actions, they had stolen the future both of the land itself and those who would farm it after me.

The eighth commandment forbids our taking the goods necessary for the life of other people, whether simple theft in the night, armed robbery, or by manipulating the law. As one of you often reminds me, the commandment says "Thou shalt NOT." Some scholars have said that the negatives of the commandments have implications for positive actions. The rabbinic law in Leviticus 19:18 states "You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord." You love your neighbor as yourself by not committing violence against them, by not committing adultery, and by not taking from your neighbor what is not yours. But when Jesus took this rabbinic law and made it the second of the "Great Commandments," I think he meant more than simply refraining from negative action toward our neighbor. He made that clear in his conversation with the rich young man who came to him wanting assurance of eternal life. The young man assured Jesus that he had obeyed the Ten Commandments. Jesus' response to the rich young man was that God expects more of us than not hurting others: God expects us to do good to others.

Would Jesus expect us not only to refrain from stealing others’ futures but actually “give futures” to others? Do we give futures to others when we care for the land so that it will be productive for those who come after us? Do we give futures to others when stop asking for more studies of global warming and begin to take measures to slow it?

What if I told you that for $10 you could help provide a future for an African family? You can! Those of you at Chugiak United Methodist Church on Sunday, October 21st, will hear all about “Nothing But Nets.” A unlikely coalition of organizations including The United Methodist Church, the National Basketball Association, Sports Illustrated, the United Nations Foundation, and other organizations have come together to provide bed nets to prevent the spread of malaria in Africa.

You will hear about how Malaria infects over 500 million people a year, how it kills more than a million people each year, and how it is the largest killer of children in Africa. You will also hear how malaria is both preventable and treatable. Inspired by a columnist in Sports Illustrated “Nothing But Nets” seeks to provide families and individuals with insecticide-treated bed nets to sleep under and taking steps to kill mosquitoes where they breed and when they enter houses to feed at night. Each bed net is designed to last for at least four years. With its long history in Africa, The United Methodist Church is uniquely positioned to help get these nets to people with the proper instructions for their use. Yes, fresh water and medicines are still needed throughout Africa, but for $10 a bed net you can help give a future to a family in Africa. If you don't happen to be at Chugiak on Sunday you can find out more at

The eighth commandment prohibits taking the goods necessary for another person's livelihood: "You shall not steal." We love our neighbors not only when we do not steal from them, but when we take steps to see that all persons have the goods necessary for life with dignity. What we do here today may seem like very small acts, and they are. But from such small acts things happen, the results of which we cannot see. Natalie Sleeth has expressed it well in “The Hymn of Promise”:

"In the bulb there is a flower; in the seed, an apple tree;
in cocoons, a hidden promise; butterflies will soon be free!
In the cold of snow of winter there's a spring that waits to be,
Unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see."

I hope you won't miss the opportunity you have today to plant some seeds for the future.

[1] "Hymn of Promise," The United Methodist Hymnal, 1989, # 707.

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