Dealing with Theft in Society
June 14, 2009
Introduction: On March 12 of this year, Bernie Madoff pled guilty to 11 felony counts including securities fraud, mail fraud, wire fraud, money laundering, and perjury. He faces a long prison sentence, but he is also subject to mandatory restitution and fines up to twice the gross gain derived from the offenses. That means Madoff will have to pay $170 billion in restitution. Sentencing supposed to occur on Tuesday of this week.
Madoff began a Ponzi scheme in the early 90s to satisfy clients who had grown accustomed to high returns he had promised on legitimate investments. A Ponzi scheme is a fraudulent investment operation that pays investors from their own money or money paid by subsequent investors rather than from any actual profit earned. The scheme works on the greed of investors to some degree because it promises returns on investments that often prove too good to be true.
The scheme is named after Charles Ponzi, who became notorious for using the technique after emigrating from Italy to the United States in 1903. Ponzi didn’t invent the idea; Charles Dickens described the scheme in his 1857 novel called Little Dorrit (a satire on the short-comings of government). Ponzi’s operation, however, was the first to become known throughout the United States. Interestingly, investors are not always victims in the scheme. They actually may even knowingly enter a Ponzi scheme if the government will bail them out for their losses.
It is highly unlikely that restitution will take place in Madoff’s case (his combined assets are valued at about $826 million and have been frozen). As with any thing like this, many probably thought that this was a legitimate investment operation. Many were duped and are suffering dire consequences right now. As a matter of fact, two clients of Madoff have committed suicide. The most recent occurred on February 10, 2009. A former British soldier named William Foxton, shot himself in a park in Southampton, England. He lost all his family’s savings. He was 65 years old.
Madoff’s case is an extreme example of theft and greed in our society today. Yet God addresses these issues in His Word. As we continue our study through a section of Exodus deemed the Book of the Covenant by many, we come to chapter 22. Any country laying down the law of the land would do well to garner principles from this section of Scripture. We certainly are not subject to the laws that governed Israel during the Mosaic period; however, “all Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 2.16-17). So, let us entertain four questions from the first 15 verses that center on the idea of restitution for property loss…
1. What happened when outright theft occurred in Israel? (22.1-4)
2. What happened when negligence led to the loss of property in Israel? (22.5-6)
3. What happened when possessions left for safekeeping led to property loss in Israel? (22.7-13)
4. What happened when borrowed property was damaged or lost in Israel? (22.14-15)
All of these questions are fleshed out by Moses because God wanted Israel to understand how they ought to practically apply the 8th commandment: “You shall not steal” (Ex 20.15). This passage also demonstrates that God expects that people will have a right to own private property. As believers, we should understand that everything we have comes from God (Psalm 24.1). We ought to be wise stewards of it, but it is not wrong to own it.
Question 1: What happened when outright theft occurred in Israel? (22.1-4)
Explanation: Obviously, we look at the agricultural theme and it’s hard for us to relate. But stealing an ox in this day meant stealing the livelihood of a person. Oxen were expensive animals because men used them to plow and pull - to earn a living in an agrarian society. If these animals were stolen and slaughtered, what could the owner do? He had to have recourse to provide for his family.
Verse 1 said that the owner had to be restored four or five-fold if the animal could not be recovered. Verse 4 indicates that restoration was double if the animal could be recovered. Recovered or not, the thief paid the price for stealing.
Verses 2-3 handle the issue of breaking and entering. Homeowners had the right to defend their property and families. There is no time to figure out intentions when it comes to someone invading your home. If the thief was killed, the homeowner could not be culpable.
Problems develop when we read about the condition, “If the sun has risen on him [the thief]…” The question that occurs is, “What difference does it make when it’s daytime as opposed to night time?” The implication in the passage is that if the homeowner kills the thief in the daytime, he is guilty of shedding blood. It is unclear why this is so. Perhaps the homeowner was not as vulnerable during the daytime.
Israelite homes were made of clay and dirt. Thieves literally dug through the walls to steal. A thief doing this at night almost certainly knew the homeowner and his family were at home. This kind of brazenness usually meant that the thief was willing to violently take his gain. Perhaps coming in during the day meant that the thief didn’t expect anyone to be home.
Application: We can look at this situation and learn some basic things about protecting our property and families.
1. Good laws that provide for restitution need support because they deter theft.
2. Thieves ought to lose what they hoped to gain and more so that they will recognize how hard it is to actually work for a living. Ephesians 4.28 states, “Let him who stole steal no longer, but rather let him labor, working with his hands what is good, that he may have something to give him who has need.”
3. God displays mercy when it comes to thieves. All of us need that mercy. The ability to make restitution helps in the process of restoration.
4. Did you ever take anything that didn’t belong to you? Have you ever taken advantage of someone while negotiating a contract? What about the library books that you never returned to the local public library? Even if you stole an item way back in the past, you still need to return it.
5. By the way, if someone breaks into your home, you have the right to protect your family. I think it very legitimate to use reasonable force in order to do so.
So, God gives principles for us to govern our lives when it comes to theft. While we may not carry out these things to the same degree because of the light that we have in the NT, it is profitable to understand the general principles. This brings us to the second question…
Question 2: What happened when negligence led to the loss of property in Israel? (22.5-6)
Explanation: Notice that the word restitution appears twice in verses 5-6. Verse 5 settles the issue of a man who carelessly allows his animals to graze in a neighbor’s field. Verse 6 handles the careless clearing of a field and the accidental burning of a neighbor’s field. The offender had to allow his neighbor the best of his own field and vineyard in such cases. Restitution had to follow.
Application: Of course, this deals with the excuse, “But it was an accident; I didn’t mean for this to happen.” God expects that if we are negligent and it leads to a person’s loss of property, we need to make it right.
1. What if your dog gets out and tears up the neighbor’s new sod? I believe God would have us replace it.
2. What if you or your children destroy something in a friend’s home while visiting? God would have us replace the item.
3. If my son throws a baseball through a neighbor’s window, I need to pay the repair bill. Btw, my son will work it off J
4. If you borrow a friend’s laptop for a PowerPoint presentation at work and leave it in an airport, you ought to replace it.
God reveals principles that help us deal with theft in society and negligence that leads to property loss. But notice the third question asked and answered in our text…
Question 3: What happened when possessions left for safekeeping led to property loss in Israel? (22.7-13)
Explanation: Verse 7 answers this question by saying if the thief is found, he should pay double for restitution. Verse 8 answers this question by saying if the thief is not found, the neighbor who kept the possessions for the owner should be thoroughly investigated by the judges in Israel.
Verse 9 states that if the judges deem that the neighbor keeping the possessions is a thief, he should pay double. The implication that follows is that if they determine that the neighbor is not involved, he pays nothing. Verses 10-11 indicate that the neighbor safeguarding property that is lost or damaged must stand before God and pledge that he was not at fault. Once that pledge occurred, the person suffering the loss needed to give it to the Lord and take it graciously.
Verse 12 shows that if the animal was stolen from the neighbor while he was protecting it, he had to make restitution. Why? This is difficult to determine, but the words “in fact” may help with interpreting the verse. Perhaps the neighbor is in fact aware of the theft. The implication may be that he could have done something to stop it but chose not to.
Verse 13 discusses what happens when the animal is killed by another animal. Evidence of this was required. Once it was produced, the neighbor safeguarding the animal did not have any further obligation. This was certainly a normal part of life.
Application: This section really provides some helpful principles for us today. Above all, God wants to protect relationships between neighbors. Material wealth should never get in the way of those relationships. There is no room for bitterness or resentment because of property loss.
1. We ought to be careful about who we ask to safeguard precious things that belong to us. It certainly isn’t a job for the irresponsible people in our lives.
2. We ought to believe the best about people. We should take it graciously when the Lord allows a loss to occur. We do our best to be wise stewards, but in the end - “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away; blessed be His name!”
3. If we could have done something to better protect something left in our charge, before the Lord we should do what is right to make restitution. On the other side of the coin, if an accident happens we shouldn’t hold a friend responsible for something beyond his control.
The fourth and final question handled in this passage addresses what happens when it comes to lending out items…
Question 4: What happened when borrowed property was damaged or lost in Israel? (22.14-15)
Explanation: Verses 14-15 state very simply that the borrower needs to take full responsibility. The general overarching principle is that the borrower “shall surely make it good.” It doesn’t matter if it was accidental or not.
No penalty is involved in these verses. The owner’s loss just needed to be made up. The caveat in verse 15 handles situations when the owner is present while the animal is used or if the owner were hiring out the use of the animal. Obviously, if the owner is present, he should take all the precautions necessary to make sure his property is safe. If he rents out the animal, it is natural that he builds into the cost the situations that develop from a mishap or accident. He assumes risk for the loss.
Application: We need to be very careful about borrowing and lending items. A good rule of thumb is that if you’re willing to lend out an item, don’t expect you’ll ever see it again. You may find that odd, but it’s saved me from developing a strong attachment to things.
If we borrow something from someone, I think we should take responsibility for it. If I borrow a car, I try to gas it up and wash it before I return it. If we break a borrowed item, we should replace it. I believe God expects this from us as believers.
Conclusion: So, this brings us back to Bernie. How are the victims truly helped when Bernie rots in prison? Shouldn’t we make sure that he works hard the rest of his life endeavoring to pay victims back? Shouldn’t the true victims of his crime get compensation? I think Scripture makes it clear that Bernie Madoff should be made to do everything in his power to make full restitution. I also believe that he has an eternal soul, and we ought to pray for his conversion.
When Zacchaeus sought out Jesus in Luke chapter 19, he received Jesus joyfully. Zacchaeus restored past thefts fourfold and even gave half of his goods to the poor. He is the evidence of restoration and restitution that we’ve been talking about. Salvation came to the house of Zacchaeus because Jesus sought to save that which was lost. Conversion can make a thief a giver.
Do you understand what it means to be saved from a life of sin? Today can be the day of salvation for you. As a boy, I remember acutely taking something that didn’t belong to me. I returned the item and asked forgiveness of the store owner, but I never really dealt with the sin properly. Sin drove me. It dominated my life. I could not help but steal. I was dead in my trespasses and sins until Jesus showed me grace…
· Grace is God’s gift to you.
o You can’t earn it and you don’t deserve it.
o The gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ (Rom 6.23). We are saved by grace through faith and not our religious or charitable works (Eph 2.8-9). We cannot boast in a gift that we have freely received.
o This can be seen more clearly when we understand what the Bible says about us…
· We are false and full of sin. We are by nature thieves.
o The Bible says that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Rom 3.23).
o Because we are sinners, we need to recognize that there is nothing we can do to save ourselves.
o Even the good things men claim to do are tainted by sin. This defiles any human effort of making restitution for the sin we commit. God demands perfection and no one is perfect save One.
o Do you see why it is impossible for anyone to get to Heaven by their good works?
o This comes into sharper focus when we look at what the Bible says about God.
· God is merciful to provide a way out for thieves like you and me. He doesn’t want to put us in an eternal prison forever. “God is love…” (I John 4.8b). But God will always do the right thing. He does not sweep sin under the carpet. He is just; therefore, He must punish sin. “He will by not means clear the guilty…” (Exo 34.7b).
o We look at this as being an irreconcilable dilemma. How does a loving God justly punish sin?
o God solved this problem in the Person of Jesus Christ.
· Jesus Christ is God. As God, He came in the flesh and dwelt among us over 2,000 years ago. (John 1.1, 14). As the infinite God-Man, Jesus provided the answer to our irreconcilable problem regarding the mercy and justice of God our Creator.
o Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead to pay the penalty for our sins and to purchase a place in Heaven for thieves like you and I.
o All we like sheep have gone astray. We have turned, each of us, to our own way. God the Father has laid on God the Son all of our iniquity (Isa 53.6). He did this not because the Son deserved it, but because we deserved it. Jesus stood in our place.
o He was nailed among thieves as a thief, but He never stole a thing. He took our thefts and our sins and paid the ultimate penalty so that we would not have to.
o It’s not enough to just know this. The free gift of eternal life is received by faith alone.
· Too many people don’t understand the concept of faith.
o They know facts about history, but they are not trusting in the historic Jesus to save them from sin. “The demons believe” that Jesus exists; they even know He is the Son of God. But they “tremble” (Jam 2.19). They certainly do not have the gift of eternal life.
o Some trust in Jesus when they don’t feel as if they have anyone else or anything else to turn to. But it’s just for a time. Then, He falls away from their lives.
o These things are not saving faith. Saving faith is trusting in Jesus alone for eternal life!
o Acts 16.31 says “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.”
o Belief in Jesus Christ is reliance upon Him alone for our eternal security. It is clinging to His finished work and not our own sin-tainted attempts to reach God (Life Preserver).
o If this makes sense to you and you’ve never received the gift of eternal life, my question this morning is, “Would you like to?”
o Take through prayer.
249 - Just As I Am (Call to come forward)