- The high cost of theft!
ILLN – a lady wrote into Readers’ Digest sometime back about a co-worker of hers who had his car stolen from the company’s car park. When the police finally found it, they discovered the thief had put a burglar alarm in it. Seems like the thief knew something about the state of some peoples’ hearts, and what they were capable of.
Insurance figures show that over 85,000 cars were stolen in Australia in 2004. Motor theft costs the Australian community around $1 billion p.a. That sounds a lot, and it is. But not compared to identity theft, which is estimated to cost Australians over $2 billion p.a. And whilst I don’t have any figures for copyright piracy, the amounts involved must be huge, judging by the court cases the recording industry brings against people. Stealing is big business. One new hotel in America said that in their first 10 months of operation thieves stole 38,000 spoons, 18,000 towels, 355 silver coffee pots, 1500 silver finger bowls and 100 Bibles. Stealing is big business – not just in dollar terms, but in numbers of people who do it. USA Today magazine estimated 48% of all American workers took something from their employer last year. A teacher at a College in the US was amazed when 69 out of 70 students admitted to plagiarism. Even last week there was an article on ‘Today Tonight’ about three year old children being taught to shoplift. These are symptoms of a society weak on moral absolutes, and weak on loving one another.
What does God’s word say to us about this? What does God say to those who steal, or are tempted to steal? Is it ever justified? And if not, why not? Let us pray for God’s guidance and wisdom as we come to look at his word this morning. PRAY!
- The Commandments of God
Over the past weeks we’ve been looking at the 10 Commandments – those commands of God given to his people after he had brought them out of slavery in Egypt, and as they prepared to enter the land God had promised to their forefather Abraham a long time before. These were the commands which were to govern their society in the new land, which would show they were God’s people, because the commands reflect the very character of God.
We’ve seen how the first 4 commands involve their relationship with God – the primary relationship they have. And then the other 6 commandments involve their relationships with one another. Positively, with their parents, because of the importance of the family in society. And then the negative commands – the prohibitions; the ‘you can do anything, except …’ commands. So don’t take someone’s life, don’t take someone’s flesh last week, don’t take any of his or her things this week, don’t take his or her intangibles next week, and finally don’t even covet what he or she has.
And so in this list comes Commandment #8 – there in Exodus 20:15 – you shall not steal. And God expected his people to take it very seriously. And there are no qualifications to it are there – God doesn’t say, you shall not steal money but cars are all right. It’s very simple isn’t it – you shall not steal. And in Is 61:8 God says ‘I the Lord love justice; I hate robbery and iniquity.’ God hated stealing back then. Is he still the same? Whenever we come across Old Testament passages and start to think about their application to us, we always need to ask – does the coming of Jesus change this for us?
Let’s look briefly at the NT passages which may weigh upon this area of stealing.
Jesus himself upholds this Commandment – so in Matt 19:19 as he is speaking to the rich young man, Jesus says to him in v17 – ‘if you want to enter life, obey the commandments.’ ‘Which ones?’ the man enquired. And in reply Jesus includes this one – ‘do not steal.’
The command then seems just as valid for NT Christians as OT Jews. Paul writes in Eph 4:28 – ‘He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need.’ The command not to steal remains for us, and indeed is intensified in Rom 13:9 where Paul writes – ‘The commandments, “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” “Do not covet,” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
The NT expectation then is not only will God’s people not steal, but they will show love to others instead. We’ll get to that later. But first let us consider - why do people steal? And why shouldn’t we steal?
- Why not steal?
What lies at the very root of why people steal? I think it is that they don’t trust God. People who steal seem to suggest by their behaviour that their security in life, their self-esteem, their only pleasure in life, comes from things, not from God. Their behaviour suggests they believe they must take care of themselves because no one else will. And to do it they cannot care about other people as well. Do you hear how ungodly such thinking is? In response as a Christian I want to affirm 2 principles:-
a) All things come from God and belong to him. So for instance – Ps 50:10-12 – ‘every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills. I know every bird in the mountains, and the creatures of the field are mine. If I were hungry I would not tell you, for the world is mine and all that is in it.’
Capitalism says material possessions are ours to do with as we want. But Christianity says they belong to God, and we are merely stewards, charged with using what God has given us, in the way he wants, according to his priorities and not ours.
ILLN – I was listening to a man the other day who talked about his father. Back in the 1920’s this man’s father had worked hard and saved up 1000 pounds to put himself through Law School. His father had a business which was going through a hard time, as the Depression was starting to bite. He needed some money and heard about a horse which was a sure thing. And he had authority over his son’s account. He took his own son’s money, without his son’s knowledge and put it on the horse. And it lost. Can you imagine how the son felt.
Imagine then how God feels when we steal from him and use it for our purposes, not his? All that we have – all of it – is Christ’s. We were bought with a price, the blood of Jesus. So use what we have been entrusted with for him.
Imagine God charged you with stealing from him. He charges his people with that in Mal 3:8-10 – ‘Will a man rob God? Yet you rob me. But you ask ‘How do we rob you?’ In tithes and offerings. You are under a curse – the whole nation of you – because you are robbing me. Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house.’
God accuses his people of stealing from him, by withholding their tithe. The Law commanded them to give a tithe, a tenth, of their income, produce and so on, to God, and they weren’t. God says that is robbing him. Now is not the place for a sermon on tithing and giving – suffice to say what would God say to us? The NT doesn’t put on us the law of tithing. I think it expects more. Everything we have belongs to God – but we are to give graciously and generously of it to his work. We need regularly to prayerfully examine our giving – are we robbing God by not even giving a tithe? Of course robbing God is not just about money. It can be time – every one of our days is from God; do we waste it on ourselves instead of using it for God’s glory. It could be robbing God of our talents – he is the one who gives us every gift, skill, ability or talent we have – do we fail to use them at all, or fail to use them for his glory but only for ours, or fail to use them to build up other Christians which is why they were given. Or do we rob God when we just won’t hand over to him certain areas of our lives?
Christians ought not to steal because we know that everything we have comes from God’s hands, and has been entrusted to us as stewards. Stealing denies God’s ownership and care, and becomes taking something God has entrusted to another.
So our first principle is that everything belongs to God.
b) Secondly, how does God give to us? The Bible shows us 4 ways we rightfully obtain money or possessions. Can you guess what they are?
– earn it by working (2 Thess 3:10-12 – we gave you this rule ‘if a man will not work, he shall not eat … settle down and earn the bread they eat.’). We might think even by working what we get is ours – but who gave you your brains, your talent, health to work, opportunities? God alone.
– receive it as a gift
– legally inherit it from others
– purchase it with money, from one of the first 3 ways.
I think they are the only ways the Bible tells us God gives us material things. So we need to think very carefully if society promotes other ways of obtaining things – esp for instance gambling. Some Christians suggest gambling is stealing – it is certainly taking from others. Others suggest it is plain greed, which is just as sinful in God’s eyes. It certainly has devastating effects on poor people who are caught up in it. And it makes us think that wealth is a random chance event and not at all connected to the dignity of work or related to a God who is involved intimately in what we have. Up the back a copy of a pamphlet someone put together some years ago on gambling – may be helpful to you.
- Overcoming temptation to steal?
In summary I believe the call to Christians is still – you shall not steal. How do we overcome any temptation we might have to steal?
a) Prayer and God’s Word – it is a spiritual battle (Eph 6:10-18)
As with last week, the first key is prayer and the Word of God. When I’m faced with temptation I need to pray, for temptation is a spiritual battle. Remember what Paul says in Eph 6 ‘our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against … the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms’. The devil wants me to sin, he wants me not to trust God and rely on him, he wants me to treat others badly. So I need to show I do rely on God and his strength – which I do through prayer, informed by God’s word which commands me not to steal, but instead to love other people. Prayer is the final and greatest of our spiritual weapons in Eph 6:18 – through prayer I can access the power of the risen Jesus so I can say ‘no’ to temptation.
b) Remember God’s care for me, when I seek him first (Matthew 6:33; James 1:17)
And I need to remember that God is at work to provide me with all I need. Remember Jesus’ words in Matt 6:33 – ‘seek first his kingdom and his righteousness and all these things (food, clothing, drink) will be given to you.’ I need to remember God’s care for me – the way he does continue to meet my needs. James writes in James 1:17 – ‘every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights.’ Every good thing we have comes from God; from our God who cares for his children and has promised to take care of our needs and concerns, and does so.
c) Be content (Luke 3:14; 1 Tim 6:6-11, 17; Phil 4:11-12; Heb 13:5)
And so the Christian is to be marked by contentment – in whatever situation he or she happens to be. If we are content with what we have we won’t feel any need to steal. When John the Baptist is baptising in Luke 3:14 and the soldiers come to him wanting to know how they should show repentance, John says to them ‘don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely – be content with your pay.’ Read at home what Paul writes on contentment in 1 Tim 6:6-10.
We need to learn contentment – so Paul writes in Phil 4:11-12 – ‘I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well-fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength.’ The secret to being content is to rest in Jesus and not in anything else. So Paul writes in 1 Tim 6:17 – ‘command those who are rich in this present world not to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.’ Being rich is not wrong, trusting our riches is. Heb 13:5 – ‘Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said ‘never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.’
d) Give it away (1 Tim 6:17-19; Luke 12:15; Phil 2:5-8)
Be content. But not stingy. Rather Christians are to be generous people, mirroring God’s generosity to us. In 1 Tim 6:18 Paul tells Timothy ‘command them (that is rich Christians) to do good, to be rich in good deeds and to be generous and willing to share.’ Money tempts us to get more of it. So we need to do with money what it was never intended for – give it away! To show that life is not in what we gather (Jesus says in Luke 12:15 – ‘a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions’) but in God who gives it to us. We can give because God promises to care for us. We can give because that is the character of Jesus – who gave up heaven for us. We can give and do give because we know that giving for God’s work builds up for us treasure in heaven – which is far better than treasure on earth. Are you a generous giver? What is in your heart? Is it a heart that takes or a heart that gives?
e) Love others (Matt 22:37-40)
For ultimately the Commandments are about our hearts. The commands to love God and love others sum up all the Law, says Jesus in Matt 22:37-40. If we then are wanting to love people as Jesus does, then we won’t steal anything from them, but rather seek to give to them, and use what we have for them, not for us.
- And … when you’re guilty of stealing?
We’ve heard this morning that Christians are not to steal, and we’ve seen why. But what do we do when we are guilty of stealing?
ILLN - I love this story of the Rev. W.P. Nicholson in Belfast, Ireland, at the turn of the century. He was an evangelist would preach powerfully to the dock workers, causing conviction, and insisting on repentance. Many men accepted Christ and started to bring back everything they had stolen from the shipyards. In the end the authorities had to make a public announcement:
"Will all those attending the meetings of Mr. W.P. Nicholson please stop returning stolen goods. We have nowhere to store them."
If we are guilty of stealing what does God require of us? Repentance and restitution (Ez 33:15-16 – ‘if the wicked man returns what he has stolen’) – make right the wrong regardless of the cost.
ILLN – some months ago the papers ran a story about students at Sutherland Shire Christian School. They heard about not stealing, and decided violating copyright was stealing, as Jesus would not have approved of copyright breaches. So some Yr 12 students handed into school 2000 of their own illegally burnt CD’s and DVD’s. Most of the discs were then glued to a wall as a reminder of the evils of copyright theft
What about us? Friends we started tonight with some crime statistics. The trouble with statistics is they can let us off the hook. They become just more numbers; and lose the personal element. We actually need to acknowledge that we are guilty too. Quite possibly everyone here is a thief. We have all at one time or another owned something we did not earn, taken something that was not given, kept something that we did not inherit or lifted something that was not purchased.
I have. My guess is you have also. Whether it is taking lollies or too much change from the supermarket; some undeclared income or over-declared expense in a tax return; pirated software or music; an idea you pinched from someone else; time or goods you took from your employer; borrowed things not returned, and so it goes on. I imagine we are all guilty.
And forget the excuses or the justifications – finders, keepers; I deserve it; they made the mistake; the price was too high anyway; it’s only one piece of software or 1 song; no one will ever know; I didn’t hurt anyone, etc, etc.. God says guilty – regardless of our excuses. There is only one answer; only one justification which will do. We all need to come before Jesus, repent of our sin, seek God’s forgiveness, which is so freely and abundantly given, make restitution where possible, and pray for God’s empowering Spirit to keep us honest, and to keep us looking to our gracious and incredibly generous God who will care for us and meet all our needs in Christ.