BENT, BROKEN, UNBOWED
The Ten Commandments for Today
CONJOINED TWINS—THE SAME BUT DIFFERENT
It doesn’t get any easier. After we get past the tricky ones like the Sabbath, adultery and murder, you’d think it would be smooth sailing, wouldn’t you? But it’s not. I am combining in this study the 8th and the 10thcommandment. They are not the same, but they are a little like conjoined twins—the same but different. I think they will go together fairly well.
THE 8TH—DON’T STEAL
The 8th commandment reads: “You shall not steal” (Deuteronomy 5:19, NIV). It makes sense that if we are to live out the second of the great commandments that Jesus gave us in the New Testament, that of loving our neighbor as ourselves then we wouldn’t steal from that neighbor.
How many of you have had something stolen from you? How did you feel? When someone takes something from us that doesn’t belong to them, we feel violated, hurt, insecure. Whether it is to steal a paperclip from the office or to steal someone’s innocence, it violates the rule to love our neighbor. I John 4:19-21 (NIV) says: “We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother.” Like all the others, the violation of the rule to love our neighbor violates the rule to love our God.
One of the most famous Biblical stories about stealing comes from the book of Joshua. The Hebrews have crossed the Jordan into the land that God promised to give them. God has given them victory against Jericho—a miraculous victory to boot. Before they took the city the Lord instructed them through Joshua that they were to reserve certain things that they found in the city for the treasury of the Lord. When the city of Jericho fell, one man, a man by the name of Achan disobeyed that order and kept some of the silver and gold for himself. He buried them underneath his tent. No one saw him so he thought he would get away with his theft. But God saw. The next city the Hebrews were to take as they conquered the land was a dinky one—a small place called Ai. Joshua, confident that he would have the victory over this place as well as he had had over Jericho, sent the number of men he thought should be sufficient to defeat it. After all, the fall of Jericho really had little to do with the strength of his army and everything to do with the strength of the God who was with his army.
The inhabitants beat the Hebrews soundly and sent them scurrying back to their tents. Let’s read Joshua’s conversation with the Lord in Joshua 7:6-13.
“Then Joshua tore his clothes and fell face down to the ground before the ark of the Lord, remaining there till evening. The elders of Israel did the same, and sprinkled dust on their heads. And Joshua said, ‘Alas, Sovereign Lord, why did you ever bring this people across the Jordan to deliver us into the hands of the Amorites to destroy us? If only we had been content to stay on the other side of the Jordan! Pardon your servant, Lord. What can I say, now that Israel has been routed by its enemies? The Canaanites and the other people of the country will hear about this and they will surround us and wipe out our name from the earth. What then will you do for your own great name?’ The Lord said to Joshua, ‘Stand up! What are you doing down on your face? Israel has sinned; they have violated my covenant, which I commanded them to keep. They have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen, they have lied, they have put them with their own possessions. That is why the Israelites cannot stand against their enemies; they turn their backs and run because they have been make liable to destruction. I will not be with you any more unless you destroy whatever among you is devoted to destruction. Go, consecrate the people. Tell them, consecrate yourselves in preparation for tomorrow; for this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: there are devoted things among you, Israel. You cannot stand against your enemies until you remove them.’”
The defeat, in the face of all the promises of God to deliver the land and its inhabitants into the hand of Israel, confused and dismayed her leaders. There was a lesson here. An obedient nation can suffer because of one man’s disobedience. There are corporate consequences to individual decisions. Until the individuals were dealt with, the nation could not move forward with God’s blessing.
Achan was discovered by the process of elimination and duly punished. But the point here is the God takes the violation of His covenant, in this case stealing (and by implication lying), seriously. The relationship between Him and His people is damaged because of the disobedience that stealing represents. A promise, a vow was made to God and then broken. And there are consequences. In this case thirty-six innocent men died in the battle to take Ai because Achan took something that didn’t belong to him. That made him a murderer and his own life was taken, along with those of his family members as a result.
It’s amazing to see how God defines stealing (and what is not stealing). Here are but a few:
“If you enter a man’s vineyard, you may eat all the grapes you want, but do not put any in your basket. If you enter your neighbor’s grainfield, you may pick kernels with your hands, but you must not put a sickle to his standing grain.” This one is particularly interesting because we would consider what is described here to be stealing. Not so for the Hebrews because they had been instructed to look after the poor, strangers passing through who might be hungry, etc. (24:19-22), and this was one way to do it. At the same time the poor, strangers etc. had to respect the boundaries as well or else taking what was provided for them could turn into stealing. You’ll remember that Jesus and his disciples are described as picking and eating kernels as they walked through a grainfield (Luke 6). It wasn’t stealing because the law made that provision as a way to look after those in need.
Deuteronomy 24:14, 15
“Do not take advantage of a hired man who is poor and needy, whether he is a brother Israelite or an alien living in one of your towns. Pay him his wages each day before sunset, because he is poor and is counting on it. Otherwise he may cry to the Lord against you, and you will be guilty of sin.” Employers need to treat their employees fairly and not literally steal the food from their mouths by not being conscientious when it comes to wages. (See also James 5:1-6).
“Do not have two differing weights in your bag—one heavy, one light. Do not have two differing measures in your house—one large, one small. You must have accurate and honest weights and measures, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you. For the Lord your God detests anyone who does these things, anyone who deals dishonestly.” Businessmen are warned to be honest in business and not steal from their customers. In the Old Testament this example would refer to something like what we often had to do in Latin America. We would buy fruit and vegetables by weight from road side vendors—chances were that the scales weren’t accurate “on purpose.” Another example has prompted the development of apps to check on the history of used cars before they are purchased preventing a car salesman from withholding information about a car that he thinks won’t sell if he tells the whole story. To not “steal” means that when we sell a house we mention that the weeping tiles need to be replaced because that’s why we are selling the house in the first place! You can see that these kinds of scenarios also cross over into area of deception or lying. You didn’t “tell” a lie, you simply withheld the information and stole from that person by charging more money than the product was worth and causing the client to have to spend extra money to fix a problem they weren’t aware of.
This is a long passage that introduces us to the concept of tithing. The Hebrews were required to present to the Lord the best of their harvest as a thank you to Him for all that He had provided for them. One of the last passages in the Old Testament is a complaint from God that his people had robbed him of what belonged to Him while “feathering their own nests” at the same time. The entire book of Malachi is a stunning condemnation by God on many subjects including offering God second best, leading people away from God, unfaithfulness to God, injustice etc.
“‘I the Lord do not change. So you, O descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed. Ever since the time of your forefathers you have turned away from my decrees and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you.’ says the Almighty. But you ask, ‘How are we to return?’ ‘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. Test me in this,’ says the Almighty, ‘and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it. I will prevent pests from devouring your crops, and the vines in your fields will not cast their fruit,’ says the Lord Almighty. ‘Then all the nations will call you blessed, for yours is a delightful land,’ says the Lord Almighty.”
One of the things that we often forget when we think about this issue of stealing from God is that everything belongs to God in the first place. We are only property managers not property owners. David says in Psalm 24:1: “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it…” In Genesis, God turns over the management of the “property” to man. He was supposed “to work it and take care of it” (Genesis 2:15, NIV). This idea comes up in parables like Luke 16 and Luke 19 where we see that God calls His property managers to account for how they handled what He had given them. To misuse His property is to steal from Him. As we destroy the planet, we are stealing from Him.
Restitution was a big thing for those who stole things. Exodus 22:1, for example, tells us that for stealing one ox, five oxen had to be repaid; for stealing one sheep, four had to be repaid. Verses 1 to 9 outline other consequences for those who took things, including consequences to those who lent things and had those things abused by those to whom they were lent, and for those who borrowed things and then damaged them. When we look at the things we may have borrowed and never returned, we realize that we are guilty of stealing. We have all kind of ways of doing it—music we download and don’t pay for, accepting money “under the table” that we don’t account for at tax time, copyright infringement, not paying outstanding debts promptly (not paying debt but continuing to accumulate more), little things we take from our offices, and a whole host of other things, including not undertaking a good day’s labour but still expecting a good day’s pay.
In the New Testament we have the example of Zacchaeus in Luke 19 who, after his encounter with Jesus, paid back four times what he had taken from people and gave half of the rest of his possessions to the poor.
The instruction about stealing is carried over into the New Testament in places like Romans 13:8-10, “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. 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.’ Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.”
Paul hits Commandments 6, 8 and 9 in one gasp in Ephesians 4:28 (NIV) when he writes: “Therefore, each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are all members of one body. ‘In your anger do not sin’; Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold. 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.”
Here’s an interesting question. I googled “Jesus and stealing” just to see what would come up. To my surprise there were a couple of sites that commented on the incident in Luke 19:28-35 (where Jesus sends His disciples to collect the donkey just before his triumphal entry) and the story in Matthew 8:28-34 (where Jesus consigns demons to a herd of pigs driving the animals to their deaths). Those who commented considered these to be examples of Jesus’ “stealing.” These mistakenly ignore an important detail. You can’t steal something you already own!
There is an interesting take on stealing found in Luke 6. From the takers’ perspective, returning, repayment, restitution is expected. Otherwise consequences can be expected as God ordains them. But from the perspective of one from whom something is taken, there is a different take. Luke 6:27-36 (NIV) says: “But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to them who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ lend to ‘sinners,’ expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back, Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”
THE 10TH—YOU SHALL NOT COVET…
The 8th and the 10th are similar because often the problem presented in the 10th leads into the 8th. We want something and if we want it bad enough and can’t get it by legitimate means we might be driven to stealing it. Similar to anger leading into murder and not controlling the mind can lead to adultery, so coveting can lead to stealing. The question we might ask is why coveting has its own separate commandment and being angry and not controlling our thought life doesn’t?
I’m not sure I can answer that one but I suspect that coveting goes far beyond simply wanting something so badly that it leads to other sins. In fact, coveting can lead to adultery, murder, breaking the Sabbath and idolatry. And I think this last area is where the 10th commandment leaves its greatest mark.
The entire commandment from Deuteronomy 5:21 (NIV) reads this way: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife. You shall not set your desire on your neighbor’s house or land, his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”
First of all it is good idea to define the word “covet” that we find here in Scripture. “Covet” is the Hebrew word chamad, which means: “to desire, covet, take pleasure in, delight in
a) (Qal) to desire
b) (Niphal) to be desirable
c) (Piel) to delight greatly, desire greatly”
It’s what Jesus was talking about in Matthew 6:21 when He said: “For where you treasure is, there your heart will be also” (NIV).
In the art of writing, the experts suggest that what a writer ends with should take him back to the beginning. The end should tie everything together (unless you are planning a sequel) I watched a movie a while back that began with a young girl hunting a caribou. She shot the animal but didn’t kill it instantly and had to pursue it and finish it off. The only thing she said at the beginning and just before she killed the caribou was “I missed the heart.” The scene made no sense until the end of the movie when, in a completely different context that had nothing to do with caribou, she says exactly the same thing and the person watching has an “aha” moment that ties the beginning to the end. I think that’s what we have here.
But we need to look at the context of what Jesus says in Matthew 6 to understand the meaning of the commandment and to tie all the Ten Commandments and the two great commandments together.
19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
22 “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy,[a] your whole body will be full of light. 23 But if your eyes are unhealthy,[b] your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!
24 “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.
Do Not Worry
25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life[c]?
28 “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”
What is Jesus addressing here?
We live in a consumer-driven world. We are consumers. We always think we need more. We always want more. And perhaps, here at the foot of this last commandment those of us who would never think to believe in any other god than the true God, who would never think to do anything other than make Him Number 1 priority in our lives, who would never think to swear, who would guard His day of rest, and honour our parents, control our tempers, be faithful to our spouses, be scrupulously honest in our dealings and in our words, would have to confess that here we have a problem. We WANT. We DESIRE. And sometimes we DESIRE GREATLY. We are consumers.
But is that so bad? Most of us have seen, or studied, Maslow’s basic hierarchy of needs. This is something included in Psychology 101 courses. Abraham Maslow determined that mankind has five basic needs. The most basic need is the right to life, food, water, etc. The second level is the right to personal security that comes with safety, employment, health, etc. The third level is Esteem or the right to be respected and to respect others, to achieve, to have confidence. The fifth was something Maslow called “Self-Actualization” meaning: the realization or fulfillment of one's talents and potential.
What Jesus is saying, beginning here at the basic physiological level, is that we don’t have to covet, or greatly desire, what He already promises to give us. He will supply our needs. We don’t have to define what we need and then covet what we see that others have and we don’t. He will give them what they need and will give us what we need. If I don’t have a house like my neighbours, I don’t need one or else God would supply it. If I don’t have a wife/husband like… or a car like… or whatever, it’s because God knows what I need better than I do. When we begin to play the comparison game and want more than we need, more than what God promises and delivers, then we are breaking that 10th commandment. The problem is not in having, the problem is having for the wrong reasons and obsessing over what God doesn’t choose to give us.
Let’s try an example here. I’ll give you a personal one. I had a nice little apartment that met all my needs. But down the street from my nice little apartment was a newer building of upscale apartments. I would have liked a condo there. On the surface I could defend that want. But God didn’t give me a condo there. If I had needed it He would have given it to me. For me to continue to long for that condo, to be possessed by not having it, since I didn’t need it, was coveting. In addition to that, by being annoyed at God because He didn’t give me what I coveted, I was implying that God was cheating me because He didn’t fulfill my desires. If I believed that God had given me everything I needed and everything that was good for me, then I shouldn’t have been obsessing about that condo every time I looked out my bedroom window and saw that building. I CAN say that those are nice apartments and that I like them because admiration is different than “desiring greatly” but I shouldn’t be obsessed with the desire to have one if the Lord chooses to withhold it.
James 4:1-5 warns us: “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on pleasures. You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. Or do you think Scripture says without reason that the spirit he caused to live in us envies intensely?” (God is a jealous God and He will not tolerate divided allegiance—Ex. 20:5, 34:14; Deut. 32:16; Zech. 8:2; 1 Cor. 10:22).
Materialism, consumerism, becomes a pitfall. Notice that we can ask God, but when we don’t get what we ask for we need to examine our motives (a good thing to do before we ask!) and to accept that God doesn’t want you to have so stop wanting and stop asking! I can ask God, “Lord, I’d like a condo in that building,” but before I do I need to ask myself WHY I’m asking. Do I need it? Or am I asking with the wrong motivation? When we want, and acquire what we want, outside of His will, we become what James describes as a “friend of the world.” There are times when we can insist and insist and God will give us what we ask for. We’ll experience what the psalmist describes in Psalm 106:13-15 (NIV): “But they soon forgot what he had done and did not wait for his counsel. In the desert they gave in to their craving; in the wasteland they put God to the test. So he gave them what they asked for, but sent a wasting disease upon them.”
Wesley, a well known theologian from several centuries ago said this about this verse: “Neither shalt thou covet any thing that is thy neighbour's - The plain meaning of this is, thou shalt not desire any thing that is not thy own, any thing which thou hast not. Indeed why shouldst thou? God hath given thee whatever tends to thy one end, holiness. Thou canst not deny it, without making him a liar: and: when any thing else will tend thereto, he will give thee that also. There is therefore no room to desire any thing which thou hast not. Thou hast already every thing that is really good for thee, wouldst thou have more money, more pleasure, more praise still? Why this is not good for thee. God has told thee so, by withholding it from thee. O give thyself up to his wise and gracious disposal!”
But the issue goes beyond simply possessing things. If we look at Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs, there are other things there that can be coveted. I can covet the physical appearance that someone else has, or the job they have, or the talents they have, or the recognition that they have. Why do we consider the rich, famous and beautiful worthy of so much admiration—we want what they have! We covet. They are morally and spiritually bankrupt but we envy them. Something is wrong with that picture.
A cartoonist by the name of Hugh MacLeod said this (and I have no idea if he is a believer or not): “The benefits of Consumer Capitalism– the dominant ideology of our age– are pretty self evident: Lots of people having stuff, lots of things being invented, lots of livelihoods being attained, plus the greatest measure of them all– life expectancy– being increased.
But there is a cost, mostly psychological. Consumer capitalism makes us more covetous.
And covetous[ness] makes us more stressed out and less happy. There’s no answer to it really, other than greater self-awareness…”
What brings us full circle here is that the 10th commandment to not covet goes back directly to the first commandment.
Who is our god?
“…the command focuses on replacing the wrong desire with the right desire. Violating the Tenth Commandment is actually a direct violation of the First Commandment. We are placing another god before us, the god of this object or the god of that consumer product or of this lifestyle or this or that aspiration. By God’s grace, and by some defying power of Word and spirit, we exchange a lesser desire for a greater desire, a temporal desire for an eternal desire, a corrupting desire for a sanctifying desire.” (Words From the Fire, page 189). Which is why Matthew 6:33, the conclusion of the teaching on being careful about where our priorities are, and not worrying about our needs, Jesus says: “But seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (NIV) When the focus of our lives is our pursuit of God, we see the pursuit of other things or hanging on to other things in their true light.
The first sin committed in the Garden of Eden so long ago was the sin of coveting. Eve “saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food [she already had lots] and pleasing to the eye [so was everything else she already had], and also desirable for gaining wisdom [that she wasn’t supposed to have], she took some…”
Paul lost a fellow missionary and minister (Philemon 1:24, Colossians 4:14) because of coveting. He writes in 2 Timothy 4:10: “for Demas, because he loved this world, has deserted me and has gone to Thessalonica.”
Who is my god?