It’s good to be back with you and back into our series involving the Ten Commandments, or ten commitments, that people make in accepting life in covenant with God and other partners. We have said that these ten words or sentences are not laws as such, but are Principles that outline broad areas of covenant life that deal with one or another of God’s Primary Policy Statements, summed up in the words:
You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might. (Dt. 6:5) and…
You shall love your neighbour as yourself. (Lev. 19:18)
They are also life-outcomes that ensue from living within a covenant with God and others. If we accept covenant life, we will have no other gods, etc. through the whole series. Today’s commitment (#8 is you’re counting) is one of three very short commitments (only two words each in Hebrew) that begin the second group of five. “No killing, no adultery,” and today, “no stealing.” In the form in which the Bible has come to us today, these three are all absolute, without exceptions, just as Principles might be expected to be. The Ten Commitments, set boundaries, parameters, that encompass covenant life with God and neighbours. As I have said before, the Bible also contains specific techniques for living in particular contexts. For example, Exodus 21:16 and Deuteronomy 24:7 interpret “stealing” to apply specifically to Israelite male humans. These techniques make up the vast bulk of the Torah of Old and New Testaments and we must reinterpret all of it for life in our world today.
These ten words also provide covenant partners with outcomes of covenant life: covenant partners will not steal from neighbours. One of the reasons they don’t is found in the 24th Psalm, which begins by affirming that all the earth belongs to God because God created it. We do not steal because, even if we think we’re only stealing from our neighbour, we’re really stealing from God, and it is impossible both to steal from and be in covenant with the Creator at the same time.
The word that is used in the 8th commitment for stealing (ganab), sometimes includes the element of secrecy or stealth, but often this word is quite general. In Yiddish a ganaf is a common thief. Our natural tendency is to limit “stealing” to “things,” and this text certainly applies to such garden variety theft. In our day, there are also many creative ways to steal things of one kind or another from our neighbours. For example, we can do it by refusing to keep up our property, so that our neighbours’ property values go down. We can do it by refusing to pay our taxes, because we don’t like them. This takes from our neighbours the full services that those taxes are supposed to pay because we’ve made our own sovereign choice.
But, since the Decalogue itself does not limit stealing to things, there is no reason why we should, and, to do so, can lead to a horribly misshapen interpretation of this Principle that will not yield what I believe to be the community envisioned in the Bible and the community we certainly should be aiming at as Jesus’ disciples. There’s a famous quotation in Shakespeare’s play Othello that goes:
Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,
Is the immediate jewel of their souls.
Who steals my purse steals trash; ’tis something, nothing;
‘Twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands;
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him,
And makes me poor indeed. (Act 3, scene 3, 155–161)
I don’t want to get into the context in which Iago, the villain in the play, says this – suffice it to say he doesn’t mean it. These lines are famous because they remind us that it’s at least as serious to steal other things from our neighbours as it is to steal their money or possessions. We can steal their reputation, their, dignity, their identity, their job. In fact, we can (and have in the history of this country) stolen whole persons–it’s called slavery. In our own history such people-stealers were often not called to account by the Church because good, religious people thought the words “you will not steal,” meant only “you will not steal physical things.” We can and have also stolen reputation, dignity, identity, job, etc., from some and not from others, saying that we are only taking these things from our enemies, and God’s enemies, too, of course. Some have acted as if they were the hands and feet of God in such pursuits and quoted Bible verses in support. But the Principle is “no stealing.” Period. That is a parameter of covenant ethical life. We may even go far enough to say that stealing encompasses both murder and adultery, for what are we doing but stealing the life or the spouse of our neighbour. This Principle sets us on a hard road.
So what might counter such thievery? An interesting couple of sentences about thieves are found in the midst of our Epistle Lesson this morning (and don’t let us limit what is stolen here):
Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labour and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy (Eph. 4:28).
It’s hard to do honest work that has as its purpose, not just our own welfare, but sharing with the needy. And who isn’t needy sometimes? If theft and work are contrasts, then at what shall we work, and for/with whom? As I have suggested for previous commitments, let me suggest again that we need to think about positive techniques that might faithfully fill in the area inside the negative boundaries of “no stealing.”
Stealing is “taking something of value” away from a life.” A positive way to fill out, “no stealing,” therefore, might be “adding value to a life.” Words such as “generosity,” “sharing,” and “enabling” come to mind. In our Epistle Lesson from Ephesians we see examples of some behaviours that add value: “speak truth to neighbours.” If we cannot even speak straightforwardly, simply, and truthfully, we cannot hope to have much relationship, let alone to add any value to another’s life. Of course it’s possible to “be angry without sinning,” if we allow anger to rise at the right time and be targeted at those places where others are doing harm, without allowing that anger to splatter all over a relationship for a long time, which is what it means not to let the sun set on anger. Don’t harbour a grudge. “No harmful (or evil) talk.” Use what you say to add value to others not to subtract it, and to add beauty and grace to their lives. The passage is quite insistent that “bitterness, wrath, wrangling, slander, and malice” steal from other lives, and that tenderheartedness and forgiveness add value. At the end, the passage says that Covenant Partners with God in Christ should imitate the actions of God in Christ who has forgiven us, loved us, and given what is dearest and best on our behalf. What we tend to want are detailed rules and doctrines that will tell us at every step what decision to make, but there are no such timeless rules, only such Principles as we find here, filled in by ancient techniques all of which must be rethought in a different culture. Might a good place to start such thinking be with the question, “if I live in this covenant, with whom do I live?” Am I only expected to “add value” to those like myself? That is precisely what many people of all religious traditions (and none) are saying. Well, Jesus told a story in which this question was asked and answered.
The Parable that we call the Good Samaritan is a wonderful and complex story, but its main point is pretty simple. The story begins with Jesus in conversation with a scholar of the Torah about the commandment about loving neighbour as self. That scholar did not doubt that the Bible said he had to love his neighbour. He wanted to know just who that was. In other words, who did he have to love and treat well, to whom did he have to add value in this world? Wasn’t it only those like him?
The story has a cast of characters that, in Jesus’ world and ours, aren’t overly sympathetic, but we meet them every day, if only in ourselves. It’s important that we recognize how differently Jesus’ audience would have heard this story than we do. We think of the Samaritan as the good guy, the guy after whom hospitals and churches are named. He would not have been thought of that way when Jesus told this story. He was an outsider who could do nothing to come inside. He had the wrong beliefs, held “on purpose.” Had he known the victim was a Jew, he probably wouldn’t have stopped. We think of the priest and Levite as the bad guys who “passed by on the other side” – this biblical phrase has even come into our language to describe someone who walks away from need. They would be looked at as the good guys. I’ve said to you before that they were professionals who had many things to accomplish that day. They had people they needed to see that they couldn’t see if they touched this unclean person. We use different language to describe it, but which of us who are professionals don’t make regular choices to see the clients, patients, students, parishioners, with appointments rather than disqualifying ourselves by an act that makes none of those things possible? Let’s cut them some slack! The victim was dumb enough to travel alone on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho that was, a little later, called “the road of blood.” Smart travelers went together or with guards. He didn’t. Some would say, he should have known what would happen, even that he had it coming. It’s also true that, had he not been half-dead he would never knowingly have let a Samaritan touch him. Yet, in this dubious cast of characters, there’s this outrageous act of kindness. And it’s this act that overshadows everything else. In his discussion with the Torah scholar at the end of the story, he is all about actions not doctrines. “Who was the neighbour?” “The one who showed mercy.” “Right. Go and do likewise.”
We live in a society and amidst a world that loves to demonize people as “enemies” and “outcasts.” If you find yourself standing in the place of the Samaritan in the story this morning, that outsider who is always an outsider, the story is about to whose life will we add value? In short it’s not about who is my neighbour, but what boundaries will I cross to be one? If we are standing in the place of one of the two professionals or the victim, then it’s about who we’ll allow to be our neighbour? Or if we stand in the place of this scholar, it’s about trying to stop being a neighbour to as few as I can and still pass God’s test.
Here’s the question this story leaves with us. What actions are we taking in our lives to widen the circle of our neighbours to whose lives we can add value, and from whom we will no longer “steal” neighbourliness? How can we show that we don’t expect to wait until folk that are unlike us to come around to our way of thinking before we act with the grace and love with which God acts? The neighbour, says Jesus, is the one who does that for the one in need. No stealing, means spending the grace, love, and mercy, we’ve been given on our neighbours, who are, in Jesus’ teaching, the ones we meet who are in need.
In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, AMEN.