When I was in my second year of Seminary, training to become a minister, one of the biggest surprises of my life was to see Zeb Osborne walk up the front steps and start attending classes. I had met Zeb Osborne a couple of years earlier. Before I entered the ministry, I worked with the South Carolina Department of Corrections as a counselor, working with the inmates. And Zeb Osborne was one of those inmates.
Zeb was once described as the "meanest man in South Carolina prisons." He was an impressive person, physically, because he had no nose. Someone had bitten it off in a fight in the prison cafeteria.
But Zeb had experienced a conversion, and unlike many jail house conversions, Zeb's experience was real. He eventually got out of prison and went to seminary, and from there started a prison ministry that is continues to be well respected in South Carolina.
I invited Zeb to come to a church I served several years ago to be our revival preacher. When I suggested his name to the Session, there were some concerns. After all, that church was in South Carolina, and a few of the people knew who Zeb Osborne was. Naturally, some were still concerned that his conversion had not been real, but was a hoax to help him get a parole. Others worried about what might happen and what Zeb might do.
"Suppose someone loses some money and they want to blame Zeb," someone asked.
Another was more direct, "Suppose we catch Zeb stealing the money?"
One of the members of the Session, aware of Zeb's police record, tried to reassure the other elders, but failed to select carefully his words. "I don't see why you worry about every little thing. Zeb's not going to steal anything. Zeb was not in prison for stealing. He was in prison for killing a man."
Needless to say, that did not comfort anyone. But I share that story because it illustrates how we in our society feel toward someone who would steal. We have a low regard for them. And once they steal, we don't ever trust them again. Or if we do trust them, it is because they have done what Zeb Osborne has done, making a dramatic and complete turn around from the life style of stealing. We feel this way because most of us at one time in our lives have been the victim of someone who has violated this commandment, "Thou shalt not steal."
We have returned home from vacation to find an open door, or a broken window, and grandmother's silver is gone, the TV is missing, or the computer has vanished. Or we have stepped into our car to find someone has stolen our anti-theft device.
Many of us, at one time or other, have felt the anger, the helpless frustration, the feeling of being violated that comes from being the victim of someone who broke the commandment, "thou shalt not steal."
And if we have not had the misfortune of being the victim, we certainly know what it is like to live in FEAR of becoming a target of some nameless thief. We lock our odors and windows, we buy elaborate alarm systems, we buy a gun, and still at night when we wake up at 3:00 in the morning we are like children in our fears. We listen carefully at the silence, trying to find out if the noise that woke us up was the noise of someone opening the door or window.
Or course, if we listen carefully to what we have said this morning, we are always the VICTIMS of stealing. We are never the guilty ones. It is the Zed Osbornes of the world who steal, not us. It is the man whose face is covered by a mask, who enters a store with a gun, whose only identifying mark is an obscene tattoo on his forearm. It is the nameless, faceless persons who come in the darkness and steals from our home. It is the teenager who has been hanging around the wrong crowd, or the old man who knows no other way of life. But it is NEVER US. WE would never steal.
And I would like to think that none of my parishioners would ever steal anything.
But then I came across this interesting statistic.
According to shoplifting prevention groups, an estimated 27 million Americans shoplift each year, or one in 11 people. Wow – that means that if we are a representation of America, about ten people in our first worship service and about 30 in our second service people here have shoplifted something.
Tax time is coming up, and most Americans pay their taxes and are honest about it. However, studies have shown that 17% purposefully under-report their income to the IRS.
You shall not steal – maybe we are not so innocent after all. Maybe we need to ponder our guilt in this area and consider how to come clean.
In fact, if one does to this commandment
what Jesus does to most of the commandments,
which is to broaden their meaning,
then we may find that 100% of us are somehow guilty of violating this commandment.
Remember when we were talking about the commandment, you shall not kill –
Jesus applied that to even having hate or anger in one’s heart as committing murder.
And when we were talking about adultery--
Jesus said that even lust within one’s heart is tantamount to committing adultery.
And so what of stealing?
How innocent are we?
Tax time is coming – how honest will we be?
Have we paid our student loans? Just a few days ago a man in Houston Texas was arrested by SEVEN U.S. Marshalls. He had neglected to pay $1,500 of a school loan he took out in 1987. School loans are a heavy debt, but there are ways to legally deal with that burden if it cannot be paid. Paul said in Romans, “Let no debt remain outstanding.” To simply refuse to pay or even show up in court to address the issue is to steal.
Have we taken someone’s idea and claimed them as our own. It might be a student plagiarizing at school, or someone in the work place taking a coworker’s idea to the boss and presenting it as his or her own.
Any time we are taking something that has not been rightfully given to us, or that we have not rightfully earned, we are stealing.
John Calvin broadened this commandment even one step further. He said that this commandment required that we should all be content with our own lot. This is not to say that we cannot set goals to have better things or nicer homes – but it is to say that until those things are earned rightly and justly, we are to be content with what we have now, as we work for something better in the future.
John Calvin and Martin Luther both agreed that the heart of this commandment about stealing is a matter of trust.
Years ago I had a parishioner who told that he was having trouble with his son. His son was about 7 or 8 years old and Dad was noticing that things were disappearing in the house.
Mostly it was food.
The unopened box of cereal.
A loaf of bread.
Quite by accident, he solved the mystery. He was cleaning his son’s room and he noticed that the area under his son’s bed was stuffed with all sorts of things.
Ah – here was the food that had been stolen.
But that mystery was replaced with another mystery. The 8 year old was not hoarding all of the food for himself. He was taking it to his room and then distributing it to his younger brother and sister.
As I listened to this story, I thought I knew what might be going on here. This couple had taken three siblings into their family as foster kids. Eventually, they adopted these children.
Being in foster care, going from one home to another, these kids sometimes did not know if they were going to be properly fed or not. It had become the older boy’s responsibility to hide food under his bed so that they would not go to hungry at night.
Now that they were adopted into this loving family, they were going to have to learn to trust. And for these kids, trust was going to take some time to build up and to really take root.
You shall not steal – at the heart of that commandment is the directive that we are to trust in God.
When we steal, it is because we do not trust that God is able, or that God willing, to provide us with the things we need.
What God would have of us is for us to develop a trusting attitude, but also a giving attitude rather than a taking attitude.
A thief takes.
A righteous soul both trusts in God, and gives to others.
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells us, “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.”
The heart of what Jesus is saying here, and the heart of what this 8th Commandment is teaching us here, is that we should trust God, and love our neighbors MORE than we love things.
Dr. W. Maynard Pittendreigh
All rights reserved
Ministers may feel free to use some or all of this sermon in their own ministries as long as they do not publish in print or on the Internet without ascribing credit to the author.