Honesty 101

Sunday Worship at Black Forest Community Church
Black Forest, CO
March 15, 2015
© Rev. Diane Kay Martin

                                                                Honesty 101

Scripture Reading:  Exodus 20:1-14 (excerpts)

Then God spoke all these words: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. … You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name. Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. … Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. … ”

This is the eighth sermon in our series on the Ten Commandments: “You shall not steal.” The story is told of a young boy who went to the farmer’s market with his parents one day, and he stood for a long, long time at one merchant’s booth, standing very close, gazing on the display of shiny red apples. The merchant approached the boy and asked, “Young man, are you trying to steal one of my apples?” And the boy responded, “No, sir. I’m trying not to.” — You shall not steal. It’s Honesty 101.

To explore this commandment, I’m going to weave together three stories from the New Testament—one is a parable Jesus told (the parable of the Good Samaritan), and two are stories about encounters Jesus had with people. I’ll also be borrowing a bit from the work of Rev. Dan Jackson, a pastor whose work I follow online. Give credit where credit is due, for “you shall not steal,” right? J

Do you remember the parable of the Good Samaritan, in the tenth chapter of Luke? Jesus told the story like this: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half-dead.” Rev. Jackson says the robbers’ attitude was, “What’s yours is mine; I’ll take it.” We steal when we take, and yes, taking what’s not ours is what comes to mind first when we think about the eighth commandment. Like the little boy, trying so hard not to steal the apple… “What’s yours is mine; I’ll take it.”

Martin Luther—the 16th-century reformer of the church—had much to say about this. Keep in mind that Luther was not known for great diplomacy or charm in his writings, and this is what he wrote about stealing: “Now, [stealing] is indeed quite a wide-spread and common vice, but so little regarded and observed that it exceeds all measure, so that if all who are thieves, and yet do not wish to be called such, were to be hanged on gallows, the world would soon be devastated and there would be a lack both of executioners and gallows.”[1] Okay, Marty, I think we get your point! We are all guilty of taking what’s not ours. But that’s only half of it …

A second attitude that’s relevant to this commandment is, “What’s mine is mine, and I’ll keep it.” We steal by keeping what we should give (or give up). Jesus continued his parable with this: “A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite: when he came to the place and saw him, he passed by on the other side.” Yes, we can steal by doing nothing—by holding onto what we should be giving away.

The most obvious example is this: The Bible allows for the ownership of private property, but in this country at least, we have taken that right to a new, almost obscene, level. Most Americans have a serious case of TMJ (Too Much Junk), and it weighs us down. We own so much “stuff” that we can’t fit it into our houses, so we fill our garages and park our cars outside. Then we can’t fit it all into our garages, so we rent storage units and fill them too! Property rights, on steroids. Yesterday, those of us who participated in the doorknob-hanger outreach event stopped in at Cindy Halsey’s house afterward, and we were all impressed at how (as you might expect if you know her at all) organized her garage is. She said, “Yeah, I don’t do well with clutter.” Preach it, sister! Neither do I! And I drove immediately to the Arc Thrift Store to donate a load of junk that had been cluttering up my back seat! (I blessed them with my junk! J )

A rich young man once asked Jesus how to get to heaven. Jesus knew the man couldn’t part with his “stuff.” This is our second story, and it’s in Mark 10. I’ll read it to you.

As [Jesus] was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; you shall not defraud; honor your father and mother.’” [The man] said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When [the man] heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.[2]

The rich man “went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” … Property rights, to a fault. He had the right to own many things. And he had probably worked very hard to earn them. But when it came right down to it, he said, “What’s mine is mine!” And Jesus said, “It sure is, but if you’re not careful, pretty soon it will own you! And, eventually, it will destroy you.”

Like it almost did to Zacchaeus. Here’s our third story. Do you remember the New Testament story of old Zacchaeus? He was a tax collector—one of the most corrupt lines of work in ancient Israel. It was like being a member of the mafia—extortion, bribery, playing his Jewish clients against his Roman overseers, and always able to put a little of the excess in his own pocket. That’s what made it so attractive to those who had failed God’s course in Honesty 101: it was easy money.

Zacchaeus heard there was a new preacher in town. He heard about a scruffy Galilean who taught his students not to worry about what they would eat or drink or wear—for God would surely provide for them as he did the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. Zacchaeus was not a tall man, and that’s why he climbed up in the sycamore tree when Jesus was coming by—so he could get a good look at this new prophet, find out if he was the real deal.

Jesus saw little old Zack up in the tree and must have sensed that he was ready to have a change of heart, because Jesus went right over to that tree and said, “Zacchaeus, come down from there, because I’m coming to your house today.”

Zacchaeus did have a change of heart! He immediately jumped down to the ground, and nobody had to tell him what to do. He already knew. He said, “You know what? I’m going to give half of everything I own to the poor, and everyone I’ve cheated, I’m going to repay fourfold”fourfold, when what was required by Jewish law was just twofold!

What a great formula! What if we all lived like that? Do someone wrong, pay them back fourfold. Of everything else we own, give half to the poor. If we all lived like that, I wonder how long we would still have poor among us… I think, in a deeper sense, we would all be a lot “richer.” Amen?

Zacchaeus, in the end, had the same attitude as the Good Samaritan, the protagonist of Jesus’ parable (going back to that first story in our weaving). Remember the victim—the man the robbers robbed and the priest and Levite avoided? That man, in the story, is still lying on the side of the road when Jesus concludes his parable like this: “A Samaritan, as he traveled, came to where the man was; and when he saw the man, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’ This attitude, Jackson says, is, “What’s mine is yours; let’s share it.” It’s the same attitude Zacchaeus had, after his “conversion.” It’s the attitude Jesus is looking for. Or, even better, “What I have is God’s; let’s share it.”

For while the Bible allows for the ownership of private property, it recognizes too that whatever we possess, we hold in trust for God. Psalm 24:1 says, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.” All that you own—all that you are—is from God. God has made you a manager, a steward, a caretaker of God’s gifts—both tangible and intangible.

In my research for this sermon, I stumbled upon the section in the Catholic Catechism about this commandment.[3] This document leaves absolutely no doubt about what it means to steal, and it goes way beyond how we regard physical property. Theft, according to the Catholic Catechism, includes not returning something you’ve borrowed, not paying a fair wage, not providing for the poor, price-fixing, insider trading, pilfering, work poorly done, tax evasion, forgery, excessive expense, waste of resources, violating a contract, lack of respect for creation, cruelty to animals, laziness, discrimination, personal and national greed … and on and on and on until it covers almost every area of life and could almost be the only commandment on the second tablet—the entire moral code written into one commandment.

The Catholics are right about this one—sorry, Martin Luther; that’s just how it is. It is about so much more than money. Because …

   Just as outright thievery is the act of stealing someone else’s physical property,

Cheating is an attempt to steal someone else’s initiative.

Oppression is an attempt to steal someone else’s dignity.

Plagiarism is an attempt to steal someone else’s genius.

Ridicule is an attempt to steal someone else’s confidence.

Gossip is an attempt to steal someone else’s reputation.

Blame-shifting is an attempt to steal someone else’s credibility.

Yes, we are all thieves. We are all guilty. We all need God’s mercy, God’s second chance. How many are familiar of the story of Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel Les Miserables? Jean Valjean has been released from a 19-year prison sentence for stealing. He seeks shelter with a bishop who takes him in for the night. During the night, he steals the bishop’s silverware, and the next day, he is caught and brought back to the bishop. And that kind and godly bishop, who represents Christ on multiple levels, says to Jean’s accusers, “No, he didn’t steal the silver. It was a gift. What I am wondering, my dear friend, is why you did not also take the candlesticks I gave you. Here—your candlesticks. Now go, and become an honest person.”

We are all thieves. But here are your candlesticks. <<Point to cross.>> Honesty 101. By the grace of God, you just passed the course, with flying colors. Thanks be to God! Amen.

[1] Luther’s Large Catechism, accessed at http://www.iclnet.org/pub/resources/text/wittenberg/luther/catechism/web/cat-07.html

[2] Verses 17-22.

[3] By their numbering, “you shall not steal” is the Seventh Commandment.