Sunday, September 26, 2021

Treasures of the Needy

It was a morning in early December. The year was 1891. All but penniless, a 41-year-old man named Joseph sat at table, eating what little breakfast he'd been given: bread, molasses, and coffee. It wasn't much, but it kept starvation away. He was in the Berks County Almshouse in Reading, Pennsylvania. And he was thinking about how he'd gotten there – and how the only family heirloom he had, all he cared about other than his tools and his clothes, was still at risk of being lost to him forever.

Over the years, Joseph had worked many jobs. He'd been down in the quarries and the mines, the farms and the factories. He'd traveled from town to town, fixing clocks, watches, organs, and pianos wherever he found them broken. He'd left home on bad terms with his father Nathan, a good but strict man who often made clear that Joseph was hardly the shining light of the family. Joseph found drink a bit hard to resist, though he did try. But nothing Joseph did ever seemed good enough. His little brother Will, seven years his junior, had by this time become a pastor, on whom Joseph – a struggling believer at best – relied for counsel, support, and a listening ear (though not always a sympathetic one).

From March to May 1884, beset by the “most dreadful” pain, Joseph lost 22 pounds. He was diagnosed with a kidney disease, an affliction that became more agonizing in colder weather. By that August, his savings were down to $8.83. His next job fell through, because in his condition, he couldn't physically meet its demands. Yet after kidney surgery, he was on his way to improvement, especially once he was warm and fed. Two years later, in the late summer of 1886, Joseph was a foreman at the Susquehanna Paper Company. He was pulling in $42 a month, almost half of which went to his boarding, from which he walked 2.5 miles each way to and from work.

That October, Joseph fell sick, and after suffering through two months of ineffective medical care, he underwent bladder surgery. The whole ordeal cost him dearly, and he asked his brother Will to beg their dad to send him a few dollars so he could afford to get his clothes cleaned. December 1887 found Joseph back on his feet, employed by the Dauphin Car Manufacturing Company. For putting in a nine-hour day of labor, he got a dollar, with over a month between paydays. The new year began with a promotion to general overseer, and a raise to $1.40 a day, though other workers had gotten their pay slashed to just fifty cents. But just days later, a fire struck Dauphin, wiping out the job site – including Joseph's tools. He begged his little brother for a few dollars to buy rubber boots and a coat, since he'd be working out in the cold now – which he just couldn't endure.

That February, once the car shop had rebuilt, disaster struck again. Joseph had been pouring molten metal into boxes, but their dampness generated a sudden release of steam that exploded upward, hitting him in the left eye. After a month and a half of suffering, the end of March 1888 saw Joseph at the Harrisburg Hospital, where he had the eye removed. Doctors found metal shards embedded in it. He asked his brother Will for money to pay the medical bills. Joseph had hoped to fix clocks in the meantime, but his right eye was slow to compensate. By mid-April, he was back at the car shop, whose future was in jeopardy due to disputes among the owners. In May, he got caught on the planer belt and narrowly avoided being cut to pieces. A dangerous job for a one-eyed man. A few days later, business slowed to a crawl, so that even Joseph had his wages cut: $1.25 for a ten-hour day. Joseph threatened to quit. And when he heard his mother Lydia had sprained her back in a fall, he did just that, going back home to Berlinsville to help them a while.

By August, he was running a tram for the Juniata Sand Company for $1 a day. He still owed Will $5, but asked him to reclaim it from money he'd left at the family home. But then Joseph got laid off. Deeply depressed and scared of the coming winter, he confessed he couldn't find a new job – nobody wanted a one-eyed worker when so many two-eyed ones were up for hire. Thankfully, it was harvest: Joseph could husk corn for fifty cents a day plus board. But in doing too much heavy lifting later, he hurt his back. Then, after hiring himself out at an ore mine for $1 a day, his bad back was slammed with a piece of heavy lumber, requiring three days of bed rest and a job change. In the spring of 1889, he found work at the Hummelstown Brown Stone Company, operating a multi-ton stone hoist for 12.5 cents an hour. But he didn't last there either.

In August, so afflicted with chronic back pain that he'd started taking morphine, Joseph wrote Will a letter. He knew Will was willing to support him, but Joseph asked, “How long could I get on in that way to be sponging on you? Why, dear brother, I would only be a disgrace in your family and the neighbors.” After another autumn husking corn on the cheap, Joseph confessed he wanted to take up Will on the offer to move in for the winter, but Joseph was “too ashamed to do it.” He kept traveling from town to town, doing odd jobs in the countryside, until in January 1890, he heard that his estranged father Nathan was sick. He moved back to his parents' farm, taking up construction projects in the neighborhood and priding himself on overcoming his opium habit. His father died in February 9, and for over a year Joseph lived on the farm. But the neighbors reintroduced him to wine, and his alcoholism flared up. On the first anniversary of their father's death, Joseph wrote Will a request for $15. He came clean: Joseph had outstanding debts yet in five counties, the creditors were hounding him, he was scared of going to jail. Will obliged him with a check. It was May 1891 when Joseph, disgruntled by the neighbors, left the farm. Days later, finding no work, he made his way to York, then Lebanon, begging God out of his distress. Unable to afford even a place to stay, he once more begged Will for help.

That summer, Joseph found employment in Pottstown as part of a construction crew building a bridge. But near the end of August, another workplace accident: part of a steel chisel lodged in his right eye, his only eye. In intense pain and unable to afford medical care, he peddled on the streets of Myerstown before making his way to Pottsville to work on the boilers. Wages were so low he had to offer up his late father's watch as collateral to a watchmaker, Robert Green, for a couple dollars to cover board and doctor himself up. But when Green set September 17 as a deadline by which he'd auction off the watch if he didn't get repaid with steep interest, Joseph fired off several desperate letters to Will, pleading with him to get the watch back. Will came through.

Stepping down from the boilers, Joseph turned again to husking corn, but in his fragile state, his strength gave out. He asked Will to find him a job. Will said he'd try, but that he couldn't honestly recommend Joseph to any employer. “What are you capable of doing?” he wrote Joseph. “You cannot endure hard work. You are not faithful enough for a position of trust. So I don't see what work I can secure for you. … After you are here a while, you will leave the work and bring disgrace on yourself and me.”

In October, Joseph headed to Pittsburgh and Allegheny, hunting a job in the iron works, but was dismissed, told nobody needed “half-cripples or old men.” The weather was getting colder. Joseph found himself in Brecknock Township husking corn, sleeping in a barn overnight, and while he slept, two tramps lodging in a nearby stable stole Joseph's only decent coat. A couple weeks later, Joseph bought painkillers and tried to overdose. Coming halfway to his senses enough to survive, he walked to Topton and borrowed fifty cents from the director of the poor there – and as collateral, he once more left his father's watch behind. The fifty cents were enough to catch a train to Reading. Deeply depressed, anxious, and suffering fainting spells, Joseph wrote to Will to tell him not to bother praying for him any more: “Hell is my place,” Joseph lamented. And with that, he appealed to the Berks County Almshouse to take him in, with only 87 cents to his name. That's how he reached the poorhouse.

Now, that's not the end of Joseph's tale. He would eventually leave that poorhouse – Will paid his bill – and get their father's watch back, though it would only be weeks before he'd have to use it as collateral again. Joseph Henry Heil would at last die in March 1905 in the poorhouse in Carlisle, 54 years old. He didn't quite live long enough to see his little brother Will become the founding bishop of the Evangelical Congregational Church.1

Last Sunday, in our exploration of God's commandment “You shall not steal,” we looked at the most horrible way to break that commandment: the theft of persons, in slavery and human trafficking. But before that, we considered more ordinary ways to break the commandment: robbery, burglary, pick-pocketing, shoplifting, tax evasion, embezzlement, bribery, vandalism, dishonest business dealings, false advertising, buying stolen goods, refusing to return what's borrowed, and keeping what's lost without a good-faith effort to find the real owner. Now this Sunday, as we wind down, we'll check out three other sadly common ways this commandment is broken.

And the first of those is paying insufficient wages to a worker. Often, we as Americans – great free-marketeers that we are – operate under the assumption that for an economic transaction, all you need for justice is mutual consent. If one person's willing to sell his labor for fifty cents a day, then that's all an employer needs to hire him for: mutual consent is met, so justice is there, people might think. America has always been obsessed with consent as the only standard. But that's too low a bar for sex, and it's too low a bar for work. Now, work is an obligation, in accordance with each person's capacity: “If anyone is not willing to work,” says Paul, “let him not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10). So to the extent possible, each person is commanded “in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to eat their own bread” (2 Thessalonians 3:12). That was all Joseph wanted to do.

But Christianity insists employers owe their employees several things out of love. One is ethical work with safe working conditions. Moses warns that some jobs are wrong – that they so defile the money earned that it isn't even eligible to donate to the sanctuary (Deuteronomy 23:18). Paul calls on thieves to turn, not just to profit, but to honest work with their own hands” (Ephesians 4:28). Nor can employers put employees in needless danger. There's a duty of care. That's something Joseph wasn't given: no one protected his back from swinging lumber, his eyes from chisels or hot metal, or his body from the freezing cold. That safety was stolen.

Another owed thing is a just, fair, and living wage. In the Bible, Jacob complained when Laban “cheated me and changed my wages ten times” (Genesis 31:7). The prophets say it's a cursed society where wages aren't enough to sustain a life (cf. Haggai 1:6). “Woe to him who... makes his neighbor serve him for nothing and doesn't give him his wages” (Jeremiah 22:13). Jesus says “the laborer deserves his wages” (Luke 10:7). But it's been observed for centuries that “when... workpeople are wronged in their wages, being paid either too little or when the hire is kept back, this is a sin against this commandment.”2 Back in 1919, with Bishop William F. Heil on the scene as chairman, our denomination went on record as saying that Christian ethics mandate that “all men shall receive a fair minimum living wage.”3 The pastor and lay delegate of this church heard those words, affirmed the report. We have believed and do believe this. It isn't enough for desperation to lead somebody to accept low pay. If it's not a living wage, it's not fair, not just. The wage has to be enough to support yourself and your family on. In that way, Joseph Heil and most other workers in his day were routinely cheated of what was their due by justice. In today's money, accounting for inflation (which itself has been labeled by some as a kind of cruel theft of the value of people's money4), he'd barely have been earning over $4/hour. Today's minimum wage, while higher than that, is so far behind inflation it's nowhere near a real living wage. Many workers today are still being robbed of what justice requires for them.

And the wage must be given in a timely manner. Moses says, “You shall give him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets (for he is poor and counts on it), lest he cry against you to the LORD and you be guilty of sin” (Deuteronomy 24:15). James denounces the rich because “the wages of the laborers who mowed your field, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you” (James 5:4). Joseph wasn't paid in a timely manner – so he was forced into desperate measures to bridge the gap until that far-off payday. Such employers, even if all the money is eventually given, are effectively breaking God's commandment.

A second way the commandment is broken, and this one outside the workplace, is in charging interest on a loan. This one might surprise us. But remember how Joseph was told that his father's watch would be auctioned off by a certain date if the jeweler didn't get repaid with interest? The Bible has some things to say about that. The psalmist is clear that a righteous person is “ever lending generously” (Psalm 37:27). But God says in his Law, “If you lend money to any of my people with you who is poor, you shall not be like a moneylender to him, and you shall not exact interest from him” (Exodus 22:25). “If your brother becomes poor and cannot maintain himself with you, you shall support him … Take no interest from him or profit, but fear your God...” (Leviticus 25:35-36). “You shall not charge interest on loans to your brother – interest on money, interest on food, interest on anything that is lent for interest” (Deuteronomy 23:19). “Woe to him who heaps up what is not his own... and loads himself with pledges! Will not your debtors suddenly arise?” (Habakkuk 2:6-7).

Notice a theme? In the Old Testament, even the principal of a debt was wiped away every seven years, when every loan was legally required to be forgiven (Deuteronomy 15:1-2). In the meantime, loans – especially to the poor – could not involve the charging of interest. To charge interest is exploitation, is theft, in the Bible. If anything, Jesus raises the bar: “Lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great” (Luke 6:35). The early church took him seriously, and regarded interest-charging as a sin requiring church discipline.5

Now, we live in a country where the private debt of all Americans – not government debt, private debt – adds up to over twice the nation's gross domestic product.6 We live in a country where credit card debt and student loan debt and medical debt are eating people up left and right. Americans have outstanding medical debt of over $140 billion. Nearly one in five Americans is part of that figure. It's become the #1 source of debt that gets turned over to collection agencies.7 Add on top of that credit card debt to the tune of $787 billion, with interest rates that average over 15%.8 The interest rates aren't quite so sharp for student loans, but the total amount of that debt is nearly $1.7 trillion! And that's shared among one in every eight Americans.9 That, in and of itself, is so severe it's recently been labeled “a national catastrophe.”10 America is a nation of debt crisis.

And in light of what the Bible actually says about debt forgiveness and banning interest, some in America who press and cajole the downtrodden into signing foolish contracts, who pack hidden fees and late fees into everything, who charge rates of interest that could never be just, who build their riches off the debts of others – well, such contributors to the crisis could be in for a rough surprise at the final judgment.

Finally, there's a third way the commandment can be broken. And it's keeping too much stuff. In the Bible, the point of working is so that, after you've supplied the basic needs for yourself and your family and your relatives in need (1 Timothy 5:8), you should work so as to “have something to share with anyone in need” (Ephesians 4:28). See, what God gives us, what God produces for us through our labor – it isn't for us alone. The Bible is clear that you can steal just by keeping what you've earned or made, if somebody else is in need of it and you can do without it. “Woe to those who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is no more room” (Isaiah 5:8). “The people curse him who holds back grain” (Proverbs 11:26). Whatever you have in excess of your needs has been entrusted to you, yes, but not for you. It might be hoarded in your custody, but God is the True Owner, and he's got designs for it.

And the Bible is equally clear about what those are. “There will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you: You shall open your hand wide to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land” (Deuteronomy 15:11). Jewish writers before Christ were not confused about what that meant: “Because of the commandment, help the poor; and in their need, do not send them away empty-handed” (Sirach 29:9). “Give in proportion to what you own. If you have great wealth, give alms out of your abundance. If you have but little, do not be afraid to give alms even out of that little” (Tobit 4:8). “Let all of life be common, and all things be in agreement.”11 And when, when the Word became flesh, the Word of God announced that “only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:23). He inspired his Apostle to say, plain as can be, that the “greedy” just can't “inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:10). Why? Because those excess goods are the right of the needy. To hoard possessions is theft when others are in need.

Listen to the voices of the early church: “God has given all things to all his creation. … Be ashamed to keep things that belong to others. Imitate the fairness of God, and no man will be poor.”12 “Those who are rich and greedy... are a kind of robbers lying in wait on the roads, stealing from passersby, and burying others' goods in their own houses as if in caves and holes.”13 “Now the chains on your barns have choked the throats of the poor, have shackled the necks of strangers, and have pulverized the stomachs of the hungry.”14 “Are you not a robber? The things you received in trust as a stewardship, have you not appropriated them for yourself? … The bread you are holding back is for the hungry, the clothes you keep put away are for the naked, the shoes that are rotting away with disuse are for those who have none, the silver you keep buried in the earth is for the needy. You are thus guilty of injustice toward as many as you might have aided, and did not.”15 “Are you poor? You know someone who is even poorer.”16 “Resolve to treat the things in your possession as belonging to others.”17 “For if we all took only what was necessary to satisfy our own needs, giving the rest to those who lack, no one would be rich, no one would be poor, and no one would be in need.”18 “No one should hesitate to give to the poor, for the hand of the poor is Christ's treasury: what he receives on earth, he stores up in heaven.”19

That's what the early church said on this. And they were only echoing Scripture. Paul has a word of wisdom for people who are “rich in the present age,” people in custody of excess beyond what they need (1 Timothy 6:17). And that's plenty of people today. America has a food insecurity crisis. Last year, more than 38 million Americans went hungry. It's estimated that one in eight Americans will experience food insecurity this year, with one in twenty Pennsylvanians having very low food security. No community is immune.20 And yet some people have plenty on their plates and in their fridge, letting it go to waste with hardly a moment's thought. Is that us? America is in the midst of a housing crisis. In our county alone, over 400 people are homeless.21 Many, many others find rent prices to strain or exceed what they can manage.22 But some people hoard ownership of multiple houses – one here, one for vacations – or have homes with plenty of room that could offer hospitality to others. Is that us? Are we the “rich in the present age”? Paul might say so, given his standard of being content if you've got food, clothing, maybe a roof over your head (1 Timothy 6:8). So it's to such as us that he lays down a command in Christ: “Be generous and ready to share” (1 Timothy 6:18).

But maybe you'll say, “People don't want to be charity cases!” That's right, most don't. Joseph Heil didn't. It wounded his pride badly, to think of 'sponging' off his brother. He really wanted to be self-sufficient. Jewish thinkers of the time of Jesus knew this, and handled it by announcing that “a gift is a type of loan” – it's just a loan that the lender commits to immediately forgive.23 If the recipient later enters better times and can return it, that's great! But if not, is that a loss to the lender? No! Why not? Because of what's written: “Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will repay him for his deed” (Proverbs 19:17). It's in lending to God through the poor that we become, in practice and not just in principle, his creditors – which is just a Latin word for 'believers.'24 It's when we sell what we've got and “give to the needy” that, lending to the Lord, we “provide” ourselves with “a treasure in the heavens that does not fail,” Jesus says (Luke 12:33). Paul echoes him: it's by being “generous and ready to share” that people can “store up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life” (1 Timothy 6:18-19). Jesus sums up this way of boosting our heavenly accounts with a brilliant phrase: being “rich toward God” (Luke 12:21).

The early Christians, at their best, really came to live like this: doing justice and mercy to all, so as to be rich toward God. A century after the church came to be, a Greek Christian summarized how believers lived: “He who has, gives to him who has not, without boasting. And when they see a stranger, they take him to their houses and rejoice over him as a true brother. … And if there is among them anyone who is poor and needy, and if they have no spare food, they fast two or three days in order to supply to the needy their lack of food.”25 In all this, they were only aiming to imitate their Lord. “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich” in heaven above, “yet for your sake he became poor” on this earth (2 Corinthians 8:9). It doesn't get any poorer than the cross, where every worldly good was stripped off Jesus. He was made penniless. He gave up everything for us. But in giving up everything, he nailed to his cross “the record of debt that stood against us,” canceling it and its demands (Colossians 2:14). He replaced our sinful wages with a much more priceless gift (Romans 6:23). And this Lord is raised as “the Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him” (Romans 10:12), “so that through his poverty you might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9) with “the unsearchable riches of Christ” (Ephesians 3:8). May you “be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God” (2 Corinthians 9:11). Amen.


Almighty God, rich in boundless mercy, we have been given much, much more than we know. We live by your great bounty in every moment. In our custody, we now may have houses or lands, we now may have silver or gold. But in place of them all, Lord, put in our spirits a deeper hunger for Jesus. For we live in a world of injustice, a world of exploitation, of unjust wages, and of inequality; and in this world as in the next, we need Jesus, the Justice of God made flesh, the Mercy of the Father manifest to us. Pour out your rich grace upon us undeserving souls, and redeem us for yourself and for your generosity, cancelling all our debts on the cross of Christ. Shape us by your rich Spirit into a people of justice and mercy, people who bear the family resemblance of a heavenly Father. Let the world know whose we are by how much love we show, especially to poor laborers and to the needy who cannot labor. Let us in our hearts be like them, for have you not “chosen those who are poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of your kingdom” (James 2:5)? Open our hearts and our hands to our neighbors, that our goods might pile up in the storehouses of heaven and not of earth. We ask one thing, and one thing only: to be rich toward you, Lord. Amen.

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Whoever Stealeth a Man...

A crack, and a cry of pain, sounded off to Stuart's right, but he paid it no mind as he harvested the sugarcane. It was normal to him now, after several months of this. The sun was high, and Stuart's mind drifted back to home. For Stuart was not his real name. His real name was Quobna Ottobah Cugoano. He was thirteen years old. He was far from home, and he missed it terribly. The year was 1770, and Ottobah had been staying for three months with his uncle. His uncle lived by the coast, a three-day walk from Ottobah's hometown of Ajumako, where Ottobah had grown up in the company of the children of the local chief, Ambro Accasa. But while he stayed with his uncle, he was in another chief's territory. All this was in what today we'd call Ghana. Ottobah, age 13, had been playing together in a field in the brush – catching birds, picking fruit – with his cousins and their friends one day. Suddenly, large grown men with cutlasses and pistols surrounded them, telling them to stay still or die. About eighteen or twenty youths were taken hostage that day, under a fearful threat of death.

The children were split up, and each group taken on a long walk, from village to village in unfamiliar territory. In about a week, Ottobah and his guide, who made a great show of being friendly and supportive and desiring to get Ottobah back home to his family after a stop at the shore for supplies, reached a town where, for the first time, Ottobah saw a few people with white faces. He was terrified. The tales he'd heard in childhood suggested that the white-faced people might eat him. And he had a hard time sleeping through the night. Morning came, and his guide led him to the castle on the coast. Ottobah was readily held fast by his fear of death. Along the way, Ottobah saw horrible things – men of his own Fanti tribe chained to each other, their hands tied. And when they reached the castle, Ottobah's guide accepted, from one of the white-faced people, a few things – a gun, some lead, and a piece of cloth – and abandoned him there in exchange for them. Ottobah had been sold.

Kept in the darkness of a prison for three days, Ottobah was then hastened to a ship, stuffed in the hold with the other men, surrounded by groaning voices, rattling chains, the ear-splitting crack of whips. The ship sailed from the seaside fortress to Cape Coast, where they were transferred to a second ship which set sail across the ocean. Day after day, night after night, thirteen-year-old Ottobah endured the misery of the ship's dark hold, until at length they reached the island of Grenada in the West Indies. Separated by the Atlantic from everyone he ever knew and loved, Ottobah and the others were put to work on one of Grenada's sugarcane plantations, so that the other white-faced people in a far-off land could enjoy sweet things off the sweat of Ottobah's back.

On the plantation, Ottobah lived in terror, as he had since he was kidnapped in the woods. During his months in Grenada, Ottobah witnessed some of his fellow slaves having their teeth knocked out for tasting the sugarcane; others had teeth pulled as a precautionary measure. Daily he watched his companions being lashed. The white-faced people – whose language he only at length began to understand – spoke of something called 'Christianity.' But when one of Ottobah's fellow-slaves attempted to join them at church one Sunday, they told him to get back into the fields to work – and to enforce the lesson, they gave the slave twenty-four lashes with a whip for going to church. 'Slave' – that, in the most literal and brutal term, was what Ottobah Cugoano had been made.1 Ottobah described how “slave procurers... often steal and kidnap many..., and sell them from one to another, so that if they are sought after and detected, the thieves are seldom found.”2 Ottobah was forever infuriated by “that infamous and iniquitous traffic of stealing, kidnapping, buying, selling, and cruelly enslaving men.”3

Notice that word he uses: 'stealing.' At the root of Ottobah's understanding of what happened to him, he was the victim of theft. It wasn't a theft of any particular thing he owned. It was the theft of himself. He'd been stolen – his whole person. And Ottobah was right to think that. In the next chapter after the Most High thundered to the earth, “Thou shalt not steal” (Exodus 20:15), the very next time God uses that verb, he applies it to exactly Ottobah's situation: “Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death” (Exodus 21:16). Kidnapping is a form of stealing. People can be stolen. That's what the slave trade was built on: people-stealing. That was very different from the sorts of debt-servitude that the people of Israel practiced among themselves (Exodus 21:1-11). No, this was like what Joseph's brothers did to him: steal him and sell him away. And God says here in his law, whoever steals a person is committing a crime. Whoever then sells a stolen person is committing a crime. Anybody who buys is equally guilty. And it's a capital crime.

Now, that law was given to Israel before the Golden Calf incident. But after the Golden Calf, when Israel had proved itself incapable of welcoming their God in holiness, a further law was added because of their hard hearts and continued transgressions (Galatians 3:19). And in that further law, this law is repeated, though only as it especially applies to fellow Israelites: “If a man is found stealing one of his brothers of the people of Israel, and if he treats him as a slave or sells him, then that thief shall die. So shall you purge the evil from your midst” (Deuteronomy 24:7). Down through the centuries of the old covenant, God did not punish their sins as their childishly stubborn hearts deserved. But they still had both laws on the books. And from the laws, later Jewish writings were frequently aware that kidnapping, trafficking, slave-trading – these weren't just offenses against God's commandment, they were perhaps the central offenses against God's commandment not to steal.

And so when the Apostle Paul writes to Timothy, he reminds Timothy that God didn't give these laws because we were so good and righteous. No, he gave laws because we were lawless. And so, for Timothy's benefit, he launches into a list of sins and crimes that's patterned after the Ten Commandments. Where God said not to have other gods or make graven images, Paul denounces “the lawless and disobedient.” Where God said not to take his name in vain, Paul calls out “the ungodly and sinners.” Where God said to keep his Sabbath holy, Paul opposes “the unholy and profane.” Where God said to honor father and mother, Paul points to “those who strike their fathers and mothers.” God said not to murder, so Paul condemns “murderers.” Where God said not to commit adultery, Paul points to “the sexually immoral” and to “men who practice homosexuality.” And now, where God said not to steal, Paul's list catches up to “enslavers.” That's the utmost violation of this law. Paul uses a Greek word for 'man-sellers,' 'slave-dealers,' 'enslavers.' To Paul, that's the worst kind of stealing: when you enslave or sell human beings. It's to such people that God lays down his law (1 Timothy 1:9-10).

And then when John details his visions, he's very pointed in condemning the slave trade of the Roman Empire. Picturing Roman power as the new expression of ancient Babylon, the old captor and oppressor in whose lands God's people lived in exile, John hears merchants weeping when they think of all the luxury goods they'd miss buying and selling if Rome's Babylon were to collapse. And the list climaxes, John tells us, with “slaves” – and John, inspired by the Holy Spirit, editorializes: “that is, human souls” (Revelation 18:13). To those merchants, slaves are just another commodity; it's no different from trading in silk or spice or sheep. John says it's a twisted economy that can no longer distinguish souls from stuff. In such confusion, naturally the merchants buy and sell and traffick in souls – living human beings – as reduced to mere cargo. Such they did to Ottobah Cugoano.

After eight or nine months on the sugarcane plantation, teenage Ottobah was sold to a man named Alexander Campbell, who had him work for a year at other places in the West Indies but then took him to England, treating him with relative kindness. He allowed Ottobah to learn to read and write, and even sent him to school to learn. Through that, Ottobah was introduced to the Bible, “that inestimable compilation of books.”4 The other slaves helped Ottobah make his way one Friday in August 1773 to St. James's Church on Piccadilly in London, and there Ottobah was baptized into Jesus Christ. And he was set free. In time, he found employment from a local painter, he made social connections, and he joined a group of black Londoners called the Sons of Africa. In 1787, he not only wrote his story and sentiments, he sent copies to princes and parliamentarians.5 And about the slave trade, Ottobah minced no words: “I would have my African countrymen to know and understand,” he said, “that the destroyers and enslavers of men can be no Christians, for Christianity is the system of benignity and love, and all its votaries are devoted to honesty, justice, humanity, meekness, peace, and good-will to all men.” Those who claim the name of 'Christian' while keeping slaves are, Ottobah said, “abominable liars,” the “greatest enemies” of Christianity, and should “be called by its opposite: the Antichrist.”6 For, he said:

Thus saith the law of God: 'If a man be found stealing any of his neighbors, or he that stealeth a man (let him be who he will) and selleth him, or that maketh merchandise of him, or if he be found in his hand, then that thief shall die.' However, in all modern slavery among Christians, who ought to know this law, they have not had any regard to it. … It ought to be double death, if it was possible, when a man is robbed of himself, and sold into captivity and cruel slavery.7

Ottobah was right. The Christians of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had every reason to be aware that the whole slave trade was a crime against God's law, and so was chattel slavery itself. So why didn't they? This week I was curious about that, so I read any old defense of slavery I could find that addressed this question. It was even flimsier than I expected. Those who didn't just brush off God's word altogether made five different excuses. 

  1. The first excuse they tried was to appeal to Deuteronomy to say that stealing people is only wrong if they're your own people, but people outside your race and faith are fair game.8 
    • But the abolitionists of the time showed how clearly wrong that was: the added law made some allowances that no longer apply after Christ, since now the whole human race is revealed as our brothers and sisters; and if all are our brothers and sisters, then this commandment must grant them protection against being stolen by us.9 
  2. The second excuse enslavers tried was to say that the law in Exodus against stealing people was really about stealing slaves away from their legal owner.10 
    • But the abolitionists of the time pointed out that if God had meant that, he would've condemned stealing 'slaves,' not stealing 'people'; and if human beings are being treated as just another kind of property, then there's no explanation why this property theft is punished with death instead of a fine like every other theft.11 
  3. The third excuse enslavers tried was to say that their slaves became slaves not through nefarious kidnapping but through losing a war or being punished for a crime, and so were fair game so far as this law is concerned, for it only prevents slavery through kidnapping and not other means.12 
    • But again, the abolitionists asked, “Does not all the world know that they were kidnapped on the African coast and brought to the American continent?”13 The prevalence of kidnapping as a source for the African slave trade was a fact widely enough known to render the enslavers' pleas pointless!  And the abolitionists pointed out that it was precisely because white people were eager to buy slaves that African coastal chiefs had greater incentives to wage unjust wars and to punish excessively by enslaving – these, too, then, were a kind of stealing, being engaged in with a major motive to procure human beings for sale as though property.14 
  4. The fourth excuse enslavers tried was that, yes, the stealing in Africa was wrong, but once the slave had crossed the ocean, being bought nullified his own rights of self-governance and self-ownership: possession is nine-tenths of the law, after all, so slavery was essentially treated as justified by negating the original right.15 
    • The abolitionists made short work of that, too: the buyer and holder is just as guilty of theft as the original stealer, if he knows he has a stolen person and refuses to set him free.16 
  5. And finally, the fifth excuse enslavers might have tried was that perhaps buying and selling the originally stolen people as slaves was wrong, but their children and grandchildren were born into slavery, and so were fair game by lacking any legally recognized birthright to freedom. 
    • But the abolitionists wouldn't let that pass, either. “Does not he who for gain buys, sells, or keeps in slavery the descendants of those who were unjustly deprived of their freedom thereby justify the original act and put himself in the place of the first aggressor?” they asked.17

The relentless rebuttals of the abolitionists to every feeble excuse of the enslavers mean that it should have been as obvious then to them, as it is now to us, that the whole slave system – including the chattel slavery of America as well as the trans-Atlantic slave trade itself – stood under the righteous sentence of God. Unmistakably, it was a gross violation of this commandment, even before being compounded by violence, cruelty, and hatred. Difficult as it may be to acknowledge this, the hard truth is that a considerable number of the Founding Fathers of this nation were guilty not only of a sin, but of a crime over which God had decreed the death penalty in his law. We can honor them for the good they otherwise did, but that crime is a strict limit and shameful stain on their legacy. After them, for generations, the laws of this nation defended and protected what God called a crime. The government even invested taxpayers' money – used funding extracted via taxation from our families, in many cases – to protect that system, by taking people who escaped to freedom and forcing them back into slavery, on our ancestors' dime.18 Just as abortion is a grievous national sin today, slavery then – including the internal slave trade that survived domestically for decades after the international slave trade was banned – does not just stain the individuals who participate. Sins like these undermine and call into question the government that allows them. They defile the land where these crimes openly happen. And they ensnare us all, until the evil is duly purged.

Last Sunday, we reflected on Leviticus 6, where God outlined the four steps to dealing with the guilt of theft. The first step was to make full restoration of whatever had been stolen: to set it free to its original and proper owner. The second step was to provide additional reparation, the fifth added to it. The third step was to make a prompt delivery, as soon as the guilt was realized. And the fourth step was to make atonement to the Lord, for every crime against our neighbor is a sin against God also. What would it have looked like for Leviticus 6 to be honored after slavery? It would have begun with emancipation. It would have continued with compensation, something to repair the injury done, cover the time when people were stolen from themselves. And that would have been delivered promptly and with apology, as soon as the nation became aware of our guilt.19 Finally, all that would have been caught up in a national come-to-Jesus moment over our great national sin.  Per Leviticus 6, that's what should have been done.

But very little of that happened in our history. Oh, many of those freed from slavery certainly asked for it! As early as the late 1700s, a few former slaves managed to sue for lump-sum payments.20 Gen. Sherman tried to set aside some abandoned lands to be distributed to former slaves – each family to get forty acres and the rental of an army mule21 – but the plan was scrapped by President Johnson once he took office. Organizations later formed that helped thousands of former slaves, and later their children, to petition Congress for government pensions as reparation for the same government having defended in law their enslavement to decades of unpaid labor – all to no avail but repression.22 It might fairly be said, these many years later, that a considerable amount of our national tension today has been a direct result of a refusal to believe that God was deadly serious when he said “Thou shalt not steal,” and equally serious when he said to really and meaningfully repent in the wake of such stealing. Because if we had nationally believed and nationally put into action God's word on this point at any time in the past couple centuries, America would be blessed with a deeper peace than she now is.23

But slavery is not a thing of the past – not even in America. Today, we now have a new word for it. When it happens in America today, we call it 'human trafficking.' It doesn't thrive in the open. But it's slavery.24 It's still stealing people, treating them as possessions to be owned, denying their God-given dignity as bearers of his image, and carrying them as cargo. Every year, it's estimated that around fifteen thousand or more people are being trafficked into the United States from outside, to be kept here as slaves. That's in addition to an unknown number of Americans who are trafficked within our borders for the same purpose. Those figures make this a crime as common as murder, or more so, even though it's rarely caught and even less commonly prosecuted.25 So far as we can tell, about half are victims of sex trafficking, another quarter are victims of domestic labor trafficking, and many of the rest are victims of agricultural labor trafficking.26

If that sounds like an 'out-there' problem, Pennsylvania is one of the top ten states for human trafficking. In 2018, 621 trafficking victims were identified – and likely thousands of others weren't – in Pennsylvania.27 Interstates 81 and 78 are both “major arteries for sex trafficking.”28 Last year, a man was sentenced to up to 141 years in prison for co-running a trafficking ring that included our county.29 A few months ago, state police announced having shut down a trafficking ring in Berks County. One of the accused traffickers is a woman from Lancaster.30 That hits pretty close to home, doesn't it? It's here – and experts on human trafficking recognize that churches “can be instrumental in... raising awareness of human trafficking, pressuring governments to pass and enforce laws against human trafficking, and to protect and assist trafficked victims.”31

That's not even touching the fact that, even when slavery takes place elsewhere in the world, it still touches our lives. In industry after industry, a portion of the goods and resources that make their way to the United States were at some point worked or made by slaves. It might be iron or steel smelted by slaves in Brazil, that made its way into your car. It might be a mineral in your phone that was mined across the world by slaves. It might be frozen fish you buy in the store, harvested by slaves in Asia. It might be clothes woven by slaves in factories overseas. It's been suggested that, in small quantities, each of us may – in a given week – unknowingly eat, use, or wear something that relied on slave labor in its production.32 And our hearts should break at the thought.

Our hearts should break because each and every human being was born to be free, was made free by God in the beginning. But Adam and Eve sold their whole line into slavery for the price of a bite of fruit – slavery in one way or another. Because all of us, in our natural state outside Eden, are “slaves of sin” (Romans 6:17-20). And we have been maintained and subjected to this “lifelong slavery” through the “fear of death,” held captive by “the one who has the power of death – that is, the devil” (Hebrews 2:14-15). And so in the world, we spend what we call our lives with our souls being trafficked from one sin to the next, one idol to the next, one situation to the next. “For whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved” (2 Peter 2:19). And sometimes, that expresses itself outwardly in the specific sin of human trafficking. But even those who enslave men, women, and children – who buy and sell human souls as cargo – are themselves, in their spirits, slaves already to sin. As are we all, by nature. In that condition, we have each “presented our body parts as slaves to impurity and lawlessness” (Romans 6:19).

But then Jesus appeared, the Free Man from heaven, the Redeemer who came to buy us back to his birthright, to break our chains, to destroy our captor. Taking the outward appearance of a slave himself, he was perfectly obedient all the way to the cross (Philippians 2:7-8). Through his death and resurrection to divine freedom, he stepped forward to “deliver all those who, through fear of death, were subject to lifelong slavery” (Hebrews 2:15). Jesus “gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness” (Titus 2:14). “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36). And “the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:2). “You are no longer a slave, but a son” (Galatians 4:7). Not only that, but we are just the beginning. Christ's invitation to freedom is a promise of the day when “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:21).

In light of this freedom and this promise, we're called to guard carefully against seducers who “slipped in to spy out our freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might bring us into slavery” to sin or to the added laws and elements that merely tutored humanity until Christ came (Galatians 2:4). For now we have freedom to serve God as free and mature people, to love him in substance and not only in symbol. We have freedom to have our hearts changed and to relate to God as our genuine Father. Every heresy that aims to infect the Church, every attempt to sway God's people to something other than the pure faith of Christ, may bill itself as a more liberated life or a richer experience, but it leads away from the mature freedom of Christ. Every grave falsehood about God, about Jesus, about the Spirit, about the Church, about the Christian life, is a form of slavery of the soul – it offers us idols and their chains instead of Christ and his way.

For freedom Christ has set us free” in baptism, when he submerged us in an infinite pool of grace and anointed our hearts with the Spirit of his love. That was when Ottobah became truly free33 – and so have we, if we (like him) “stand firm, therefore,” in a faith that works through love, “and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” to the fear of death (Galatians 5:1). Don't submit to sin. Don't submit to falsehood. And don't submit to resigning yourself to the status quo of the world. For our freedom was given to us “as an opportunity” to “through love serve one another” (Galatians 5:13). And that free service includes many things. But among them is enlistment by Christ in his mission to “proclaim good news to the poor” and “to set at liberty those who are oppressed” (Luke 4:18). And maybe that looks like showing our nation how to grapple with the sins of its past not yet repaired. Maybe that looks like keeping a watchful eye in our county for signs of trafficking or having been kidnapped. Maybe that looks like declaring the good news that sets souls free from sin, from lies, from the fear of death. And maybe that means battering slavery in all its forms with the arsenal of our prayers, as they rise to heaven and fall to earth in flame (Revelation 8:3-5). May the world see in us our Redeemer who 'died to make us holy.' May all of us show forth his amazing grace. And may each of us 'live to make all free.'


Lord God of Liberty, you gave each of us freedom as our birthright – freedom not to slave after the passions of the flesh, freedom not to do whatever's right in each's own eyes, but freedom to offer ourselves to righteousness and to serve one another through love. And yet with sin in the world, some have been so audacious as to steal the bearers of your very image away from the freedom that is their birthright. And our enjoyment of life in your world has been shaded by the shadow of such thefts. O God, forgive us for the burdens of the past, and inspire us to a perfect repentance. Forgive us for the webs of present sin, and inspire us to live to set all free. Forgive us for the slowness of our love and the shortness of our vision. Pour out your Spirit, in whom there is only liberty. Call us again to the freedom of Christ, that the chains of sin might crumble and that we might go forth to announce freedom to the world, to work for freedom in the world, and to hope for the freedom of the world when your Son, our Redeemer, returns and returns to all everything that sin has stolen. In Jesus Christ, Heaven's Freedom, we send you up this prayer. Send it back down in lightning, thunder, and holy flame! Amen.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

House of the Thief

Had the first bishop of the Evangelical Congregational Church lived about twenty-five years longer, he would probably have been very proud of his son-in-law. Back in 1912, Bishop William Franklin Heil married his daughter, Ella Hazel Heil, to Edward Arthur Hintz, an assistant cashier at the People's Trust and Savings Bank of Chicago, Illinois – in fact, we're eight days from Edward and Ella's 109th anniversary. Fourteen years into the marriage, Edward received a promotion to cashier, and Bishop Heil mused, “I trust that he will measure up to the demands.”1 But it was mainly after the bishop's death in 1930 that Edward's career really took off. He rose through the ranks of the Chicago banking world, to the point that the EC Church itself turned to him for financial advice now and again.2 By May 1956, Edward nearly became chairman of the Illinois Athletic Commission – a role he had to turn down only when he was elected president of the Southmoor Bank and Trust Company. Yes, to see that, Edward's late father-in-law, Bishop Heil, might well have been very proud. But a month or two later, Bishop Heil might have been much less proud. Deeply disappointed, in fact. Before the year was up, Edward Arthur Hintz would be investigated by multiple grand juries, questioned by the FBI, subpoenaed by the United States Senate, and sentenced to federal prison.

As the evidence came forth, the story slowly unfolded. Years earlier, among his many connections, Edward had formed a fine friendship with a man named Orville Enoch Hodge, who in 1952 was elected as Auditor of Public Accounts for the State of Illinois – a position giving Hodge considerable access to public funds. Hodge also did the bulk of his banking at the Southmoor, of which Edward was – for most of Hodge's career – executive vice president. And Hodge asked Edward for a little personal favor. When Hodge drew up state warrants – checks drawn against state funds – Edward needed to make sure they were cashed. But Hodge asked him not to look too hard at the signatures – whether written or typed, whether the name on the check matched the person signing for it, and so on. Not only that, but now and again, Hodge would write out a state check to a vendor for more than the vendor needed to be paid, and what Hodge needed Edward to do was to pay the vendor the real amount, take the excess difference, and just slip it into a secret personal account Hodge had. And then, when Hodge wrote out personal checks from his bank account, Edward would make sure the money came out of that secret brown envelope tucked away in his office, full of state money.3 No problem, right, Edward?

No problem. Edward made sure the scheme ran smoothly. “I did it all through friendship,” Edward said. “I never thought Orv was doing something really wrong.” But Orville Hodge had done something wrong. In that way and others, Hodge used those phony checks and other means to embezzle multiple millions of dollars from public accounts for his private use, which Hodge used to buy a couple jets, thirty cars (including a Rolls-Royce and a few Cadillacs), and properties in several states. And Edward had helped him do some of it. “I guess I was stupid,” Edward lamented to the press. “I knew it was wrong, but I approved them.”4 And no court bought his pleas of ignorance and gullibility. In August 1956, convicted of having misapplied nearly half a million dollars in federally insured funds, Edward was sentenced to three years in federal prison. Now, had our Bishop Heil still been walking the earth, he might have reminded his son-in-law, and Hodge too, of these forgotten words: “Thou shalt not steal” (Exodus 20:15).

Stealing. That's what Orville Hodge did. That's what Edward Hintz helped him to do, as a co-conspirator. And that's exactly what they should have known God very expressly ruled out: “Thou shalt not steal.” But what is stealing, anyway? It's depriving someone else of their rightful property. Maybe that's to destroy it, maybe to take possession of it, maybe to use it up or to sell it – doesn't matter, stealing is about depriving someone of what's theirs. It's to injure them as an owner; it's to exert authority over property that isn't under your authority at all and isn't fair game to claim; it's to violate the reasonable will of the legitimate property owner.

Now, that definition implies there's such a thing as a right to private property. But thousands of years after God spoke the commandment, a movement would emerge that would deny there was any such right for private parties to be owners of specific property. That movement was called Communism. Karl Marx himself defined his brand of Communism as “the positive supersession of private property as human self-estrangement.”5 And in that original 1848 Communist Manifesto, he and his co-writer Friedrich Engels declared that “the theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: 'Abolition of private property.'”6 It isn't for nothing that, just twelve years after that Communist Manifesto was published, one preacher objected that Communism was “nothing less than advocating wholesale robbery,” since “God has instituted the right of private property.”7

So who's right? And what is property, anyway? One modern legal scholar defines property as “an institution governing the use of things,” and he says it's made up of three parts: first, an “entitlement” regarding “the use of a particular resource”; second, “rules” about how a “particular property entitlement is exercised”; and third, a legal structure to support those entitlements and those rules.8 Property is made up of entitlements, rules about exercising those entitlements, and a legal structure to defend the entitlements and their rules. And that seems like a decent enough starting point here. So the question is, Did God give private persons any entitlements to particular resources? Did God set down rules for how such entitlements can be exercised? Does God's Law support and defend those entitlements and those rules? And the answer to all three is yes.

As bearers of God's image, we reflect the image of the true Owner of the cattle on a thousand hills (Psalm 50:10-11). All things are, ultimately, God's, since God created the earth and all its goods. But then he granted a collective entitlement to the human race as his image. As we read, “the heavens are the LORD's heavens, but the earth he has given to the children of man” (Psalm 115:16). God has given us, collectively, “dominion over the works of his hands” (Psalm 8:6). In giving them, he wasn't decreeing an absolute right, but entrusting his earthly creations to us as their stewards, responsible before God.

Now, efficient stewardship of most goods – especially goods improved by human labor – requires individuals or families to take particular responsibility for them. I take responsibility as particular steward of this garden, you take responsibility as particular steward of that field. And those responsibilities lead to authority to the use of, and controlled access to, those particular things – private entitlements. From the very second generation of our species, we find specialization, we find people taking particular responsibility – Cain farms his field, Abel raises livestock in his (Genesis 4:2). Each has responsibility for the produce of their labor. Abel can graze his sheep in the pasture but keeps them out of Cain's garden. And when the time comes for a sacrifice, Cain could have (and should have) traded Abel some nice vegetables for a lamb, which – becoming Cain's possession – he could then have offered to God as his own personal gift. Naturally, God's Law will recognize that a given plot of land, or a house, or an ox, or a piece of clothing can belong to someone who has particular responsibility for it and so is its owner (e.g., Exodus 21:32-34). And Israel's prophets dreamed of a day when “none of my people shall be scattered from his property” (Ezekiel 46:18), when each would be secure in his or her private property: “They shall sit, every man, under his vine and his fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid” (Micah 4:4).

Those private property rights, while real, aren't as absolute as we Americans might dream: “Every one of you will invite his neighbor to come under his vine and under his fig tree” (Zechariah 3:10). We are, after all, owners only in the sense of stewards; and ultimately, everything God has made, including the things he makes through our own labors now, is destined to be at the service of all. There's the bit about God's rules for how particular property entitlements are to be utilized – but more on that in a couple weeks. Suffice it to say that, subject to a few conditions, each of us may be the rightful owner of the goods of this world (that's private property), much as a community can still be the rightful owner of worldly goods held and used in common (and that's public property). But if we can be rightful owners, then there can be such a thing as wrongful interference in the relationship between owner and owned. And it's against such criminal interference that this word, “Thou shalt not steal,” guards. And there are a lot of forms of that interference.

First, there's what you might think of first: theft. Sometimes, it's by force, and you call that robbery. When it's by stealth, you might call it larceny. When it involves unauthorized entry into your home, you'd call it burglary. Theft is the mugger in the dark alley with a gun or a knife. It's the pirate ambushing a cargo ship and raiding it for treasure. It's the carjacker hot-wiring your ride and driving it off to the chop shop. “The thief breaks in, and the bandits raid outside” (Hosea 7:1). God cautions his people, “Set no vain hopes on robbery” (Psalm 62:10). “You shall not oppress your neighbor or rob him” (Leviticus 19:3). It should be obvious why this is stealing. By definition, whether it's secretly by stealth or openly by force, they all involve taking what properly belongs to another person or persons, and appropriating it into your own possession. It's interfering in the proper relationship of owner and owned. So have no part in that: “You shall not steal” (Exodus 20:15).

But theft doesn't always look so egregious as that. Sometimes it looks minor. It's the kid with his hand slipping furtively into your pocket. It's the customer pocketing something from the shelf. It's the couple eating a meal and running out on their bill. Pick-pocketing, shoplifting, dine-and-dashing – those may not be at the biggest scale, but they're still acts of theft, and each contributes to the harm of the victim. And while most people, I should hope, wouldn't dine-and-dash at a restaurant, tax evasion and tax fraud are a form of the same thing: eating up public goods, and then running out on your portion of the bill when it comes due. No, the Apostle Paul says: “Pay to all what's owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due” (Romans 13:7). So when it comes to robbery, larceny, burglary, pick-pocketing, shoplifting, dine-and-dashing, tax evasion, tax fraud, just have no part in any of that: “You shall not steal” (Exodus 20:15).

Second, there's embezzlement and corruption. That's what Orville Hodge did. That's what Edward Hintz did. It happens all the time. Maybe it's an employee at a private company taking company resources, whether office supplies or dollars. Maybe it's a government official sucking the public funds dry. Maybe it's a politician aiming at ways to fill his pockets by the time he's through. After all, as one ancient Jewish writer complained, there are ambitious people “who perpetrate thefts on a great scale, disguising the real fact of robbery under the grand-sounding names of 'government' and 'leadership.'”9 But each is “deceiving his neighbor” (Leviticus 6:2) and using his or her position to siphon off the resources of a company or a society into his or her private use, away from their proper use. As Paul says, “It is required of stewards that they be found faithful” (1 Corinthians 4:2). Embezzlement is theft. Corruption is theft. Have no part in them: “You shall not steal” (Exodus 20:15).

Third also falls under corruption, and it's bribery and extortion – making or taking. It's the pay-off to the regulator to look the other way, effecting a double standard. It's the greasing of palms that bends the legislative process to the whims of the rich and powerful. It's the open threat a corporation makes to withdraw from a jurisdiction, taking all those jobs and tax revenues with them, if the local policies aren't to their taste. “Rebels and companions of thieves... love a bribe and run after gifts,” God says (Isaiah 1:23). “You shall take no bribe, for a bribe blinds the clear-sighted and subverts the cause of those who are in the right” (Exodus 23:8). Again, take no part in bribery or extortion: “You shall not steal” (Exodus 20:15).

Fourth, there's vandalism. You know it, you've seen the footage on the news these past couple years. It's the arsonist torching the house, it's the spray-paint on the wall, it's the statue being toppled and smashed. It's the rioter breaking the store window and carrying off loot, or just throwing rocks. Those acts are stealing, whether or not the rioter or arsonist takes anything away into his or her own possession, because it's still wrongful interference in the relationship between owner and property, whether private property or public property. God's Law declares that “if a fire breaks out and catches in thorns so that the stacked grain or the standing grain or the field is consumed, he who started the fire shall make restitution” (Exodus 22:6). And while that law has an eye more to accidental damages, it applies to vandalism all the more. “You shall not steal” (Exodus 20:15).

Fifth, there's defrauding, unfairness in business arrangements and deals. It's the landlord who won't fix what's wrong with the place, or the tenant who won't pay rent. It's the customer who hands the cashier a counterfeit $100 and asks for change. It's the guy on the street corner selling knock-off Rolexes as if they were real. It's the restaurant that uses doctored photos of fake food on their menu to seem more appetizing. It's the mechanic who pressures you into services you don't really need. It's the contractor who cuts corners and still charges the same. It's the manufacturer who builds planned obsolescence into products, making you buy a replacement sooner. It's the salesman who hands you a contract with clever tricks in the fine print, counting on you to neither read nor understand before you sign. It's the corporation that releases false accounts to keep their stock price up. It's even the friend who pressures you to buy into her multi-level marketing business, more often than not a pyramid scheme. But what does God say? “You shall not steal, you shall not deal falsely, you shall not lie to one another” (Leviticus 19:11). “Unequal weights and unequal measures are both alike an abomination to the LORD (Proverbs 20:10), and “all who do such things, all who act dishonestly, are an abomination to the LORD your God” (Deuteronomy 25:16). Take no part: “You shall not steal” (Exodus 20:15).

Sixth, there's knowingly receiving or buying stolen property. It's the collector buying that antique looted from another country. It's the guy buying a TV in cash off the back of a van. As one ancient Jewish writer said, “Do not accept from thieves a stolen, unlawful deposit. Both are thieves: the one who receives as well as the one who steals.”10 Have no part in it: “You shall not steal” (Exodus 20:15).

Seventh, there's borrowing something and refusing or neglecting to return it. And you could say this is even a form of embezzlement. But the Prophet Ezekiel reminds us – or rather, God reminds us – that it's a wicked man or wicked woman who “does not restore the pledge” (Ezekiel 18:12). When your friend or neighbor asks for it back, find it and turn it over. “You shall not steal” (Exodus 20:15).

Eighth, there's keeping lost-and-found property without a reasonable good-faith effort to find the owner. Moses said that, when you find something that's been lost, “you shall bring it home to your house, and it shall stay with you until your brother seeks it; then you shall restore it to him” (Deuteronomy 22:2). “With any lost thing of your brother's, which he loses and you find, you may not ignore it” (Deuteronomy 22:3). God says a sinner “has found something lost and lied about it, swearing falsely” (Leviticus 6:3). If a good-faith effort turns up no owner, that's one thing. But not making the effort where reasonable? Oh, “you shall not steal” (Exodus 20:15).

There are plenty of other ways to break the commandment, but eight's plenty for one week. So why does it matter? First, it's simply a command. Second, it's meant to be punished in the human court: One who steals “shall surely pay” (Exodus 22:3). But acts of theft also “dishonor God by breaking the law” (Romans 2:23). And so, third, stealing is also punished by God. The Prophet Zechariah sees a flying scroll covered in curses, and hears God say, “I will send it out... and it shall enter the house of the thief... and it shall remain in his house and consume it, both timber and stones” (Zechariah 5:4). Paul reminds us that neither stealthy “thieves” nor forceful “grabbers” of the property of others, public or private, “will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:10). In the long run, “treasures gained by wickedness do not profit” (Proverbs 10:2). So “let none of you suffer... as a thief” (1 Peter 4:15)! We're even to stay away, Paul says, from those who claim to be Christians and yet are “grabbers” (1 Corinthians 5:11). No wonder the early church listed thefts as a step on the way of death (Didache 5.1). So “let the thief,” therefore, “no longer steal” (Ephesians 4:28).

The Law of Moses outlined how someone who realized he was a thief, a sinner against the Law, could come to justice and be restored after breaking the commandment. When you've sinned against this commandment and you realize your guilt,” you first “shall restore it in full,” what you've taken. Second, you “shall add a fifth to it, and give it to whom it belongs.” Third, you're to do that “on the day [you] realize [your] guilt,” not lazily later on (Leviticus 6:5). And fourth, you “shall bring to the priest, as [your] compensation to the LORD, a ram without blemish out of the flock, or its equivalent, for a guilt offering; and the priest shall make atonement for [you] before the LORD, and [you] shall be forgiven for any of the things that one may do and thereby become guilty” (Leviticus 6:6-7). So that's full restitution, added reparation, prompt delivery, and atonement to God. The only trouble here is that under the old covenant, “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats” and rams “to take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4). They could only “sanctify for the purification of the flesh” (Hebrews 9:13), but had no ability to truly take the works of death (like theft) off your conscience (cf. Hebrews 9:14).

So let me turn your attention now to One who can. Existing in God's very own essential form, Jesus Christ did not think that equality with God meant an act of robbery, nor was it something to be grabbed at (Philippians 2:6) – and so he emptied himself, descended to our world of flesh and blood, and gave himself away. His ministry set him in direct opposition to Satan, the Cosmic Thief who “comes only to steal and kill and destroy” (John 10:10), and to Satan's many misleading minions who seduced the world before Jesus came: “All who came before me,” he said, “are thieves and robbers” (John 10:8). For it was because of Satan that, in Jesus' day as before the exile, God's own Temple had been turned into “a den of robbers” (Mark 11:17; cf. Jeremiah 7:11).

Jesus preached against stealing. He listed “theft” among things that “defile a person” (Matthew 15:19-20). He said that keeping this commandment, “You shall not steal,” was one of the prerequisites for “entering life” (Matthew 19:17-18). And he called thieves – tax collectors like Matthew, or even the Zacchaeus who declared, “Behold, Lord, half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold!” (Luke 19:8). Jesus said that such restitution and reparation was the stuff of salvation (Luke 19:9).

Jesus did not resist Judas, though Judas was a thief who routinely embezzled from Jesus and the other apostles (John 12:6). Instead, Jesus waited until Judas' theft grew to Judas' selling Jesus out for silver. Jesus suffered his clothes to be confiscated and divided by Roman soldiers, who gambled to see who'd steal Jesus' seamless tunic (John 19:23-24). And Jesus was crucified in place of the thief Barabbas, between two other robbers (Mark 15:27), one of whom repented in faith, knowing he was in no position to repay anything, hoping only for mercy in Jesus' kingdom (Luke 23:40-42). Jesus' death was a perfect sacrifice of atonement to God, doing everything the rams couldn't. “A death has occurred,” we're told, “that redeems [people even] from the transgressions committed under the first covenant” (Hebrews 9:15). Atonement has been made, enough for every theft.

Then Jesus descended to the realm of the dead, to the 'house' where Death had stolen and hoarded the souls of God's image-bearers – and what did he do there? Jesus conducted a divine police raid to recover what had been stolen! Rising from the dead, Jesus proved himself the rightful Heir and Owner of eternal life – he's entitled to it! And he bade all thieves to exchange their old dead ways for productivity making the world a better, fairer place: “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need” (Ephesians 4:28) – but more on that in the weeks ahead.

We know, even from pagan testimony, that part of early Christian worship each week involved Christians getting together in the morning “to sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit theft, robbery, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a deposit when called upon to do so.”11 Yes, the church first following Jesus took this commandment so seriously that, when they celebrated their sacrament, even outsiders could understand it was an oath to never steal, to never keep what was borrowed when asked to return it, to never be faithless stewards. Can the world tell from our worship that we take this commandment so seriously?

I hope they can. Thanks be to God through our Lord Jesus Christ, who triumphed over the Cosmic Thief and all thievery, who reclaimed us as his rightful crown jewels back from the House of the Thief, who brought that house down on the devil's head and is consuming him in it; who doles out unearned treasures of grace to the penitent who ask only mercy in the kingdom, who builds us up into a beautiful house with nothing stolen there, and who welcomes us to live his honest life as our own – it's his entitlement, he shares it with whom he pleases. Glory to the God who redeems thieves! Amen.