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.

1  William F. Heil, letter to Charles R. Lichte (his other son-in-law), 12 March 1926, in W. F. Heil Papers, Evangelical Congregational Church Archives.

2  Robert S. Wilson, letter to Bishop Albert W. Cooper, 15 February 1945, in R. S. Wilson Papers, Evangelical Congregational Church Archives.

3  Lloyd Morey, et al., Reports and Recommendations to Illinois Budgetary Commission with Respect to Investigation on Behalf of the Commission as to Operations of the Auditor's Office under Orville E. Hodge (Illinois Budgetary Commission, 1956), 2-5.

4  Quoted in “Hintz's Story of Scandal,” Chicago Daily Tribune 115/169 (16 July 1956): 2

5  Karl Marx, “Private Property and Communism” (1844), in John Raines, ed., Marx on Religion (Temple University P., 2002), 130.

6  Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto (1848), in Robert C. Tucker, ed., The Marx-Engels Reader, 2nd ed. (W. W. Norton, 1978 [1972]), 484.

7  Richard Tudor, The Decalogue Viewed as the Christian's Law (Macmillan and Co., 1860), 494.

8  Richard Barnes, Property Rights and Natural Resources (Hart Publishing, 2009), 61.

9  Philo of Alexandria, On the Decalogue §136

10  Pseudo-Phocylides, Sentences §§135-136

11  Pliny the Younger (Roman governor of Bithynia), Letters 10.96

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