Stop! Thief!

Series: Preacher: Date: January 16, 2000 Scripture Reference: Exodus 20:15;

15 – You shall not steal.

One of Sue’s favorite illustrators has always been Norman Rockwell. So, when I got married I not only received the most wonderful girl in the world as a helpmate…I also got several boxes of Rockwell paraphernalia in the bargain, including several SATURDAY EVENING POST covers, copies of his prints, and several books that contain collections of his work. In fact, our first set of water glasses were NORMAN ROCKWELL glasses that she had collected at ARBY’s.

Over the years I have come to share her love of his illustrations and if you’re a fan as well, then you may remember one of Rockwell’s paintings that dealt with this particular commandment. The picture I’m referring to shows a woman buying a fresh turkey for Thanksgiving. The bird is lying on the scales and the butcher is standing in back of the counter…apron pulled tight over his fat stomach…pencil tucked behind his ear. The customer, a lady looking to be about 60 years young, stands watching the weighing in of the big bird. In the picture, both the lady and the butcher have pleased looks on their faces…as if each knew a secret joke.

Now, to see the reason for their knowing smiles you have to look closely at their hands. For, the butcher is pushing DOWN on the scales with a big fat thumb and the woman is pushing UP on the other side with a dainty forefinger. Neither is aware of what the other was doing so both apparently think they are getting the best of the other….STEALING without the other even knowing. I don’t remember the caption but I suppose it could be something like: “The case of the butcher’s THUMB and the lady’s FOREFINGER” But, whatever it’s title, it does serve to illustrate our attitude toward the 8th commandment.

You see, both the butcher and the lady would resent being called thieves. The lady would never rob a bank or steal a car and if the butcher had a customer to give him a bad check, he would call the police and report a crime. But neither saw anything wrong with a little “finger or thumb deception” that would make a few cents for one or save a few cents for the other. And we are much like these two. We agree that this is a good commandment but we don’t think it really applies to us. After all we are not THIEVES!

This reminds me of a story of a young pastor whose first church was in a small logging community in the Pacific Northwest. The local logging mill was the little community’s biggest employer and it had fierce competition with another mill that was just upstream. One day, the pastor climbed up the slope overlooking the river and the mill. To his horror, he saw some of his church members pulling logs from the river that were branded by the other mill. They were cutting off the branded ends, and running them through their own mill.

That Sunday, he preached a powerful sermon entitled, “Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbor’s Property.” After the service, all the loggers shook his hand, patted his back and told him how much they enjoyed his preaching. However, the next week, he saw that they were back in the business of stealing their competitor’s logs. So he fired off another scorching sermon which he titled, “Thou Shalt Not Steal.” Again, he was commended for his powerful delivery and his keen insights into Scripture. But on Monday the other mill’s logs were still being swiped. Enough was enough, he thought. This time he decided not to hold anything back. The next Sunday he pulled out all the stops and preached a sermon entitled, “Thou Shalt Not Cut the Branded Ends Off Someone Else’s Logs.” Well, that one obviously connected because he was run out of town the next day. I guess his parishioners felt he had “quit preaching and gone to meddling!” They believed that what they were doing was not really wrong and many people in our culture are much like those loggers.

They believe that stealing is wrong but what they do is not REALLY stealing. Well what about you and me? Are we guilty of breaking this law? Are we thieves?

To answer those questions let’s look closely at the meaning of the word. What exactly is STEALING? Webster defines it like this: “Stealing is: taking another’s property dishonestly.”

Well, that sounds pretty good. I think all of us would concur that dishonestly taking another individual’s property IS wrong. But let’s dig a little deeper into our understanding of this sin by looking at the different types of theft. You see in our society we have learned to steal in many different ways-some big, some not so big…some subtle….some not so subtle. In fact, I think you could classify the sin of stealing in four ways….

1. First of all there is what we might call…BASIC THEFT.

This form of stealing can come in many varieties…but basically it is physically taking something that doesn’t belong to you. There are stories in the paper every day about people who are guilty of this classification of theft. This week’s GAZETTE told of three bank robberies in our area…one that occurred at the Union Bank at Leisure world. And there was another story of the police’s search for an individual who pried open a car wash computer in our area and removed the coins people had paid to clean their autos. There was a third article about a thief whom you might refer to as “the ham burgler” because he walked into a grocery store and stole five packages of ground beef. I understand the Jeff and Toni Heckler’s car was stolen recently, right out of the Metro Parking Lot. These are examples of what you might call BASIC THEFT….physically taking some thing that doesn’t belong to you.

When I was about Sarah’s age, my brother Jon and I had a big paper route that we shared. And with the proceeds of our routes we purchased brand new bikes. It was the first time I had owned a new bike. All my others had been hand-me-downs from deacon’s kids! Our new bikes were beautiful: metallic red with long metallic sliver banana seats and they were specially equipped with big wire baskets on either side of the rear wheel to carry newspapers. Not long after we brought them home from the store they were stolen from our front yard and eventually we found them in a creek not far from our house. I remember the anger I felt!

Many of you can empathize because you have had things stolen whether it be a bike or a car, a purse or a car stereo. And when we read the paper or hear stories of theft victims like myself or the Hecklers we once again agree that this is a good law….stealing is wrong…but we don’t think of ourselves as thieves. But before we think ourselves innocent of this first type of stealing let’s consider some other examples. What about those times we stay in a motel and hide the unused shampoo and soap so the maid will leave more and then take those full bottles and unused bars home? That shampoo and soap are not really ours to take so technically that is stealing. Or what about taking a hotel towel? I mean you swim in the pool at the hotel and don’t want to get all your clothes wet so you grab a few towels to wrap your swim suit in.

Well, those towels aren’t our property either so that too is stealing. Hershell Hobbs once shared an old story about a little girl who was asked what her mother’s name was before she was married. The little girl replied, “I’m not sure. But I think it was Mariott. At least that’s what’s written on all her towels.” What about not reporting all our income on tax returns? When you have a yard sale do you remember to include that? Have you ever donated something that was worthless to you and then claimed it as having high value as a tax deduction?

How many of you have pens at home or in your pocket this morning that say “US GOVERNMENT” or “IBM” or “NIST” on it. Wouldn’t these examples be stealing according to this definition? Have you ever returned something to a store and told the clerk that what you bought was broken when it was you who broke it? What about telling your boss you’re sick when you’re not….isn’t asking to be paid for a sick day when you’re not sick the same thing as taking something that is not yours? What about keeping the extra change when a clerk at the store gives you too much. Have you ever copied software illegally and shared it with a friend? Now I know these examples seem harmless and simple…and we might think, “Well, everybody does that.” but aren’t these actions stealing? Well they are because basically, stealing is taking something that is not yours — whether it be big or little.

2. And then there is what you might call SOPHISTICATED STEALING.

This is theft that is more complex. A guy who walks into a bank with a mask on his face and a gun in his hand is called a basic burglar, but the bank employee who steals from his bank is an embezzler. A person who goes to a government facility and steals is called a thief but when a congressman or senator misuses the money of the nation-that is called “misappropriation of funds.” So, this variety of stealing is more complicated than simply physically taking someone’s property. It includes things like “insider trading” and “white collar crime” and “fraud.”

The actions of businesses that take advantage of human weaknesses would fall into this category of theft. I think the liquor industry is a case in point. Now, some would argue that we all benefit from the taxes that the liquor industry pays. And…in one year alone taxes paid by the liquor industry DID amount to 18 billion dollars. But in that same year it cost this nation 43 billion dollars to pay for problems caused by the presence of liquor in our society….that’s a net lost of 28 Billion dollars! And the dollar loss is not as tragic as the knowledge that 205,000 deaths a year are traced to the problem of alcohol consumption. So this industry IS stealing. The owners of these companies are taking things that do not belong to them.

I think the LOTTERY is another example of this kind of theft. Stats show that the poor buy the vast majority of these tickets hoping for a big win that will put them on easy street. And LOTTERY officials and governmental officials of course know this but they still advertise the lottery as a good thing. After all, it provides funds for education and highway upkeep, etc. But basically it is stealing from the poor….

I think ANY business steals if it follows the principle that says, “all’s fair in love and business” and they use that philosophy to squeeze as much profit as possible from their customers — even if it is far more than they deserve. Leviticus 25:14 says, “When you make a sale to your fellow or make a purchase from the hand of your fellow, do not aggrieve one another.” In other words, don’t charge more than something is worth. To do so is a subtle form of theft.

According to the November 10, 1996 issue of the DETROIT NEWS pro basketball player Chris Webber severed ties with NIKE because they refused to lower the price of the basketball shoe that they named after Webber. In the article he was quoted as saying, “How can I charge that price for my shoe when I speak to all those inner city kids and preach to them?” The shoes, priced at $140 actually only cost NIKE $5 to make in foreign manufacturing markets. Webber also said that he, “didn’t like NIKE’s idea to target inner city youths in an attempt to initiate buying trends that could spread to the suburbs.” He felt that the welfare of the children was more important than profit…and to charge this much was in essence “highway robbery.” Another sophisticated form of stealing is when costs are hidden in deceitful but seemingly honest methods such as legal contracts designed to be misleading or adds that are designed to fool the consumer.

A few years ago I came across a Montgomery Ward add that encouraged consumers to buy three tires and get the fourth free! The tires were advertised at about $50 each and I thought that sounded pretty good…$150 for four tires! Well, I needed tires at the time so I gave them a call and I almost fell for it. You see the fourth tire wasn’t really free. It cost the same as the other three. It would have cost me $200 to purchase four. The tire department manager explained the add by saying that the prices were so low in their opinion that they felt it was like getting the fourth tire free. This is a perfect example of why we should heed the phrase…Let the buyer be ware!

So there is basic stealing and sophisticated stealing and then there is a third form of theft. It’s what I would call…

3. …INTANGIBLE stealing…

You see, stealing can also take a NON-material form. We can take things from other people that are intangible but still precious and valuable to that person. A good example of this would be cheating or stealing answers from a classmate — copying answers from another student and claiming those answers as your own. This week I read about a football player who was caught cheating at school. He was sitting next to an honors student — a member of Phi Beta Kappa. The teacher became very suspicious because their answers were very similar. But the thing that proved it to her was when the Phi Beta Kappa answered question #10 by writing, “I don’t know.” and the football player answered #10 by writing, “me neither.”

Another form of intangible theft is plagiarism…or stealing another person’s words without giving them credit. By the way — I used the following books in preparing this morning’s message: William Barclays’ THE TEN COMMANDMENTS FOR TODAY…Cecil Meyer’s THUNDER ON THE MOUNTAIN, Ron Mehl’s THE TENDER COMMANDMENTS, Frank Pollard’s KEEPING FREE, Jerry Vines’ BASIC BIBLE SERMONS ON THE TEN COMMANDMENTS,

and Dr. Laura Schlessinger’s new book entitled, THE TEN COMMANDMENTS!

Another form of intangible theft is when we gossip and spread rumors and in so doing steal the reputation of another person. Often when we are accused of this we say something like, “I didn’t start it; I just passed it on.” Well, do you know what a “fence” is?

This is a person who receives stolen good and sells them to someone else. Under the law, the “fence” is just as guilty as the person who stole the property originally. And when we spread gossip we are just as guilty as the person who got the ball rolling. And we need to understand that gossip IS an intangible form of theft for when you steal a person’s good name, you have stolen just as surely as if you had stolen their automobile and you can get an auto back but many times you can never restore a person’s good name. A man in my father’s church in Delaware was accused of sexually abusing a young girl. He claimed his innocence but the charges stuck and as a result he lost his job. The stress from all this caused him to have a heart attack and lose his health. His own children quit talking to him.

A couple years later it was found out that he was indeed innocent. The little girl’s own father had been the guilty one. This godly man’s life was literally stolen from him. He’ll never get those years back and there are people who will still be suspicious of him all because of the slanderous accusations that were leveled at him. No wonder the first chapter of Romans lists gossip and slander alongside the sin of murder. Another form of intangible theft is when parents steal their children’s innocence by letting them watch movies or play video games in which they see violence or immoral sexual scenes. And then under this category of theft I think we’d also find laziness or not giving an honest days work for an honest day’s pay.

It is estimated that Americans waste more than 20% of the time they spend at work. Our employers pay us to do a job and when we fail to do that job, we are pretty much taking money from their wallets….money that we have not earned….money that is not ours to take. Ephesians 6:5-7 says, “Don’t just do what you have to do to get by, but work heartily, as Christ’s servants, doing what God wants you to do… matter who happens to be giving the orders, you’re really serving God.” (The Message)

Ephesians 4:28 says, “He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his own hands that he may have something to share with those in need.”

But, let’s look even closer at this vice. There is one other aspect to consider — one other way that people break this commandment.

4. You might call it SPIRITUAL theft.

This is when we don’t give God what belongs to Him and surely this is the WORST form of theft.

God gives us spiritual gifts and talents and when we keep them to ourselves and refuse to use them in a local church. When we hide our “light”under a bushel in this way we are stealing from God. Another example of this kind of theft is failing to bring a tithe of our income into the church for God’s use in ministering to a lost world. In Malachi 3:8-10 God says, “Will a man rob God? Yet you rob Me. But you ask, ‘How do we rob You?’ ‘In tithes and offerings…..bring the whole tithe into the storehouse….”

When we don’t give a portion of our money or talents to God in recognition of the fact that all we have is His, we are stealing from the very One in Whose hand is our breath. In I Chronicles 29:11-14 King David prayed to God and said, “Yours, O Lord is the greatness and the power and the glory and the majesty and the splendor, for everything in heaven and earth is Yours….wealth and honor come from You; You are the rule of all things….everything comes from You…” All that we have is from God and to refuse to give a portion of it back to Him in the form of tithes and offerings or our time and talents is theft.

So this commandment covers a lot of ground — everything from basic theft to robbing God Himself. And I don’t know about you but the more I have thought about this commandment the less self-righteous I have felt. I am uncomfortable when I think of the types of THEFT that I justify or think of as harmless. Not only were the butcher and that lady in Rockwell’s print guilty of stealing — I am as well!

Let’s deepen our understanding of this commandment by asking ourselves…WHY is this law such a big deal to God? Why does He want us to obey this 8th commandment?

a. Well perhaps the most obvious reason is that stealing hurts the one who is robbed….

If you have ever had something taken from you then you know how that makes you feel. You feel violated. The actual value of what was stolen doesn’t matter too much in many cases…most “things” are fairly easily replaced. The worst thing is that someone has, in stealing our possessions, also robbed us of a sense of security and the feeling of being safe in our own home.

We feel angry and hurt and even afraid at the thought that someone went into our yard, our garage, our front porch or our pockets and took our possessions. So, one reason this God has given us this prohibition is that stealing hurts the victim. But another reason is that…

b. …stealing also hurts the thief..

When we steal…part of the good that God puts inside of us begins to melt way. Even little acts of theft begin to hurt us and corrupt us. In the Song of Solomon it says, “it is the little foxes that ruin the vineyards.” Stealing thwarts God’s purpose for an individual life, for embracing this act takes away the possibility of happiness and wholeness.

You know the government will probably survive without the few dollars most of us pay in income tax. And the library won’t close because we took one book that didn’t belong to us. The Marriot has lots of towels…they will recover from the few that we “borrow.” But you and I can’t get along very well without our self-respect for when we lose it, something inside of us begins to shrivel up and die. It is just as it says in Scripture: “the wages of sin IS death.” Another thing to consider is that when we steal we become less like God and more like His adversary, Satan.

In John 10 Jesus referred to Satan and said, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I am come that they may have life and have it to the full.” In His parable of the Sower Jesus said that Satan “…comes and takes away the word that was sown…” in people’s hearts. Satan is a THEIF…and when we steal we are conforming more to his image than to that of our Heavenly Father. So God has given us this prohibition against the act of stealing because it hurts both the one who steals and the one who is stolen from.

c. But the main reason God has given us this law is because stealing hurts our relationship with Him.

In these past months we have learned that each of the ten commandments is motivated by God’s deep love for us and this eighth law is no exception. For our obedience to this law reflects the depth of our relationship with God. Ron Mehl writes, “In this law God is saying, ‘I don’t want you stealing because I am your Provider. I want you to understand and believe that I am the One Who will supply all your needs. I don’t want you to feel responsible for securing your own future.” The truth is, every time we steal something-whether large or small-we are saying, “I will be my own provider in this instance. If I don’t take it now, I will be the loser.”

God is against stealing because He wants us to understand that when we place our trust fully in Him, we NEVER lose. Do you remember the words of Paul? In Philippians 4:19 He wrote, “My God will supply all your needs according to His riches in glory.” So, through this commandment God is saying to us, “Let ME provide for you. I want you to trust Me, rest in Me, and be contented with Me.” You probably remember reading the Old Testament account of Joshua and the battle of Jericho.

Well in Joshua 6:17-18, God instructed them about what was to happen after the city fell. He said, “The city and all that is in it are to be devoted to the Lord….Keep away from the devoted things so that you will not bring about your own destruction by taking any of them. Otherwise you will make the camp of Israel liable to destruction and bring trouble on it.” One of the Hebrew soldiers, a man named Achan, deliberately violated this command. In Joshua 7:20-21 He confessed and said, “This is what I have done: When I saw in the plunder a beautiful robe from Babylonia, two hundred shekels of silver and a wedge of gold weighing fifty shekels, I coveted and took them. They are hidden in the ground inside my tent.” Rather than waiting on God to supply his needs, Achan took what did not belong to him and it brought a stinging defeat to the army of Israel at the hands of the people of Ai. Instead of marching across the Promised Land in a great victory tour, the Lord’s army stumbled over the sin of this man. And Achan was stoned for his actions….

You know we often talk of two types of sin: the sin of commission, which is when we do what we know is wrong and the sin of omission, which is when we don’t do what we know is right. And I think you can look at stealing from this perspective. We steal when we TAKE what is not ours AND when we don’t GIVE to God that which we know is His. I Corinthians 6:20 says, “You are not your own….you were bought with a price.”

You may need to respond this morning by committing to GIVE your life to God to follow His will and not your own to truly make Him Lord. God may be leading you to make a public decision of this nature….as you give what He asks. Perhaps He is leading you to Give your talents and time to the ministry of this church by walking forward and moving your letter here. Maybe the Holy Spirit is knocking on your hearts door and you realize your need to GIVE your life to God by accepting Jesus as your Savior and Lord. However you wish to respond, I invite you to do so as we stand and sing.

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