July 24, 2022 . . “Back to the basics: You shall not steal” Exodus 20:15

July 24, 2022 . . “Back to the basics: You shall not steal” Exodus 20:15

July 24, 2022

“Back to the basics: You shall not steal”

Exodus 20:15

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus.

One hundred and forty years ago, back in 1882, thirty-five year-old Emanuel Ninger came to America, to Westfield, New Jersey, where he and his wife, Adele, bought a farm. But after living there for a few months, he started to run out of cash.

Now I’m not sure what you would do if you ran out of cash, but Ninger, being the artist that he was, started to make his own!

First, he got the best paper he could find. And though he couldn’t get his hands on the exact same silk-fibered paper made especially for the U.S. government, he went to the same manufacturer, Crane and Company, and bought their very best bond. Then he cut the paper to fit the size of the notes he was counterfeiting and soaked the blank rectangles in weak coffee for about an hour. And while they were still wet, he traced every figure, every line and every letter with a hard lead pencil, then he went over the tracings with pen and ink. Then he used a camel’s hair brush to imitate the red and blue silk threads.

Finally one day in 1887, he entered a small, neighborhood grocery store to buy some turnip greens and handed the clerk a $20 bill. But back in the day, it wasn’t easy to find change for twenty-five cents worth of greens.

And as the clerk rummaged through her drawer looking for change, she was shocked to find ink on her fingers. Surely he wouldn’t give her a bill that wasn’t genuine! So she shrugged off her suspicions and handed the man his change…

…Until she had second thoughts. After all, twenty dollars was two weeks’ salary back in 1887. Reluctantly, she called the police.

But who was he? And where did he come from? No one knew for sure.

Then a few years later, when he tried to pass a fifty-dollar note to a bartender in New York, the law finally caught up with him. When the Secret Service arrested him, they said his operation was one of the simplest, yet most dangerous counterfeits they had ever seen.

He would spend the next six years in prison.

But strangely, when they confiscated his property, they also seized three portraits that he had painted, which they sold, at auction, for $16,000!

If only he had stuck to painting pictures rather than dollar bills!

God, in His Word, has something to say about stealing, especially in the seventh commandment. I’ll read the words of Exodus chapter 20: “And God spoke all these words, saying, ‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth….You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain…Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy…Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal” (Exodus 20:1-4, 7-8, 12-15).

It’s good that we take a moment to get back to the basics and study God’s Ten Commandments, for as Luther wrote: “Though I am a doctor and a preacher…yet I do as a child who is being taught the Catechism, and every morning, and whenever I have time, I read and say, word for word, the Ten Commandments, the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer.” And he wrote, “For it needs must be that whoever knows the Ten Commandments perfectly must know all the Scriptures, so that…he is qualified to sit in judgment upon all doctrines, estates, spirits, laws and whatever else is in the world.”

So today, we turn our thoughts to the seventh commandment, “You shall not steal.”

Luther wrote in the words of his Small Catechism: “Thou shalt not steal. What does this mean? We should fear and love God that we may not take our neighbor’s money or goods, nor get them by false ware or dealing, but help him to improve and protect his property and business.”

And he wrote in the words of his Large Catechism: “To steal is nothing else than to get possession of another’s property wrongfully. This is indeed quite a wide-spread and common vice…so that if all who are thieves were to be hanged on gallows, there would be a lack both of executioners and gallows.” And he wrote, “He who now wantonly despises this command may indeed escape the hangman, but he shall not escape the wrath and punishment of God.”

It’s easy to say that this commandment, “Thou shall not steal” is part of just about every ancient legal code. For example, eighteen hundred years before Christ, the Code of Hammurabi included punishments for thefts of all kinds--steal something from your neighbor, repay him tenfold for it. Steal something from the gods or the government, repay thirty-fold for it. Steal someone’s child--that was punishable by death!

And what an important command this is! Without it, society can neither function, nor even exist! For if you feel free to claim what is someone else’s, and if someone else feels free to claim what is yours, you will be enemies, constantly eyeing each other with suspicion, just waiting for your chance to steal again.

No family, no city and no country can long survive without the seventh commandment--”You shall not steal.”

But in our world, it’s just not that way today! Every single day brings new stories about car theft, white-collar theft, armed robbery, muggings, insurance fraud, income tax evasion, breaking and entering, insider trading, embezzlement, scamming, online cyber theft, employee theft, pyramid get-rich-quick schemes, extortion, blackmail, bribery, and all the rest of the sophisticated means people use to rip each other off.

And it’s more than just random burglary. Today, there’s the growing problem of shoplifting, what’s called the “five-finger discount.” According to a group called “Loss Prevention Media,” approximately one out of every eleven people in the United States have shoplifted, a fourth of which are children! Eighty-nine percent of children know other children who shoplift. And for every forty-eight times that shoplifters steal, they’re caught only once. Then only half of them are ever turned over to the police for prosecution.

And what do they steal? Women’s clothes, makeup, perfume and fashion accessories, video games, laptops and TVs, even alcohol, meat and cheese. Retailers estimate that the cost of shoplifting here in our United States is as much as $38,000 a minute, $2.3 million dollars an hour and $55 million dollars every day!

No wonder we see merchandise locked up behind glass cabinets, security cameras covering every inch of the store, bars on doors and windows, motion detectors, bells that ring when you enter a store and leave a store, gas stations that put their restroom key on a chain and motels that bolt your lamp down to the bedside table.

And if that’s not enough, a third of students said they would plagiarize to pass a test and half of adults would inflate an insurance claim. And when asked if they’d commit a crime for $10 million if they thought they could get away with it, one out of four people said, “Why not?”

Have you ever seen this picture by artist Leslie Thrasher, (not Norman Rockwell!), of a woman buying a fresh chicken from a butcher? While neither the woman nor the butcher would ever rob a bank or steal a car, neither one saw anything wrong with a little extra push on the scale--thieves just the same.

Or think of a little girl who was asked what her mother’s name was before she was married. The girl answered, “I’m not sure, but I think it was Marriott. At least that’s what it says on all of her towels.”

No one trusts anyone in America today. As one author put it, we’ve become “the land of the freebie and the home of the burglar.”

Now when we hear these words, we tend to think, “Right on, Pastor! Isn’t it terrible to hear what’s happening today? I sure am glad that none of it applies to me!”

But if truth be known, even the most pious churchgoer can become a thief.

What’s the most precious commodity in the world? While you might say it’s gold or silver or stocks and bonds, the real answer is time. It’s the only truly non-renewable resource. Once it’s gone, it can never be reclaimed, recycled or repeated. Time flies. And when enough time has passed, we too will be gone.

Who are “time thieves”? They’re the ones who show up late for an appointment, who never get to work on time, who leave early for lunch, who take extra-long breaks, and who watch the clock instead of the job.

We’ve become a nation of time thieves. And while we routinely promise to be somewhere at a certain time, we’re late for appointments, late for meetings and late to keep our promises. And no matter how much double-time we try to make up tomorrow, we’ll never make up for what we’ve lost today.

And not only are we “time-thieves,” we’re “gossip-thieves,” who steal the good name of someone else. “Did you hear the latest?” “Did you know that so-and-so are splitting up?” “I’m glad she lost her job. It’s about time she learned some humility!”

Shakespeare said in the words of Othello: “Who steals my purse, steals trash; ‘tis something, nothing; ‘Twas mine, ‘tis his and has been slave to thousands; But he that filches from me my good name Robs me of that which not enriches him, and makes me poor indeed.”

Here’s a test--go to three of your closest friends and ask them, “Do you think I have a tendency to gossip?” You might be surprised at the answers you get!

And who’s the worst thief of all? Not the time thief or the gossip thief. It’s the one who robs God!

The prophet Malachi wrote in his book: “Will a man rob God? Yet you rob me. But you ask, ‘How do we rob You?’ In tithes and offerings. You are under a curse--the whole nation of you--because you are robbing Me. Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in My house. ‘Test me in this,’ says the Lord Almighty, ‘and see if I will not open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much that you will not have room enough for it’” (Malachi 3:8-10).

A God-robber is one who refuses to give God what belongs to Him. He’s the one who knows God and realizes that his blessings come from God, still he refuses to give to God.

Yet God says, “Put Me to the test and watch what happens!”

So what hope is there for us thieves? Can we be saved?

I know a thief who was! In fact, the very last person Jesus forgave was a thief. Even while He hung on the cross, He said to a thief hanging at His side, “Today, you will be with Me in paradise.”

“Today,” Jesus said - instant salvation.

“You” - personal salvation.

“Will be” - certain salvation.

“With Me” - intimate salvation.

“In paradise” - heavenly salvation.

Can a thief be saved? Absolutely! After all, that’s what it says in Isaiah 53: “He willingly gave His life, and was numbered with evil men. He took the place of many sinners and prayed that they, (that we), might be forgiven” (Isaiah 53:12).

It’s an old story, maybe you’ve heard it before, about two brothers who were convicted of stealing sheep. So they were branded on their foreheads with the letters “ST,” “sheep thief.”

And while one couldn’t bear the stigma, became bitter and moved away, the other said, “I can’t run from what I did, so I’ll stay and try to win back the respect of my neighbors and myself.”

As time passed, he built a solid reputation for himself of kindness and integrity until, one day, a stranger saw him, now an old man, with those two letters on his forehead. When he asked a local villager what it meant, he said, “I’ve forgotten the particulars, but I think they’re an abbreviation for “saint.”

In the words of a poem: “Once I was foolish and sin ruled my heart, Causing my footsteps from God to depart; Jesus has found me, happy my case--I now am a sinner saved by grace!”

Forgive our complacency, dear Father, and have mercy on us. Gather us in Your arms that we may find, in You, full forgiveness, grace and peace, for Jesus’ sake. Amen