Beyond stealing- Biblical Economics

The Bible has more to say about economics than “Thou shall not steal.” Indeed, the Levitical Holiness Code addresses past oppression, protection for the poor, and justice for foreigners. Friends, Christ calls us to a higher standard of living and doing that enriches and frees us.

 

“8)You shall not steal” Exodus 20

 

In some ways this may be the simplest commandment: do not take what is not yours. End of sermon. If we dig a bit, we might ask… Can we steal a birthright? Can we rob someone’s dignity or take away their pride? Can we steal ideas? What if we inherit ill-gotten gain; when does it become legitimate wealth? Can we rob God, as Malachi says? Can we hijack freedom or take away justice? When we write the rules in our favor is that stealing fairness? If we do nothing to assist those who have the cards stacked against them, can we call that fair? Perhaps economic injustice is more complex than simply who stole what and who holds the title.

 

Moving beyond simplistic thinking – we know that simply because something is legal, does not mean that action is ethical or morally correct. Perhaps preaching on theft, without considering economic justice, may rob the poor.

MLK and Me preaching

“There are two types of laws: there are just laws, and there are unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘An unjust law is no law at all.’ Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine when a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law, or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law…. Any law that uplifts human (dignity) is just. Any law that degrades human (dignity) is unjust….. We can never forget that everything that Hitler did in Germany was ‘Legal’ and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungry was ‘illegal.’ It was ‘illegal’ to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany…” Letter from a Birmingham City Jail, April 1963, by Martin Luther King, written while jailed for parading without a permit.

 

At times we realize unjust laws must be casted aside. We celebrate the destruction of 92,000 pounds of British Cargo, dumped into Boston Harbor at night by a gang of about 60 men disguising themselves as Native Americans. We call this theft of 1.7 million dollars’ worth of East Indian Company tea the Boston Tea Party. We call the perpetrators: Sons of Liberty or patriots not thieves or gangsters.   I am not sure what labels the papers in London used.

 

What does “thou shall not steal mean?” Simple definitions may not address deeper justice issues. Consider the actions of Jesus! Let’s call this Case Study One!

 

“On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple courts and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. And as he taught them, he said, ‘Is it not written: My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations? But you have made it a den of robbers ” (Mark 11:15-17). Or “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” (John 2:16)

 

The buying and selling in the Temple courts was perfectly legal. What Jesus does is illegal by human laws. Jesus flips over tables and dumps cash registers. Mark clearly says Jesus starts the first occupy movement in the temple. He will not permit commerce- Jesus sits down at the lunch counters- he permits no activity.   The laws of Jerusalem allowed buying and selling in the Temple. Jesus found the laws unjust by a higher standard.

 

Scholars tell us that the Temple leaders would not allow Roman coinage into the holy space inside the temple, because Roman coins had an image of Caesar on the coin.   Some Caesars claimed to be God, and most claimed the title Lord! The law said no graven images could be placed before God.   With no Roman coins allowed inside the temple, the religious rulers set up a money exchange. The reason Jesus flipped over the tables is not that they were selling in the temple, but they utilized market forces to determine the costs of sacrificial animals and the exchange rates. They ripped off the pilgrims. They took advantage of the worshippers from Persia, Egypt and others living outside the bounds of the Roman empire Jesus says “for all nations”! They robbed the poor who only could afford doves. The Gospels mention the dove tables as the focus of Jesus’ non-violent resistance. They legally took advantage of the poor by issuing their own temple money, allowing no outside lambs or doves, exchanging money at high rates, and gouging foreign travelers. It was a perfectly legal den of robbers. Jesus shut it down!

 

Theft is not simply stealing other people’s belongings. You can rob people in many ways.

 

Perhaps we might consider a few case studies from the OT law. Now I am not a fundamentalist. I eat shrimp and shave my sideburns. We can learn things from these OT laws without necessarily needing to adopt them as the laws of our land. We do not need to set up a monarchy just because ancient Israel had one! In some of the OT laws we can see God’s moral law at work.

 

Case study two: So imagine that you owned a field of full of plum trees. You planted trees, pruned trees, dug irrigation canals to your trees, and fertilized your trees.   So when the fruit ripens you head out with the harvesters and bring into the barns the first fruits. Another portion of the harvest will be ready in a few days, so you go back into fields and harvest a second time, and then a third. You keep harvesting until you get every plumb from every plumb inch of your orchard. We might call that efficient farming! However the OT Law calls that sin!

 

“When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the Lord your God. Do not steal.” Leviticus 19:9-11

 

Why is it against God’s law to take all of your crops and from your felids? The answer requires spiritually higher thinking. The answer is that poor people need to eat!

 

Theft is not simply stealing other people’s belongings. You can rob people in many ways.

 

Case study three: When I first went to New Chapel UMC in Springfield I had the strangest experience. On the first day in the office, our treasurer Mark handed me my paycheck. I was happy but did not understand, I asked “Why am I getting a check now?” Mark shrugged, “I don’t know, we have been doing this forever, I thought other churches did this too, someone said it may be an Old Testament Law, I am not sure. We have had student pastors who almost did not have enough to eat so it’s good to start off working with a paycheck. If you like I can hold it two weeks.”   Mark paused offering “isn’t that the way grace works? First, God reaches out to us giving us what we have not earned and do not deserve!”

 

Indeed, it is a OT Law! “Do not defraud or rob your neighbor. Do not hold back the wages of a hired worker overnight.” Leviticus 19:13

 

Why do we burden the poor by asking them to loan us two weeks of work before we pay them for what they have done? Should we at least not give them interest for their two-week labor loan?   I am not a fundamentalist, so I am not saying we need to adopt this law today! It is interesting that lots of people are quoting the Levitical Holiness Code these days about matters of human sexuality but rarely mention these rules that protect the poor!

 

Theft is not simply stealing other people’s belongings. You can rob people in many ways.

 

Jesus tells us “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” Matthew 7:12. The wages we pay, the laws we make, the way we vote- are all part of the everything Jesus speaks of. God calls for a higher math- a higher business practice- a higher standard of our living. Friends if we live as if “it is all about the bottom-line”- then have we not made money our god?   Matthew 6:24 tells we cannot serve both God and money. God calls us to a higher economic theory and practice. God calls us to a higher standard of our living than simply not stealing.

 

Now I know some of you are nervous about where I am going with this. I would say do not worry about me, worry about the Holy Spirit nudging you.   However, I am not advocating a certain standard of law or government programing. Those are very complex. I am not endorsing a political party. They all are sinful. I am simply saying a Christian worldview requires our economic theories and practices to offer consideration and compassion for the poor. We must practice a higher economics.

 

The Bible affirms the beauty and human need for work. In Genesis one, God creates the world, resting on the seventh day! In Genesis two, God plants a garden. Jesus was a carpenter and called fishermen and two accountants. Jesus called middle and upper class business leaders to feed the poor and tend the lame. Now, giving a person a job affirms their intrinsic human worth far more than a hand out. “Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody” 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12.

 

It has been my great delight to tour at least three businesses run by our church leaders, and see in their eyes the deep pleasure they get from providing jobs and benefits to their employees.

 

Hear the higher standard in a few more passages.

 

“Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the powerful, but judge your neighbor fairly. …Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor’s life. I am the Lord. When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God. Do not use dishonest standards when measuring length, weight or quantity. Use honest scales and honest weights, I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt.” (Leviticus 19:9-10, 13, 15-16, 33-36)

 

The law has a higher principle. A morality tale weaves through the Law: you were once mistreated do better to others. People stole your labor, Pharaoh enslaved you ,people called you foreigner and made one set of laws for you and others for native-born. Remember and treat everyone with deep human dignity and fairness. Live with higher standards than the bottom line.

 

“If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not treat it like a business deal; charge no interest. If you take your neighbor’s cloak as a pledge, return it by sunset, because that cloak is the only covering your neighbor has. What else can they sleep in? When they cry out to me, I will hear, for I am compassionate” Exodus 22:25-27. This law is bad business practice because it is not all about business. Life must not be just about business. Live with higher standards than the bottom line.

 

“When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” Luke 14:12-14. If we invite over the neighbors hoping they will invite us to their pool that is not compassion but marketing! We invite over Jesus’ family, when we care for the least, lost and the last. That is grace. That is Christian living. That will last into eternity.

 

Friends, all our wealth and all our possessions are going to someone else or returning to the earth. Your wealth may bless you children or curse them! Only things done for God are eternal. There is joy in giving, in seeing a person light up with the presence and hope of Jesus when they are hungry and we feed them, or naked and we clothe them, or a stranger and we welcome them in, or unemployed and we give them work. Indeed, for whatever we do for the least of these Jesus’ brothers and sisters, we do for our Lord. (Matthew 25) Giving expands our worth and connects us right now to the world to come. Let us give to God and neighbor and become rich and truly free.

 

I realize this is pretty radical thinking for a nation that bows at the altars of consumption. These are not obscure passages; compassion for the poor fills the Bible. God says people matter more than money. God says think about the poor in all decisions. God says in everything- do right by others.   Friends, if we do not offer compassion, if we fail to treat others as we long to be treated, if we fail to consider past oppression, or fail to remember our neighbor’s needs, if the bottom line dictates our decisions, then let us never claim we are acting as Christian people, because, dear Friends of Jesus, our God calls us to a higher standard of living and doing. Let us build a just and compassion community on earth as in Heaven! Amen!

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