Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money[a] to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
-from the Gospel of Mark, chapter 10
I’m not sure how old I was, exactly, when I tried my hand at shoplifting. I was old enough to know better, certainly.
I was curious, though! There was a display of five-cent candy at the grocery store, an entire tower packed with kinds of candy I had never tried before. Chief among them, as I would rank temptations, was this cellophane-wrapped square colored like a box of neapolitan ice cream.
Is that actually a piece of candy with three different flavors? Does it taste like ice cream? I wondered about it every time I walked past. So, one day, I waited until my mom wasn’t looking, and I pocketed a piece.
I was an inept little burglar, and my sin soon found me out. I don’t remember if we went back to the store, or if I wrote a letter to the manager, or what. I just remember my dad asking me to read You shall not steal out of the Bible, out loud, and me sobbing melodramatically through that as though I had just been found guilty of murder.
It seems like a wild comparison, between stealing a piece of nickel candy and killing someone. Here in Ohio, you might manage to get eleven years in prison if you steal something huge. Murder a person, on the other hand, and if Governor Kasich manages to find a way to legally kill you in return, you may end up dead yourself.
If you look at the Ten Commandments, though, you’ll find that the distinction is not so clear. Don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal. Stealing doesn’t merit the death penalty, like murder does, but still: if it’s in the Ten Commandments, then we can safely assume that it’s important.
Think about the number of things that would fall under the heading of theft. First, there’s the obvious stealing, such as when you treat a candy display as a self-serve stack of freebies. If you were to break into our house while I’m eating pancakes after Sunday School, and you were to walk back out of our house with Craig’s snare drum: that’s stealing. You would have stolen a snare drum.
We know that, right? I mean, we are people of reasonable intelligence and spiritual acuity. We know that taking other people’s stuff is wrong.
I want to get you thinking a bit, though, about the less obvious ways of violating this commandment.
For starters, the word for “steal,” in the Hebrew, could also be used specifically for kidnapping. That’s stealing a whole person, right? So if you break into my house and stuff Craig’s snare drum into your trunk, that’s theft… but so is stuffing Craig himself in your trunk. That would be stealing an entire person.
Here’s another example of stealing, as the Old Testament law defines it: you are a thief if you let your animals graze on your neighbor’s land without permission. That grass wasn’t yours, after all. Maybe your neighbor was about to get some sheep, and that was going to be their brunch! You’ll have to make restitution.
Or, how about this one? If you find something that was lost, and you keep it, you’re a thief. Biblical ethics don’t leave room for playing “finders keepers.” So, if your neighbor’s sheep wanders into your yard, you’re obligated to go take it back. The same is true for clothing; if you find your neighbor’s coat, you have to give it back, even if it’s super cute and exactly your size.
If you hire a worker, and fail to pay him or her at the end of the day, you’re a thief. You can’t hold the day’s wages over until the morning. If you wanted to take this really literally, you’d have to figure that every business that issues paychecks twice a month is in violation, but I think that misses the spirit of the rule: you don’t get to jerk your employees around. You can’t say “maybe I’ll pay you and maybe I won’t” after the work has already been done.
Along the same lines: one way to commit theft, according to Old Testament law, was to withhold tithes. The reasoning, here, is that the priests in the temple relied on the tithes to live- that was their income. Refusing to pay the tithe was akin to stealing the priests’ paychecks.
One more: withholding charity was considered as a form of stealing. The Israelites were commanded to care for the poor, the immigrants, and the widows and orphans. I know you’ve heard me mention this example before, but when harvesting a field, they were told not to harvest all the way out to the edges of the field. The gleanings were to be left for the poor. If God has given those scraps to the poor, then it would be stealing for you to take them back, even though you were the one who planted the field to begin with.
I want to emphasize, here, that while I am in fact a rather liberal person, this is not a liberal reading of the text. I’m just telling you what the rules are.
Think about the implications of this. Think about how our lives will need to shift, as we live into this vision of the Kingdom of God.
Think about the migrant workers in Mexico who pick our tomatoes, who have their wages withheld until the end of the harvesting season so that they can’t leave the work camp. That’s theft, even if they do eventually get paid, because withholding the wage in the first place is theft. Think about what your tomatoes are going to cost, if they aren’t picked by people working for subsistence wages who aren’t allowed to walk away from the job.
While we’re on that topic, think about the ways in which our supply chains are infested with the byproducts of kidnapping, via the contemporary slave trade. Slaves harvest sugar in the Dominican Republic. Slaves are sent out fishing in Thailand. Child slaves work the cocoa fields in the Ivory Coast. Entire people are stolen so that I can have cheap chocolate bars.
In a particularly grotesque turn, Angolan slaves mine the diamonds that we use to express love and commitment. I don’t have a diamond ring, so I’d like to feel self-righteous about that one, but Congolese slaves mine the minerals that make my cell phone work. And every day, thousands of children in India are sent into mines to bring out mica, so that women like me can have sparklier faces. Forgoing the diamond ring hasn’t kept me out of the system.
And lest you think that all of this just happens overseas, somewhere, let me burst that bubble for you. The 13th amendment to the constitution, the one banning slavery, did not put a complete end to stealing other people’s labor in our country. It just changed the size and shape of the practice.
All of this is theft, Friends. We are not allowed to kidnap people. We are not allowed to withhold pay for honest work. We are not allowed to keep something that is not rightfully ours- which is precisely what we are doing, when we purchase products created by slaves, since the labor itself was stolen.
And goodness, that’s only looking at the sins of commission. What about the sins of ommission, the ones where I mess it up by doing nothing at all? Frankly, I’d rather you didn’t go through my checkbook, trying to total up the number of times that I’ve chosen not to extend charity when I could have. I suspect you’d rather me not do that to you, either.
Or perhaps it is a sin of commission, in the Biblical sense. Let me phrase that differently: how many times have I harvested the corners of my field? How many times have you? How many times have we taken whatever was within reach, because it was at least plausibly ours?
We’re all implicated, friends. What do we do?
So. Having thought about all of the ways that we are implicated by you shall not steal, having spent some time examining the guilt on our own hands, I think we are properly prepared to approach the story of the rich young ruler with compassion.
It’s easy to judge him, you know. It’s easy to say, incredulously, Jesus told him exactly what he needed to do, and he walked away?!?!? It’s easy to stand aghast at the precision with which the rich man misses the point.
I want you to hold open the possibility, Friends, that we are all missing the point.
So. Jesus was setting out on a journey, when a man ran up to him with a question. “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus recited some commandments, and the man said that he had kept them all. End of story, right? I mean, if the man has kept all the commandments perfectly, then what is he worried about?
Jesus didn’t just ask the rich man if he had avoided stealing. Rather, he sharpened it a bit, adding in the more pointed do not defraud.
David Henson writes that stealing, here, “refers to the intentional holding back of wages for labor. It means not paying workers in full, or perhaps, fraudulently underpaying workers in ways that kept the workers poor.”
The rich man says that he has followed all the commandments, including this one, and Jesus sees through the ruse.
Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
Listen to that. Jesus, looking at him, loved him. This is no condemning social justice rant (like the one I just gave you), from Jesus. He looked at this dirty thief, saw his sin, and loved him just the same.
You know how we say that nothing will ever separate us from the love of God? This is one of those times when it particularly matters.
And yet, a surgeon loves by slicing. And yet, our Savior loves by identifying the sin that is destroying us. This is the way that love will work, if we let it.
Jesus said, to this man who was accustomed to stealing: practice generosity. That’s your path into the Kingdom of God. Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.
Go stare down the dragon that lives inside you, hoarding gold, and then come and follow Jesus. Go give it away. Go, and be generous with it.
Just open up your hands and give it away.
The Bible doesn’t record what the rich man did, after he walked away in shock and grief. I like to think that he thought it over and came around, but who knows? Jesus opened up the possibility of repentance for him, though. I hope he eventually walked through that door.
Look, though. This isn’t about that particular rich man. This is about us, here in this room, who from the perspective of the rest of the planet are unimaginably wealthy. We are the rich man, in this story, faced with the opportunity to repent and turn our lives upside down. How do we give up our stealing ways?
I don’t think we can do it by just deciding not to steal. If we try to combat the urge to steal by keeping our hands in our pockets, we will fail. Something will come up, something important (doesn’t really matter what it is), and we’ll decide that just this once we can take our stealing hands back out. Just this once will become just this twice, or three times, and pretty soon we’ll be right back in the old habits.
What we can do, though, is give it away. What we can do is practice generosity. That’s what Jesus asked the rich defrauder to do: Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor. It’s hard to cramp your hand tight around what you wish to keep, when you are in the habit of opening your hand to give it away.
So, Friends, let’s do it. What do you have that you don’t need? What do you have that someone else could use? What could you give away?
(If you’d like to know how many slaves are working for you, take the quiz.)