Father, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be pleasing in your sight. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
I invite you to open your Bibles with me to Exodus, chapter 20. Exodus 20, verse 15. This fall, we are working our way through the Ten Commandments, those ten words the LORD spoke to his people after he led them out of bondage and up to Mount Sinai. We have seen how the Ten Commandments begins with worship, who to worship, how to worship, how to treat God’s name, and how we relate to work and time. We have also seen that the ten commandments roots us in relationship with others: we are called not just to love God, but also to love our neighbor. That includes honoring those placed in authority over us, refraining from murder, and having fidelity in the marriage relationship. This morning we continue to hear how God desires us to love our neighbor through the eighth commandment.
Listen closely and listen well, for these are the very words of God:
You shall not steal.
This is the Word of the LORD. Thanks be to God.
Interesting fact: in the Bible, from the law to the prophets, to the teaching of Jesus, God spends far more time talking about sins related to money and theft than sins related to sex. I do not believe this is because one is more important to God than the other, but because for most of us most of the time, sins of greed are far harder for us to identify.
Some of this is because greed is not always considered a bad thing in our world today. In Michael Douglas’ Oscar-Winning performance as Gordon Gecko in the movie Wall Street, he said in a speech “The point is, ladies and gentlemen, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms, greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge, has marked the upward surge in mankind and greed, you mark my words, will not only save Teldar paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA.”
No wonder it is so hard for us to identify greed and theft! Wall Street was back in 1987, but I don’t think many of us would say that our culture has taken a hard turn away from greed in the last 30 years. The problem with identifying greed – and I’m talking about greed more than theft or stealing, because greed is the underlying heart condition, the underlying sin, that shows up as theft and is being addressed by the command you shall not steal – the problem with identifying greed is that it shows up in so many different ways. The face of the thief is not just the person wearing a ski mask and robbing the gas station.
“Greed is loving money and material possession too much.” (Ockholm 63). Greed cuts across class – rich, poor, middle class. Norman Rockafellar, who was one of the richest men of his age, was once asked how much money is enough. He answered, “Just a little more.” Greed is loving money and material possessions too much. During the sermon this morning, Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, will have made $4.5 million.
“Theft and greed take many forms – the cutthroat competitor, the workaholic, the swindler, the miser, the gambler. Even the frugal person may outwardly look virtuous, but be just as obsessed with money as the spendthrift.” (Ockholm) In order to better see greed for what it is and all the different forms that theft can take, I want us to listen to three different stories that help us see what it looks like to break and keep the eighth commandment.
The first story comes from 2 Kings, chapter 5. It is the story of the healing of Naaman, but I want us to pay particular attention to the character of Elisha and his servant, Gehazi. Listen closely and listen well:
Now Naaman was commander of the army of the king of Aram. He was a great man in the sight of his master and highly regarded, because through him the Lord had given victory to Aram. He was a valiant soldier, but he had leprosy.
Now bands of raiders from Aram had gone out and had taken captive a young girl from Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, “If only my master would see the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.”
Naaman went to his master and told him what the girl from Israel had said. “By all means, go,” the king of Aram replied. “I will send a letter to the king of Israel.” So Naaman left, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold and ten sets of clothing. The letter that he took to the king of Israel read: “With this letter I am sending my servant Naaman to you so that you may cure him of his leprosy.”
As soon as the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his robes and said, “Am I God? Can I kill and bring back to life? Why does this fellow send someone to me to be cured of his leprosy? See how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me!”
When Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his robes, he sent him this message: “Why have you torn your robes? Have the man come to me and he will know that there is a prophet in Israel.” So Naaman went with his horses and chariots and stopped at the door of Elisha’s house. Elisha sent a messenger to say to him, “Go, wash yourself seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will be restored and you will be cleansed.”
But Naaman went away angry and said, “I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy. Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Couldn’t I wash in them and be cleansed?” So he turned and went off in a rage.
Naaman’s servants went to him and said, “My father, if the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more, then, when he tells you, ‘Wash and be cleansed’!” So he went down and dipped himself in the Jordan seven times, as the man of God had told him, and his flesh was restored and became clean like that of a young boy.
Then Naaman and all his attendants went back to the man of God. He stood before him and said, “Now I know that there is no God in all the world except in Israel. So please accept a gift from your servant.”
The prophet answered, “As surely as the Lord lives, whom I serve, I will not accept a thing.” And even though Naaman urged him, he refused.
“If you will not,” said Naaman, “please let me, your servant, be given as much earth as a pair of mules can carry, for your servant will never again make burnt offerings and sacrifices to any other god but the Lord. But may the Lord forgive your servant for this one thing: When my master enters the temple of Rimmon to bow down and he is leaning on my arm and I have to bow there also—when I bow down in the temple of Rimmon, may the Lord forgive your servant for this.”
“Go in peace,” Elisha said.
After Naaman had traveled some distance, Gehazi, the servant of Elisha the man of God, said to himself, “My master was too easy on Naaman, this Aramean, by not accepting from him what he brought. As surely as the Lord lives, I will run after him and get something from him.”
So Gehazi hurried after Naaman. When Naaman saw him running toward him, he got down from the chariot to meet him. “Is everything all right?” he asked.
“Everything is all right,” Gehazi answered. “My master sent me to say, ‘Two young men from the company of the prophets have just come to me from the hill country of Ephraim. Please give them a talent of silver and two sets of clothing.’”
“By all means, take two talents,” said Naaman. He urged Gehazi to accept them, and then tied up the two talents of silver in two bags, with two sets of clothing. He gave them to two of his servants, and they carried them ahead of Gehazi. When Gehazi came to the hill, he took the things from the servants and put them away in the house. He sent the men away and they left.
When he went in and stood before his master, Elisha asked him, “Where have you been, Gehazi?”
“Your servant didn’t go anywhere,” Gehazi answered.
But Elisha said to him, “Was not my spirit with you when the man got down from his chariot to meet you? Is this the time to take money or to accept clothes—or olive groves and vineyards, or flocks and herds, or male and female slaves? Naaman’s leprosy will cling to you and to your descendants forever.” Then Gehazi went from Elisha’s presence and his skin was leprous—it had become as white as snow.
When Naaman finally comes before Elisha, washes, and is healed, Elisha refuses to accept anything from Naaman, even as a gift. Naaman comes with a fortune to offer, but Elisha refuses. Naaman was healed for the glory of the LORD, not for the gain of Elisha. However, Gehazi is different. Notice what shape his greed takes. First, Gehazi thinks that Elisha let Naaman off too easy. There was no cost for Naaman for this gift from God, which is not fair at all. Gehazi wants what Naaman has and finds a way to justify his greed.
Notice how sensible Gehazi is. He is going to Naaman for Naaman’s good. Elisha was too easy on him. If there is no cost, that’s no good for Naaman, so Gehazi is actually doing something good for Naaman by getting something from him. You see how easy he twists selfish desire into something he can think is good. But the greed doesn’t stop there. Next, Gehazi lies. He claims that there are guests in Elisha’s house and that Elisha sent him to provide something for the guests. In gratitude, Naaman offers what Gehazi suggests. Then, knowing what he did was wrong, Gehazi hides what he has stolen. Before Elisha can see him, he puts away the stuff he got from Naaman. Then, Gehazi lies again when confronted. He lies about where he went, but Elisha already knows and pronounces judgment on him. Gehazi is struck with leprosy, he is unclean, but not just any leprosy, the very leprosy of Naaman, from whom he stole.
Gehazi is an example of what greed looks like when we want what belongs to others, when we desire to hoard what was never ours to begin with. Elisha resists the temptation and simply gives glory to God. But in order to get what he wants, to satisfy his greed, Gehazi ends up sacrificing the truth, his integrity, and ultimately pays a steep price. He gains the wealth of Naaman, but also the uncleanness that comes with it.
The first story that helps us see what greed looks like, the heart of what God is saying in You shall not steal, is the story of Gehazi. Sometimes stealing looks like wanting and then taking what belongs to others. Like Gehazi, we can become really good at coming up with reasons to justify it and quickly find ourselves sacrificing our character in other ways to get it.
That’s the first story. The second shows greed and theft in a different form. It’s from Acts, chapter 5. Listen closely:
Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. With his wife’s full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles’ feet.
Then Peter said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied just to human beings but to God.”
When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened. Then some young men came forward, wrapped up his body, and carried him out and buried him.
About three hours later his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. Peter asked her, “Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?”
“Yes,” she said, “that is the price.”
Peter said to her, “How could you conspire to test the Spirit of the Lord? Listen! The feet of the men who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also.”
At that moment she fell down at his feet and died. Then the young men came in and, finding her dead, carried her out and buried her beside her husband. Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.
What does greed look like for Ananias and Sephira? It looks like withholding what you have promised. Not only can theft look like Gehazi, where we take what we shouldn’t, but it can look like Ananias and Sephira, who do not give what they should. This couple sold some property and were going to give the proceeds to the church. They were not required to do so, but it was a generous thing to do, something that would help the church in its ministry to the poor. However, they claimed to give the whole amount to the church, but secretly held some back for themselves. For this, they were judged.
Sometimes greed can look like theft and other times it looks just like miserliness. Sometimes Greed is Gordon Gecko, but some times it is Ebenezer Scrooge. What does Scripture say? “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth” (1 John 3:16-17).
Both Gehazi and Ananias and Sephira break the 8th commandment, but in different ways. Gehazi steals by taking what does not belong to him, but Ananias and Sephira by refusing to share their gifts with others. Both reveal a fundamental insecurity at the heart of greed. There is never enough. I am never enough. So I need more. I either take more, hoard more, or feel unable to give because I fear not having enough.
What we need to quiet the anxiety and fearful taking in our hearts is security and stability. What we need is something that stuff and money, no matter how much, can never offer. What we need is the security that can only be found in Jesus Christ.
Nothing you can do can make God love you less and nothing you can do can make God love you more. Only Jesus Christ, who was born for you, lived for you, died for you, rose for you, and is seated at God’s right hand for you, can make your life secure. “In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.” When we belong to Jesus, our hope, our future, our life, our identity is secure. When this is true, we don’t need to take, take, take, we don’t need to grab and hoard and hold on.
Instead, we can see all that we have as an opportunity to love our neighbors.
This leads us to the last story that illustrates what it means to keep the commandment: You shall not steal. It is a story I may have told before. It comes from Olga’s family. When her brother was young, the family was doing dinner devotions and the passage was the parable of the bigger barns. In the parable, Jesus tells of a man whose barns were full so he built even bigger barns, but that night his life was taken and he was rebuked for what he had done. Olga’s younger brother was confused. It seemed common sense to his young mind: if you have more than your barns can hold, you need more storage space, right? But Olga’s parents turned to him and said something to this effect. If you already have enough, your extra can be given to those in need. If you already have enough, why do you need more? Instead, think of it as a gift that should be used for others.
What do we do with what we have?
Keeping the eighth commandment involves both dealing with our own hearts, finding our true security in Jesus Christ, but also “That I do whatever I can for my neighbor’s good, that I treat others as I would like them to treat me, and that I work faithfully so that I may share with those in need.” (Q111)
Greed and theft takes many different forms. It can look like Gehazi and it can look like Ananias and Sephira. But the solution to greed is to find our security in Jesus Christ and see all that we have, especially when our barns are full, as an opportunity to love and serve our neighbor.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.