Monday of Holy Week, 29 March 2021
A Sermon on Exodus 20:15 by Samuel D. Zumwalt, STS
Exodus 20:15 English Standard Version Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles
15 “You shall not steal.”
The Seventh Commandment (from Martin Luther’s Small Catechism)
You shall not steal.
What does this mean?
We should fear and love God so that we do not take our neighbor’s money or possessions, or get them in any dishonest way, but help him to improve and protect his possessions and income.
THE SEVENTH COMMANDMENT
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
In his Large Catechism, Martin Luther writes: “Stealing is a widespread, common vice, but people pay so little attention to it that the matter is entirely out of hand. If all who are thieves, though they are unwilling to admit it, were hanged on the gallows, the world would soon be empty, and there would be a shortage of both hangmen and gallows.” He continues, “… a person steals not only when he robs a man’s strongbox or his pocket, but also when he takes advantage of his neighbor… wherever business is transacted and money is exchanged for goods or labor” (Tappert, 395:224).
The seventh commandment gets at the heart both of how we acquire earthly stuff and how we regard what belongs to our neighbor. When we do not provide an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay, we are thieves. When we charge more than we should for goods delivered or services rendered, when we do shoddy work, and when we fail to give what the neighbor rightly deserves for his labors or her work, we are thieves. Luther accuses big shot business guys as well as what we would call shoplifters of thievery. Those in government who tax and spend what is not theirs are thieves. Those who steal an inheritance through taxing or through deceptive business deals are thieves. Luther even accuses church officials in Rome of being thieves.
Luther warns that God hears the cries of the poor, who have been treated unjustly, and says that God will punish one thief by means of another. He writes: “In short, however much you steal, depend on it that just as much will be stolen from you” (398:245).
How, then, should we love and serve our neighbor? Luther writes: “On one hand, we are forbidden to do our neighbor any injury or wrong in any way imaginable, whether by damaging, withholding, or interfering with his possessions and property. We are not even to consent to or permit such a thing, but are rather to avert and prevent it. On the other hand, we are commanded to promote and further our neighbor’s interest, and when he suffers want we are to help, share, and lend to both friends and foes” (399:251).
Of course, it’s much easier to see the thievery of our neighbor than to look at our own. Isn’t it?
In the daily lectionary reading for this Monday of Holy Week, John writes that the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death also, because on account of him many of the people were going away and believing in Jesus. Of what were they so afraid? We know. Don’t we?
These were the religious leaders in Jerusalem, who were afraid of losing their power, privilege, and wealth. Think of them as you would of those who have spent a lifetime governing in Washington D.C., in Raleigh, or locally. Think of those who have served as church bureaucrats for years and years. Many, having served most of their entire adult lives in leadership, begin to think that the people exist to serve them rather than they the people. The ruling class live in such bubbles, going to the same schools, vacationing in the same places, reading the same books, and sharing the same ideas and so-called values, they cannot help but be patronizing to the little people who are not like them. Blind to self-justifying ways, they cannot possibly be thieves.
So, fearful that the Romans would take away all they held dear and with 85% of the economy temple-based, the chief priests, the theological experts, and the wealthy in the Sanhedrin did not want a friend in Jesus. Gladly and with no little doubt that they were right by virtue of who and what they were, they told themselves Jesus was a thief. And, in one sense, they were right.
When Jesus stands next to us as the perfect Man, what we were created to be before sin, then His Father sees us clearly for what we are and are not. Believing ourselves to be the center of things, we do not think of ourselves as thieves, who take more than we give and who do not give as we ought. Comparing ourselves to those who have more, we never think of ourselves as thieves. Just think of those who enjoy power and privilege in government but cannot admit they are thieves, persons like Schumer and McConnell, like Pelosi and Romney. Should any of us become a Bezos, a Zuckerberg, a Gates, a Dorsey, a Buffett, or Pichai, would any of us think of him- or herself as a thief? Oh, no, no, no. The bottom feeders of this world are just cleverer. Aren’t they?
But the truth about the rich and powerful, the poor and powerless, and everyone in between is inescapable. All of us will die, sooner or later. The longer we live everything will be taken from us: first youth, then loved ones, then health, then work, and finally everything else we have.
Do remember this week that it was a thief on a cross next to Jesus who, only then, saw clearly what he was and who Jesus is, the Friend of sinners. Admitting we always come empty-handed to Jesus, we are all beggars before Him. How, then, can we ever again justify any kind of theft?
In the name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
©Samuel David Zumwalt, STS
St. Matthew’s Evangelical Lutheran Church
Wilmington, North Carolina USA