Lent IV; March 22, 2020
In 1631 an edition of the King James Version of the Bible was printed in England by the royal printers. Soon thereafter, every copy that could be found was gathered and burned, and the printers were fined the equivalent of what is now about $58,000. The book was later called the Wicked Bible, and since most copies were destroyed, the ones that survived are highly valuable. There are two in the United States: one in New York and one in Houston. What makes this Bible so evil? A misprint. A word was left out of Exodus 20, so the people are commanded: Thou shalt commit adultery.
As if anyone inclined to it needed to be commanded!
I’ve grouped these two commandments together because they both say to me, “Respect other people. Respect their relationships; respect their property rights.” There’s a really strong subtext to both of them, that I think you’ll realize if you think about them a bit: respect yourself.
The commandment against adultery receives a lot of elaboration in the rest of the Law, as Moses helps the people understand what is adultery and what the various punishments for it are. At root is the realization that married people have made a covenant, and it’s good to have enough respect for ourselves and for each other to be faithful to the covenants we have made.
Whenever I work with a couple before marriage, I talk with them about covenants. That’s how we Jesus-types describe a number of our relationships, and primarily our relationship with God. Most of us, once we grow up, find ourselves signing various sorts of contracts. I remember when I bought my first car, when I was 25 years old. There was a lot of paperwork, and I didn’t read all of it before signing it. So afterward, the dealer said to me, “We’ll be over for your furniture on Monday.” When I looked dismayed, he laughed. It was his way of joking that you shouldn’t sign something without reading it first.
Anyway, I was signing a contract, and no, it didn’t include the provision that they could come take my furniture. But it did stipulate that I would pay a certain amount of money every month; if I broke the terms of the contract, they could take my car back. If you break the terms of a contract, the contract is broken. A covenant doesn’t work that way. If you break the terms of a covenant, the covenant is not broken. But it takes repentance and forgiveness and work to maintain a covenant. Married people do fail one another, even if they don’t commit adultery. We do not live up to the vows we made when we were married, but we can continue to honor the covenant with repentance, forgiveness, and dedication.
The commandment encourages us to try to keep our vows, out of respect for the covenant, out of respect for others, and out of respect for our own integrity. Don’t you want to think of yourself as the sort of person who keeps your promises? Without going into it, let me put this bug in your ear: all our covenants, all our vows, all our promises have their origin in one basic covenant: the covenant that God made with us in our baptism. This commandment to remind us to stay true to our promises in marriage and other relationships also reminds us to stay true to our promises to God. Stay faithful to one another; stay faithful to Christ.
But let’s talk about the commandment not to steal, because it also encourages us to respect other people, and particularly their income and their property. A pastor friend was talking about this commandment, and he wondered just how far the commandment goes. Is he stealing if he fails to report all his income from weddings and funerals to the IRS? He thought it probably was. But my friend went even further. He thought that it is stealing if he fails to give others all the praise and credit they deserve. That makes sense to me. God has always been interested in money and property, but has never been interested only in money and property. God is interested in justice, in fair dealing between people. So if you do something good, and I take credit for it, then I am stealing from you.
Our Catechism goes even farther. It tells us to go to work and provide for our well-being, but also to promote the work and well-being of others, and to be generous. This aspect of the commandment is going to be particularly important in our present circumstances. Although all of us are having to deal with some shortages and with the emotional toll of social distancing, some of us are not likely to suffer much economically. Those who have reliable income from a salary, from a pension or from Social Security are relatively secure. But those who rely on income from investments, or those who do hourly work that is threatened, may be hurting real bad, real soon.
My friend who was wondering about the extent of “stealing” had another example. He wondered if he went out and bought himself something he didn’t really need – noise-canceling headphones was the example he used – instead of giving that money to a worthy charity, was that stealing? He thought it probably was. So the commandment not to steal implies that the faithful person of God does not use money for luxuries that could help with a necessity.
One of our elders this week pointed out that it is possible that we will be receiving money from the federal government as a partial stimulus during this crisis. And he asked, “What are you going to do with your $1,000?” A lot of us don’t actually need that money, although we could find it useful. But there are a lot of people in this city who will actually need that money. Servers in restaurants, bartenders, people who work in cinemas, day care providers, and many others suddenly find themselves without income. They need that $1,000; and if the government provides me with $1,000, they will need it more than I will. So those of you who have some knowledge in this area can advise the rest of us what to do with our government check so that it will get to those who really need it. Sure, our net worth has plummeted, as I’m sure has happened to a lot of you, too. But most of you hearing this message, like us, will be able to go on eating, go on staying in out of the rain. God wills that we not use this money for a luxury when someone else may need it for food or shelter.
Another story one of our elders told that helps us see our duty. He was at Foodies, buying takeout, and the man ahead of him bought a $300 gift card. The man said, “I was going to buy this later anyhow, as a Christmas gift for a friend who likes to eat here. But I decided that you probably need the money now.” God not only wills that we give generously, but in times such as these it’s a good idea to do business wherever we can in such a way as to help our neighbors. I always make it a matter of policy to buy whatever I can from a local bricks-and-mortar store rather than from, say, Amazon, because I know that my money is going to wages for people who live in my community, pay taxes to my community.
One more thing and then I’ll stop. “You shall not steal” implies a respect for our relationship with the earth and all its creatures. There was a time in our history when we thought of the Earth as our Mother, and we treated it with respect. Somewhere along the line we began to think of the Earth as a resource to be exploited, and its creatures as sources of income. I do not deny the need for minerals from the earth, or the goods that come from its creatures. Goodness, I love a good steak as much as the next Omahan or a good Iowa chop too. But I affirm that we need a change of thinking toward the earth and its creatures, so that we not only refrain from stealing from Mother Earth but we refrain from stealing from future generations. Whenever we hear about the reluctance of our various levels of government to take seriously the need to address climate change, I want to go to Lincoln or Des Moines or, above all, Washington and wear a tee-shirt that reads, “Senator, I care about your grandchildren, even if you don’t.”
That sounds harsh, but sometimes it takes harshness to realize what is important. It is a violation of God’s commandments if we think that everything is here for us, and we can take what we want without regard to others. The commandments of God are to respect others: respect our covenants with them, respect their relationships, respect their property, whether those others are our neighbors, our families, local businesses, or generations yet to come. When you and I live with respect for others, it shows we have the integrity that allows us to respect ourselves.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master