Having saved money as a Long Island lifeguard, he invested it wisely, eventually building a family business employing many of his own family members in the company. His integrity was a major selling point in the company’s image. On the company’s website, it declared clients know that he has a personal interest in maintaining the unblemished record of value, fair dealing, and high ethical standards that was always been the firm’s hallmark. He was a pioneer of electronic trading, as an alternative to the New York Stock Exchange, eventually becoming the president or chairman of NASDAQ, the electronic stock exchange. He was a legendary name on Wall Street. When the global financial crisis struck, however, investors began to withdraw their money. He called his two sons, Andrew and Mark, to the office December 10, 2008 and told them that he could not hold it together. In his own words, the whole thing had been “one big lie.” The largest fraud in the history of Wall Street, having lost his clients somewhere well north of $50 billion dollars. That day, Andrew and Mark reported their father to the authorities and Bernie Madoff received a hundred and fifty years of jail time for his crime. The calculating way in which the fraud was perpetrated, the abuse of clients’ trust, the self-serving motivation, the greed driving it all – the Madoff scandal was shocking, not just because of the sheer scale of it, but for its devastating effects. People lost everything! In particular, charities persuaded to invest because of his reputation for integrity and fairness, lost a very great deal. We recoil at that kind of abuse of power. We’re appalled at this kind of fragrant breach of the eighth commandment.
Do you remember we’ve been working our way through the Ten Commandments? Today we’ve come to the eight commandment, “You shall not steal.” A couple of weeks ago, one of you stopped me after the service with a sly smile and asked, since I accused you of being an adulterer the previous week, would I call him a thief this week? And he was just joking, of course, but I thought the question was actually quiet perceptive because there is a part of us that finds it tempting to excuse ourselves and to let ourselves off the hook. Bernie Madoff, he fits the profile, right? “He’s a crook, a fraudster. The eighth commandment certainly speaks to him, but not to me; I’m a good guy! Okay, maybe you can persuade me preacher that I have broken the other commandments in some general sense, perhaps, but I’m drawing the line here today. No way I’m a thief!” I understand, but our task this morning is to bring our consciences into the light of Holy Scripture and to allow them to be challenged and informed and perhaps sometimes exposed and unmasked and confronted by the God who speaks to us here in His Word. And so if you would please, let me invite you to take a copy of the Bible in your hands and to turn with me to Exodus chapter 20 and the first seventeen verses. If you’re using a church Bible, you’ll find that on page 61. Once you have God’s Word spread before you, would you bow your heads with me as we pray?
O God, would You take Your Word, Your Holy Law, and show us ourselves in its mirror, and then by that same Holy Law, lead us to Christ, who is the fulfiller of the Law, the Savior we need from its condemning power and the enabler who strengthens us as we trust Him to keep it? So come in the power of the Holy Spirit and give us ears to hear what You would say to Your church, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Exodus chapter 20 at the first verse. This is the Word of Almighty God:
“And God spoke all these words, saying,
‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.
You shall have no other gods before me.
You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.
You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.
You shall not murder.
You shall not commit adultery.
You shall not steal.
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor's.’”
Amen, and we praise God that He has spoken in His holy, inerrant Word.
We’ve had cause, over and over again, as we’ve worked through the summary of God’s own moral character given to us in the Ten Commandments and so we have cause here again as we study the eighth commandment to return to the beginning of the whole story, back to the Garden of Eden, and to see God’s original design for us. You remember when God placed our first parents in the Garden of Eden, He gave them work to do. Genesis 1:28, we’re told Adam and Eve were to “fill the earth and subdue it.” They were to have dominion over the animals. Chapter 2 verse 15, God took the man, put him in the Garden of Eden, and told him to “work it and keep it.” In other words, human beings were given a sacred trust, a stewardship from Almighty God as they were entrusted with creation. They were to steward it; they were to possess the world and use it as stewards with a duty of care under the Lordship of God who would regulate how they used material things. We are given much to enjoy and it’s ours truly, yet only always secondarily and derivatively ours. It is always ultimately and first God’s and we are to use what He gives us as stewards accountable to Him.
But we know, don’t we, if you read on in the story, that Adam rejected his role as steward in creation. He rejected that approach to the use of material things in the world that God has made. When Satan tempted our first parents to eat the forbidden fruit, “They saw that the fruit was good for food, that it was a delight to the eyes and desirable for making one wise,” and they did what? “They took it and they ate.” They took that which was forbidden them. It was an act of theft! Actually, their attempted theft was more than the forbidden fruit, but of all that the fruit symbolized. They wanted to take from God His prerogative, His sovereign right to be the determiner of good and evil in our lives. It was an attempted theft not just of fruit that didn’t belong to them, but of the glory and the rights that belong only to God. And in the theft of the forbidden fruit, sin and guilt came into the world, into all of us so that woven into all sin is a breach of the eighth commandment. Jesus, you will remember, summarizes the Ten Commandments, the two tables of the Law, into two simple commands. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength,” that’s the first table of the Law, commandments one to four. And “Love your neighbor as yourself,” commandments five to ten. Whenever we break any of the commandments, we are robbing either God or our neighbor of the honor and love they are due.
There’s a sense in which the breach of any point of God’s Law is the breach of the eighth commandment. In fact, all sin is interwoven and interconnected. Each commandment is implied in all the others. To break one is to break them all! So we can say, for example, all sin is idolatry; all sin is blasphemy. All sin is dishonoring of authority; all sin is murder. All sin is spiritual adultery; all sin is a lie. All sin is an act of greed. And as the eighth commandment now makes clear, all sin is an act of theft. We rob God or our neighbor of the honor he is due. And so there’s a real sense in which we are all thieves after all. Even if we’ve never knowingly stolen from anyone, “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” All have broken the eighth commandment in some sense. Now of course the Bible is never content to leave us with an “in some sense.” No, God puts His finger on the particulars, and I want to explore the Bible’s teaching about the nature of the sin forbidden and the duties commanded in the eighth commandment under two headings; Let’s think first about the mandate of God. What is it exactly He calls us to in the eighth commandment? And then secondly, the metric of grace. The mandate of God, then the metric of grace. When grace erupts into our hearts and lives and begins to change and renovated us through the Gospel of Jesus Christ, something happens to the way we think about material things. Something happens to the way we think about our possessions. We are changed and we become radically generous. So the mandate of God and the metric of grace.
- The Mandate of God
Let’s think first of all about the mandate of God. What exactly are we being commanded to do and forbidden to do in the eighth commandment? Well the word for stealing there in Exodus 20 verse 15, it simply means to take something by stealth that does not belong to you. We’re forbidden to take the property of others without permission or payments. To be sure, petty theft is the obvious and immediate target, but you will remember, as I’ve said already, that every commandment is a kind of heading for an entire species of sin forbidden and duties commanded so that anything we do to manipulate others for our material gain, whenever we are less than forthright or oblique in our financial dealings, whenever we seek to line our pockets at the expense of others, we stand under the condemnation of the eighth commandment.
The Broad Reach of the Eighth Commandment
The Old Testament Scriptures are particularly clear on the reach, the broad reach of the eighth commandment. For example, they call us to integrity and fairness in the giving of a loan, particularly careful to denounce exacting, unjust interest, what older translations called usury. So Exodus 22 verse 25, God tells Israel, “If you lend money to any of my people with you who is poor, you shall not be like a moneylender to him. You shall not exact interest from him. If ever you take your neighbors cloak in pledge, you shall return it to him before the sun goes down. For that is his only covering and it is his cloak for his body. In what else shall he sleep? And if he cries to me, I will hear, for I am compassionate.” You’ll sometimes hear it said that taking out a loan or contracting debt is always wrong. The Bible never says that, but what the Scriptures condemn is contracting a needless, unthinking debt. Proverbs 11:15, “Whoever puts up security for a stranger will surely suffer harm, but he who hates striking hands in pledge is secure.” There’s an appropriate wariness of needless debt contracted. Psalm 37:21, “The wicked borrows and does not pay back.” It belongs to ungodliness to contract a debt we cannot repay.
Unjust Interest Forbidden
And the Scriptures condemn requiring unjust and predatory interest. Ezekiel 22:12, “You take interest and profit and make gain of your neighbors by extortion, but me you have forgotten, declares the Lord.” In fact, Exodus 22:25 and following that we just read a moment ago, is filled with concern for the poor debtor rather than the wealthy creditor. That’s what that business about making sure if you take a cloak as security on a loan you give it back before nightfall because if the person is so poor that all they have to give as security is their cloak, they’re going to need it to keep them warm at night. There’s a concern for the poor, not just for the creditor, but for the debtor. In other words, God is not satisfied with, “It’s not personal; it’s just business” as a justification for our personal indifference toward those whose circumstances are dire all in the service of a quick buck.
Think here of the subprime crisis, toxic, predatory mortgages, sold to vulnerable borrowers who could not afford them simply so that the lender might profit from repossessed property. Think about exorbitant interest rates on payday loans that appear to offer an immediate solution in a crisis, but in the end only dig the hole deeper and deeper and deeper. Think about the financial sleight of hand an unscrupulous advisor uses to sell stock he knows will yield less return for his clients but will net greater commission for him. When you are lending to those in need don’t take their cloak in pledge, and if you have to, make sure you give it back before dark. Have an eye to the vulnerabilities of the borrower not just to the profit margin of the lender. “You shall not steal.”
God’s Righteous Indignation Against Exploitation
Or think about Amos 8 and verse 5 where we read about God’s righteous indignation, His indictment of the religiously scrupulous and devout and yet fraudulent businessmen. “Hear this, you who trample on the needy and bring the poor of the land to an end saying, ‘When will the new moon be over that we may sell grain and the Sabbath that we may offer wheat for sale that we may make an ephah small and the shekel great and deal deceitfully with false balances?” They were strict about the Lord’s Day, about the Sabbath Day, but they wanted it over fast so they could get back to defrauding the poor and the unwary. As Proverbs 11:1 says, “A false balance is an abomination to the Lord, but a just weight is his delight.” Are you asking a fair market value for your product? Are you consistent in business when it comes to charges and fees? Do your customers know you as someone who’s invoices reflect work well done? “You shall not steal.”
Or what about Deuteronomy 24:14-15, “You shall not oppress a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your brothers or one of the sojourners who are in your land within your towns. You shall give him his wages on the same day before the sun sets, for he is poor and counts on it, lest he cry against you to the Lord and you be guilty of sin.” Are your employees treated fairly? Do you expect overtime without pay? Do you expect part-time workers to do full-time work so you can avoid paying benefits and increase your profit margins? Do you make contracts and keep them? Are you known instead for reneging on your word, failing to pay a fair wage for work done or services rendered? “You shall not steal.”
Or try Proverbs 12:1, “Whoever works his land will have plenty of bread, but he who follows worthless-pursuits lacks sense.” Proverbs 18:9, “Whoever is slack in his work is a brother to him who destroys.” Or Proverbs 6:10-11, I’m sure you know this one, “A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a robber and want like an armed man.” What’s your attitude to your work? Do you work at everything you do with all of your might as unto the Lord, not as an eye servant or a man pleaser? Or are you busy defrauding your employer by your failure to do a hard day’s work for the wages promised to you? “You shall not steal.”
And we could go on, multiplying applications and examples. We could talk about gambling, which always profits from someone else’s loss. We could talk about man stealing, that is, slavery, condemned in Scripture. We could talk about moving property boundaries to advantage yourself. We could talk about malicious lawsuits that aim to extract money from the target of the suit simply for our own greed and gain. All of those things are dealt with in Scripture under the general heading of the eighth commandment, which calls us, I hope you’re beginning to see, to integrity and honesty and compassionate concern for justice and fairness in all the ways we make use of material things that God has given us in His common grace. The mandate of God! “You shall not steal.”
- The Metric of Grace
Then secondly, let’s think about the metric of grace. The mandate of God – what does He command; what does He forbid. Now the metric of grace. You see, when God breaks into our lives by the Gospel, something remarkable, something extraordinary happens to the human heart. We stop thinking narrowly in terms of the strict demands of the letter of the Law. We stop thinking about “How little do I have to do in order to meet the minimum requirements of my obligation?” and we start to think in terms of radical and sacrificial generosity. Listen, for example, to Ephesians chapter 4 at verse 28. “Let the thief no longer steal but let him labor doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.” What happens in this man’s heart when Christ takes hold? He was a thief; now he’s a child of God by God’s saving grace. He trusts in Jesus and he no longer lives for the accumulation of stuff. He no longer feels the compulsion to steal because he has found better treasure, better treasure. He’s found the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. And now he works to make money with a new purpose. He no longer lives for money; the money that he makes, he makes so that he may have something to share with those who are in need. He makes money to give it away.
That’s what’s happened in his heart. He makes money to give it away, to use for ministry, to use for serving others. He’s discovered the principle that Jesus taught us in Luke 12:15 and following, “One’s life does not consist in the abundance of things.” News flash! Life is not about the accumulation of stuff! “A man’s life does not consist in the abundance of things, so sell your possessions,” Jesus says, “and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches, no moth destroys, for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” When grace breaks in, we cease to live for our possessions, for earthly treasure, because we’ve found infinitely more satisfying treasure in Jesus Christ. And so we begin to hold earthly treasure much more loosely. We begin to become radically generous with what we have because our riches are untouchable. They are in Christ.
The great example of that in the New Testament is Zacchaeus. You remember his story in Luke 19. Zacchaeus, Luke tells us, was a chief tax collector and a wealthy man. The way tax collectors made a living was to collect the taxes imposed by Roman authorities and then to add some extra by which they would line their own pockets. Zacchaeus was a crook making his living, making his wealth on the backs of the poor in breach of the eighth commandment. And one day on the Jericho road Jesus encounters Zacchaeus and invites Himself to Zacchaeus’ home and something extraordinary happens in Zacchaeus’ heart. And he bursts out, expressing this great change that takes place as he encounters Jesus Christ for himself. He bursts out and says, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor and if I have defrauded anyone anything, I will restore it fourfold.” Fourfold restoration, Exodus 22:1, was required of those who stole livestock. Only 20% restitution, Leviticus 5:16, was required of those who were guilty of fraud. So you see what’s going on here? Zacchaeus is saying, “I will voluntarily take the more severe penalty and I’ll give half of everything I have away.” There’s an extravagance about it, isn’t there? There’s a recklessness almost, a prodigality about his generosity. What has happened to Zacchaeus? Something better has captured his heart at last, than the money for which he once lived. And now instead of the sin forbidden in the eighth commandment so characteristic of him, he models the generosity to which the eighth commandment calls us.
Jesus’ Radical Generosity Towards Sinners
And so we really need to ask, “What is it about Jesus that produces this kind of response in the human heart?” And the answer of the Christian Gospel is to point us to Christ’s own radical generosity toward us. You will remember when the soldiers came to arrest Jesus in Gethsemane in Matthew 26 at verse 55, Jesus asked them a question, “Why do you come out against Me with swords and clubs as against a robber, as against a thief, someone who breaks the eighth commandment? That’s how you’re treating Me.” And then Matthew uses the same word in the next chapter, in chapter 27 at verse 28, to tell us that Jesus was crucified between two robbers, two thieves. He was treated as, identified with, breakers of the eighth commandment. “You shall not steal,” it says, and we are the ones who’ve broken it. We are the ones who’ve broken it. And it’s our place that He fills, do you see? Between two thieves – it’s the thieves place, it’s our place, my place, your place. And there is Christ our Savior, holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, treated like the thief He was not, that He might accomplish forgiveness and pay the penalty for the thieves we are.
Today He’s calling to you in the Gospel like He called to Zacchaeus on the Jericho road. He wants to bring salvation to your house today to teach you the metric of grace, the new measures that grace brings to our heart by which we weigh the treasures of the world and find them light things because of the surpassing treasure we have come to know and value in Jesus Christ, the pearl of great price. We let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also, because we have Him, and in Him we have all that we need. The eighth commandment, do you see, does more than just rebuke our materialism; it does that. It points us to the infinitely precious treasure in whom we have riches that cannot spoil or fade, kept in heaven for us. It points us to Jesus. The mandate of God – you shall not steal. But the metric of grace – get Christ, get Christ, and you will get riches that will slake your thirst for treasure and begin to make you radically generous people because you have been the recipients of the radical generosity of Jesus Christ.
And so as we turn our attention now to the Lord’s Table, may God help us find in Jesus that treasure that alone can prove satisfying to our hearts. Let’s pray!
Father, we thank You for Your Word. We confess to You that we are easily inclined to look for treasure here and to discount the infinite value of Jesus. As we come to the Lord’s Table, would You give us repentant hearts and the eyes of faith, the metric of grace, to evaluate Christ’s true worth and to begin, perhaps for the first time or anew, to prize Him more than any earthly treasure? For we ask it in Jesus’ name, amen.
©2016 First Presbyterian Church.
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