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TEN FOR OUR TIME: When Robbery Seems Respectable

Titus 2:11-3:8
I would ask you to think with me today about the eighth Commandment, “Thou shalt not steal.” It’s a good Commandment to have on the books. It keeps the criminal element under control. It protects us from low-life thieves and robbers. But of course, we are not thieves. We are fine upstanding, respectable citizens. So this Commandment ought to be a piece of cake for us. In fact, we might as well close the book, consider the lesson complete, pronounce the benediction, and go home. Right? Wrong. Sit tight, you can’t leave yet!

To be sure the eighth Commandment is in part about protecting our property and our possessions from thieves. I am convinced that this Commandment has a deeper more profound meaning as well. In the first place, the people of Israel, to whom the Commandments were given, had very little private property. They had just been led out of slavery in Egypt. Their personal possessions were few indeed. In the second place, the issue of personal property rights is also addressed quite specifically by the tenth Commandment, “Thou shalt not covet.” Therefore I believe that the eighth Commandment has to do with the kind of robbery which, at least in our eyes, is infinitely more respectable. The clue is found in the literal meaning of the words. Biblical scholars agree that in its purest form, this Commandment actually reads, “Thou shalt not steal a man.” The idea is, “Thou shalt not kidnap, capture, enslave, intimidate, manipulate, or dominate another person.” Well now that puts this Commandment in a different light, doesn’t it? Paul speaks to this truth in his letter to Titus. He writes that we are, “to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and to show true humility toward all men. At one time we, too, were foolish, disobedient, deceived, enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, He saved us not because of righteous things we had done but because of His mercy.” Clearly then, we are called to recognize that God honors us as individuals, but He has made us in such a way that we discover our individuality only as we act and react in response to other people.

The eighth Commandment protects this action and reaction. It says that, in relating to others, we may never steal them, or dominate them, or intimidate them, or manipulate them. We may never kidnap their bodies, or their minds, or their spirits. That’s what it means when it says, “Thou shalt not steal.” So let’s look now at the implications of this commandment for us as fine, upstanding, respectful citizens.

The first implication is that we are forbidden to steal another person’s spirit.

Leo Buscaglia has told of a little book of drawings and poems by a young woman named Michelle. One of her poems has these words in it, “I cannot be happy when I change merely to satisfy your selfishness. Nor can I feel content when you criticize me for not thinking your thoughts or seeing as you do. I do not try to mold your mind. I cannot allow you to tell me what to be. You said I was transparent and easily forgotten, but why then did you try to use my life to prove to yourself who you are.” Leo Buscaglia notes that at the beginning of the book was a forward which said that this young woman named Michelle had committed suicide on a fog shrouded California beach at the age of 25. All she left behind were these few poems and drawings. Now what we hear in her poem is the cry of a person whose spirit is being stolen by someone else. I don’t know to whom the words were directed—a parent, a friend, a teacher, a lover—but what she was saying was this, “I am made in the image of God, and therefore you have no right to bend me and mold me into the image of yourself.” She was pleading for obedience to the eighth Commandment. If the sixth Commandment says, “Thou shalt not kill another’s body,” the eighth Commandment says, “Thou shalt not steal another person’s spirit.” No one has the right to do to anyone what someone did to Michelle.

Karen Homey has said that the principal neurosis of our time is the way we constantly cut down and criticize one another. She may be right. You have noticed, haven’t you, how much humor is sarcastic and destructive, how so many in writing or in speaking stoop to ridiculing others. Well, there is a place for criticism but when it crosses the line of self-respect, when it undermines a person’s sense of self esteem, then it is wrong. It is evil. The person whom we criticize is one for whom our Lord Jesus Christ died. We cannot then tread on the spirit of that person. In like manner, because Christ also died for us, no one has the right to tread on our spirits either. You see, we are rather like trees. No tree will grow in the shadow of another tree. It will wilt and die. We are never to overshadow one another in our relationships with other people. For you see, when we seek to overshadow or dominate others, when we are sarcastic and critical of others, it doesn’t take long before they respond with sarcasm and criticism against us.

Whenever I think of that, I think of the story in the book of Judges about a man whose name was Adonibezek. He was a cruel Canaanite chieftain who would regularly take those whom he defeated and cut off their thumbs and their big toes. When he cut off their thumbs, of course they could no longer grasp a sword. When he cut off their big toes, he affected their balance and mobility. It was part of his strategy of humiliation and domination. Eventually Adonibezek was defeated by the forces of Israel. When they captured him, they did to him what he had done to others. They cut off his thumbs and his big toes. The Scriptures record what he said, “Seventy kings with their thumbs and big toes cut off have picked up scraps under my table. Now, God has paid me back for what I did to them.” The film critic said of the acting of the late Marlon Brando that he acted as if there were an angel inside of him struggling to be free. Well, I don’t know if that is an apt description of Brando’s acting but I do know this: there is an angel inside all of us struggling to be free. Also, I know this: whenever we chain another person’s angel; whenever we seek to dominate or intimidate or manipulate another person’s angel; whenever we do that which breaks the spirit of another person, we violate the eighth Commandment. We are stealing that person’s spirit, and eventually we find a part of ourselves being stolen away in return. All of that is involved in this eighth Commandment where in essence God is saying, “Thou shalt not steal another person’s spirit.”

The second implication of this Commandment is that we are forbidden to steal another person’s body.

F. W. Boreham, the great Australian preacher, tells of a little boy whose Mother and Father died. Boreham was taking this boy to a Christian family who was going to care for him. As they were riding along Boreham noticed that every once in a while the boy would turn away, pull something out of his pocket, look at it, and then carefully put it back in his pocket. Finally Boreham asked him what it was and the boy showed him a small square of cloth. The boy said, “Sir, it’s from my mother’s dress and every time I see it or rub it, I feel a little bit better.” Well, I’m not suggesting that we ought to love things. I am suggesting that there ought to be a few things in our lives which remind us of the people we love. There ought to be a few things in our lives which are of surpassing value because they symbolize our relationships with others. These are things which must never be stolen.

I want to speak specifically here to the theft of our bodies in sexual promiscuity. I want to speak especially to our young people. I got a letter the other day from a woman who teaches in our schools. She said that the majority of the students she knows claim to be sexually active engaging repeatedly in physical relationships, and she sees no way to change that. I disagree with her at that point. I want her to read what Paul wrote to Titus: “He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit whom He poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior so that having been justified by His grace we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. This is a trustworthy saying and I want you to stress these things so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good.” So, young people, please hear me for a moment. We know that our bodies and our souls are closely united. The body is not just the baggage the soul carries around, and the soul is not just a bubble of air inside the body. The two are tightly tied together. That means that all physical relationships are profoundly personal and therefore profoundly spiritual. That means that when we make out with someone in the back of a car, we can’t leave our souls parked outside. That means that when we sell, loan, or give away our bodies to others we are also selling, loaning, or giving away a part of our souls. The proof is in the fact that after two people have a physical relationship, their relationship is never the same again. They may love each other more or they may have less respect for each other, but the relationship is never the same. Why, because the body and the soul are inextricably bound together. Therefore when we use another person’s body for the fulfillment of our own fantasies, or for the satisfaction of our own desires, or for a moment of thrill and pleasure, that is an assault upon another person. When we do that we not only desecrate the other person, we also desecrate ourselves. Why do you think that prostitutes are unable to have healthy, romantic, personal lives themselves? It’s because they have given away so much that there is nothing left to give. Why do you think that, statistically speaking, people who have had serial physical relationships have little chance at successful marriages? It’s because they have stolen so much from others, and they have had so much stolen from themselves that there is nothing left on which to build a marriage.

My young friends, I’m not trying to get in the way of your fun. I’m trying to show you the kind of fun that lasts for a lifetime. You see, God doesn’t give us the Ten Commandments because He likes to give rules, because He likes to make demands upon us, because He likes to make life miserable for us. No. He gives us the Commandments to help us break the cycle of evil that is in us. He gives us the Commandments so that we can enjoy the people with whom God has surrounded us and the world which He has created for us. All of that is involved in this eighth Commandment where in essence God is saying, “Thou shalt not steal another person’s body.”

Well…

Now we can close the book, consider the lesson complete, pronounce the benediction, and go home. Yet, I pray that as we go, we go with a deeper understanding of what God meant when He said, “Thou shalt not steal.”

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