Stop, Thief! –
Sermon 8 of 10 from the The Ten Commandments for Today (Exodus 20) series
July 1992 – Although it is not a matter of any particular importance, this is not the first time I have preached on the Ten Commandments. About 12 years ago I preached through the Ten Commandments at the church I pastored in Downey, California. After I finished that series of messages, I put my sermon notes in a manila envelope and did not look at them again. In fact, I did not look at my notes on the Eighth Commandment until this week.
What I found surprised me. Evidently I began my sermon 12 years ago with these dramatic words: “I am personally threatened by this Commandment. I am a thief.”
That’s a very good attention-grabber. Unfortunately, I have no idea what it means because there is no explanation given in my notes. It’s one thing to say, “I am a thief.” It’s another thing to confess what it is you’ve been stealing.
But no matter what I meant back then, the sentiment is still true. I am a thief, and in my better moments I know it is true. When I read the Eighth Commandment, I encounter 4 simple words—"You shall not steal"—that set a standard I find difficult to meet:
God demands 100% honesty 100% of the time.
That’s not easy to do. Most of the time I feel like I can handle 70% honesty 85% of the time. Or perhaps 90% honesty 65% of the time. As I look at my life I seem to be pretty good at being basically honest most of the time. I usually am honest in almost everything I do. Graded on a curve, I think my honesty is far above most people’s.
But that’s what this Commandment is teaching. God is not satisfied with:
Better than most people
Most of the time.
It is easy to overlook this Commandment. It is even easier to break it.
Three Reasons For This CommandmentIt will help us get our bearings if we understand why God gave this Commandment:
1. To provide stability in society
2. To teach respect for private property
3. To promote honesty, hard work and thrift
It may be fairly stated that without this Commandment no society could function. Unless there is a general agreement to respect the property of others and a generally-accepted prohibition against stealing, no society could long exist. If you feel free to claim what is mine, and if I feel free to claim what is yours, you and I will not be able to live together. We will be enemies, eyeing each other with suspicion, waiting for our chance to steal from one another. No family, no city, no country, no race can long survive where the Eighth Commandment is not widely respected.
Why Do You Lock Your Doors at Night?Yet stealing is much in evidence. Read the Tribune or the Sun-Times . Every day—every single day of the year—brings us new stories about car theft, white-collar theft, armed robbery, muggings, shoplifting, insurance fraud, income tax evasion, breaking and entering, embezzlement, employee theft, pyramid get-rich-quick schemes, extortion, blackmail, bribery, and all the rest of the sophisticated means we use to rip each other off.
America has forgotten the Eighth Commandment!
—That’s why you locked your doors last night
—That’s why you bought “The Club” for your car
—That’s why we just installed a new security system here at the church
This week I spoke to a local businessman who told me there have been three robberies within a two-block radius of his store in the last few days. The thieves come in posing as inspectors for the village of Oak Park. Then they pull a gun and rob the store.
The man told me that the Oak Park police are keeping things “tight” this summer. That means that extra officers are out on the street because the danger of burglary is higher than ever.
In the last few days we’ve been hit with a rash of burglaries and hold-ups in our area of Oak Park. Some friends were coming home from a restaurant when they noticed three men following them. Just as they got to their house, the three men held them up at gunpoint. They refused to give them any money until the thieves threat-ened to shoot their little daughter. Is it any wonder that they’ve installed security lights around their house? Is it any wonder that the wife is afraid to stay home by herself?
The Five-Finger DiscountBut it’s more than just random burglary. There is also the growing problem of shoplifting—the “five-finger discount.” Last year 2 million Americans were charged with shoplifting … but experts tell us that only 1 in 35 shoplifters is ever caught.
Take a look at this profile of the average shoplifter:
—Most are between 25-45 years old.
—More women than men shoplift.
—Most are not poor:
—According to the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, 3/4 of the shoplifters in this state are middle to upper-middle class.
—80% of all shoplifters have money or credit cards with them to pay for the things they are stealing.
Here’s a list of the top five categories of items stolen by shoplifters:
1. Women’s fashion accessories
2. Records and CDs
3. Radios and TVs
4. Women’s apparel
5. Men’s apparel
Retailers estimate the annual cost of shoplifting in America to be $10-50 billion. Your family will spend $300 this year in extra costs because of someone else’s shoplifting.
That’s why we see
—Merchandise locked in glass cabinets
—TV cameras covering every part of the store
—Libraries with electronic checkpoints
—Bars on doors and windows
—"No bills larger than $20”
—Bells ringing when you enter a store
—Service stations that put the rest room key on a logging chain
—A security guard who checks you bags when you enter K-Mart
—Motels that bolt down the TV, the radio and the lamps
No one trusts anyone in America today. Our society has become one big con game—and far too many of us play right along. America has become “the land of the freebie and the home of the burglar.”
I. Five Kinds of ThieveryOur tendency is to read all that and say, “Right on, pastor. It’s terrible what’s happening today. Thank God, none of that applies to me. I’m no thief.” To which only one answer can be given: “Don’t be so sure.”
Let me suggest five ways in which even the most pious churchgoer may become a thief.
A. The Time ThiefTime is the most precious commodity in the world. It is the one truly non-renewable resource. Once time is gone it can never be reclaimed, recycled or repeated. Time flies—whether we use it wisely or whether we waste it. Time waits for no one, stops for no one, slows down for no one. It passes … and then “like an ever-rolling stream bears all its sons away.” When enough time has passed, we too will be gone.
Who are the time thieves? They are the ones who
—Show up late for an appointment
—Never get to the carpool on time
—Come late for work
—Leave early for lunch
—Take extra-long breaks
—Leave early for home
—Watch the clock instead of the job
America has become a nation of time thieves. We routinely promise to be somewhere at a certain time … knowing that we will be late. Often we even plan to be late. Does it matter to us that others have arranged their schedules to fit our promises? Not at all!
We are late for appointments
late with assignments
late for meetings
late for church services
late to keep our promises
This week a gentleman in our congregation wrote me a letter about how he despairs for the future of his com-pany. After a lifetime of labor, he now must leave it to a generation of workers who seem not to care about the future. Oh, they come to work and they put in their hours but the heart commitment is simply not there. This dear man faces the very real possibility that his life’s work will come to nothing in a few years because the people who should care … don’t.
In too many cases, the motto of the American worker is “Do less and get paid more.”
Stealing time is a terrible crime because you steal that which can never be recovered. The loss is permanent … and no double-time tomorrow can make up for the time you stole today.
B. The Gossiping ThiefHere is a thief who seems to live inside most churches. He (or she) is a thief because he steals the good name of someone else. “Psssst … Have you heard the latest?” “Did you know that Sally and Bill are splitting up?” “She never intended to pay the money back.” “He said he was sick but I’ll bet he was just playing golf.” “I’m glad she lost her job. She needed to get some humility.” “Those Johnson kids are the worst children in church. I think the middle one will probably end up in jail … or in Congress … or both.”
On and on it goes. In politics this year we’ve got “Slick Willie,” “The Quitter,” and “The Wimp.” Each candidate perfects his sleazy attack ads on the opposition, carefully twisting the facts, slightly distorting the truth, until a negative image is drawn. We say we don’t like it, but politicians wouldn’t use those ads if we didn’t pay attention to them.
This week a lady sat in my office and suggested that we have a major gossip problem here at Calvary. She even said it starts not with the older generation but with the under-40 crowd. And she pinpointed the problem as the coffee hour between services. I’m not sure about that, but it doesn’t surprise me that we have gossipers here. Most churches have their share.
Just remember this. When you gossip about someone else, you’re guilty of stealing their good name. You are guilty of robbery just as much as the mugger who holds you up on the street. And you aren’t any less guilty in God’s eyes. No, you are worse because you do it in God’s house and you attack God’s children.
Shakespeare said it well in these famous words from Othello:
Who steals my purse, steals trash; ’tis something, nothing;
’Twas mine, ’tis his and has been slave to thousands;
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him,
And makes me poor indeed.
If any other evidence needs to be mentioned, remember that gossip is listed in Romans 1—along with homosex-uality—as one mark of a depraved life. There is such a thing as a gossiping thief—a category which may apply to you more than you think.
Here’s a test. Just go to three close friends this week and ask them: Do you think I have a tendency to gossip?
You might be surprised at the answers you get.
C. The Defrauding ThiefThis is the person who steals the purity of another person. It applies to the man who steals the affection of another man’s wife. It applies to the teenager who leads his friends into immorality. It applies to parents who laugh when their children use dirty language. It applies to boy friends and girl friends who tempt their dates into going too far. It applies to adults who use their friendships to introduce people to degrading habits, impure activities and unwholesome associations.
It applies to those in leadership who carelessly use their example as a stumbling block to others. How many young people have started drinking because they first saw their parents drink? Or their high school buddies drink? Or their Sunday School teacher drink?
How many now attend R-rated movies and laugh at the nudity, chuckle at the profanity, and lust after the promiscuity … how many do it now because some influential person led them down the wrong path?
Brothers and sisters, I say to you in Jesus’ name that some friendships—even so-called Christian friendships—will only drag you down.
How terrible will be the judgment of those who carelessly use their influence to entice others to evil! Jesus said, “If anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” (Matthew 18:6) I have known some young people—and some adults—who need to be fitted for millstones.
Those who use their influence
their position in life
their charming, persuasive personalities
to lead others into immorality
deserve what is coming to them! Remember, Jesus said “it would be better” for them to die by drowning. That means whatever will happen to such defrauding thieves must be horrible beyond belief.
But in my opinion, those who use their influence to drag others down deserve the punishment of hell.
D. The Careless ThiefThis thief may seem small indeed after the one just mentioned, yet far more of us are likely to be careless than
to deliberately defraud others.
The careless thief is the one who borrows and does not return. He is the one who borrows and does not pay back. He promise to do so … and he does not.
Why is this so critical? I think we have an answer in the Old Testament teaching concerning just weights and measurements. Back then, merchants didn’t have fancy electronic scales that could perfectly weigh each trans-action. Small businessmen used weighted bags to balance the scales. But if the bags were improperly filled, the customer would end up paying for 2 shekels of meat when the butcher had secretly given him 1 1/2 shekels. If the “weight” was rigged, the customer would be cheated.
That’s why the Old Testament in five separate places warns against unjust weights and measurements. God hates that practice and promises to judge those who rig their weights in order to cheat others.
It reminds me of the architect who spent hours and hours pouring over the tiny details of his blueprints. Why, he was asked, was he spending such an inordinate amount of time on the details? Because, he replied, “God is in the details.”
How true. God is in the details of life. True religion is in the details. Don’t talk to me about your walk with God; don’t rhapsodize about your quiet times, don’t babble about your worship, don’t brag about your holiness. Show it to me by your life!
God is in the details! And if God isn’t in the details of your life, those who watch may fairly wonder if God is really in your life at all.
E. The God-Robbing ThiefMalachi 3:8-10 introduces us to this nefarious character: “Will a man rob God? Yet you rob me. But you ask, ’How do we rob you?’ In tithes and offerings. You are under a curse—the whole nation of you—because you are robbing me. Bring the whole tithe into the store-
house, that there may be food in my house. ’Test me in this,’ says the Lord Almighty, ’and see if I will not open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much that you will not have room enough for it.’”
Guess where you find the God-Robbing Thief? Look for him in church on Sunday morning!
That’s right. The God-robber is the man who refuses to give to God that which belongs to him. He is the man who knows God personally, realizes that his blessings come from God … and still refuses to give to God.
Instead he hoards his money … hugs his profit … holds his loot … hangs on to his prosperity.
When the plate is passed, he throws in a five or a ten, but his heart is not in it.
That man is a God-Robber! Look around you. You may be sitting next to a thief right now!
Wait! Look in the mirror. Is that a God-Robber looking back at you?
So what about the tithe? Have you given to God that which belongs to him?
What about the offerings? Have you shared with God from your abundance?
Could that be a reason why things are tough right now? Our text says, “Put God to the test!” What a thought! Go ahead and give God what belongs to him … and see what happens!
Would you like a big blessing, one so huge that you couldn’t begin to contain it? Try giving a tithe to God. See if God won’t keep his Word to you.
II. A Biblical Cure For StealingIs there a way out of the stealing trap? Can a thief really change his ways? For those of us who live at the
level of 80% honesty, is there any hope for improving that percentage?
The answer is yes. God’s word shows us a three-step plan in Ephesians 4:28: “He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his hands, that he may have something to share with those in need.”
1. Honesty—"He who has been stealing must steal no longer”
2. Industry—"Doing something useful with his hands”
3. Charity—"That he may have something to share”
On that last point, note that the Greek implies “to personally give.” The problem with theft is that it is by nature entirely selfish. You steal in order to “get” for yourself. Stealing will come to an end when “getters” become “givers.”
It’s really very simple:
—Give instead of taking
At the heart of this sin is a deep lack of faith in God. We steal because we think we do not have enough. We steal because we think we deserve what others have. We steal because we want what we have not earned. We steal because we fear the future.
But underneath all those human motivations is a deep distrust in God. We steal because we think God will not take care of us. We steal because deep inside we think God needs a little help in our particular situation. We steal because we feel like we can’t sit around and wait for God to meet our needs.
“I Only Lost What I Kept For Myself”That reminds me of a wonderful story about Maxey Jarman, founder of the great Genesco shoe chain. Over the years Mr. Jarman as a Christian layman supported many worthy causes, including the Billy Graham Crusades. He freely gave his money to benefit God’s work in many places.
But the day came when his company collapsed and with it, his personal fortune. Someone asked him, “Mr. Jarman, don’t you regret giving all that money away? Think what a difference it would make if you had it all back.” To which he replied, “Oh no, I don’t regret any of the money I have given away. After all, I only lost what I kept for myself.”
What a fantastic perspective on life. “I only lost what I kept for myself.”
The great tragedy of life is that it takes a tragedy for so many people to discover that truth. It is only when we lose it all that we realize it was never ours to begin with.
—When you give something away, you’re not losing it.
—You’re investing it.
—When you keep something for yourself, you’re not really keeping it.
—You’re only postponing the time when you will ultimately lose it.
Therein lies the ultimate folly of stealing. The thief steals that which does not belong to him, but he cannot keep the thing that he steals. In the end someone else will own it or have it or use it.
No one keeps anything forever!
Life itself is not ours to keep. The life you live is not “yours.” It belongs to God … who has given it to you as a long-term loan. Eventually you will have to give it back to him.
Seen in that light, stealing is foolish and self-defeating.
The Forgotten CommandmentAnd that brings me back to the simple words of the Eighth Commandment—"You shall not steal.” Of all the Ten Commandments, this is the one we think about least. It is the Forgotten Commandment.
It’s time we remembered it!
I end where I began, talking about the ultimate demand God puts on my life. The Eighth Commandment tells me that God demands 100% honesty 100% of the time.
—80% won’t cut it.
—90% won’t cut it.
God doesn’t grade on a curve. It doesn’t matter if I am more honest than my neighbor. What God wants from me is a personal commitment to total honesty in all my relationships and in every part of my life.
I may not like that—and to be truthful—I confess that I feel uncomfortable with that high standard because it’s easy for me to cut corners, to make deals, to say less than the absolute truth.
But God says, “No deals. If you are going to be my child, you’re going to have to live up to my standards.”
Three Useful Questions
In order to help me think through the implications of this Commandment, I have devised three questions that apply to the “gray areas” where I am tempted to be less than 100% honest with myself, with others and with God.
1. How would I feel if someone treated me this way?
2. Do I have to do this in secret?
3. Would I be ashamed for Jesus to see me doing this?
Pretty simple, pretty basic. Nothing tricky there. Just asking those questions helps keep me on the straight and narrow.
Can a Thief Be Saved?
One more question and we are through. Can a thief be saved?
I know one who was. The last person Jesus forgave was a thief. Think about that. While he was hanging on the cross, Jesus said to the thief hanging by his side, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Every word in that sentence is crucial.
“Today” — Instant salvation
“You" — Personal salvation
“Will be" — Certain salvation
“With me" — Intimate salvation
"In paradise” — Heavenly salvation
As the saying goes, it doesn’t get any better than that. Jesus said those remarkable words—not to a good man or to a religious man—but to a thief who was paying the ultimate price for his thievery.
Can a thief be saved? Absolutely.
Only Christ can transform a burglar into a benefactor. Isaiah 53:12 says that he was numbered among the transgressors. Here’s a simple way of saying that. Jesus was numbered with the thieves so that a thief like me could be saved.
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