Sermon Notes

Ephesians 4:28 February 27, 2000
How Can I Change? From Stealing to Sharing

Petty thieves are not always known for their great intellectual prowess.

Michael Stauber of Oak Creek, desperately wanted to show his undying love to his girlfriend by proposing on Valentine's Day. You may call him a hopeless romantic; the district attorney called it felony theft. You see, wanting to propose meant buying a ring; buying a ring meant money. Ah, but his girlfriend, an assistant manager in Elm Grove, made the nightly deposits, so with some smooth talking and a quick change he robbed his own girlfriend to buy a ring to marry her. No word on whether she accepted or not.

David Bridges of Grapevine, TX was charged with stealing a TV from a home. He got away successfully. How was he caught? He came back for the remote! He must be related to Todd Bariteau of Troy, NY who pleaded guilty to robbing a store for the second time. They caught him because he broke through the same window, stole the same merchandise he had stolen before. The name of the store? Deja Vu!

Stephanie Pitts of Gastonia, NC found her apartment burglarized, but this burglary was a bit unusual. While her stereo and other items were stolen, the thief managed to find the time to wash a stack of dirty dishes, mop the kitchen floor and scrub the bathroom. He also rearranged the furniture and took a shower. That’s what I call a "clean get-away."

It may appear that stealing is more of a "victimless" crime, but it is a growing problem in our country. In larger companies a new and expanding position has been born: "Vice-President for Loss Prevention," as theft grows by 20% annually in the corporate world. Various forms of theft have gotten so bad in our country that some companies are making millions of dollars by selling surveillance equipment. People are doing all they can to insure that what is theirs stays theirs. Some people are feeling pretty desperate. I heard about one house that posted a sign out front that read: "Warning, these premises guarded by a Pit Bull with AIDS!"

It is to such a situation that the changed life of the Christian must reflect the changed thinking which comes as we trust the work of Christ. Christ’s death on the Cross is the place wherein we put off the old nature and put on the new. In light of the Gospel, our thinking must also change. This is true in the area of honesty and anger, but also in the way we view what God has given us and what God has given others. Ephesians 4:28 takes the eighth commandment and applies it to the believer in a way we may often not consider.

28. He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need.

We are to put off stealing

Stealing in Paul’s Day

While theft in our day is rampant, in Paul’s day robbery was an everyday practice. Paul’s audience was composed of slaves whose lives were always on the edge. Anything not nailed down was considered fair game for the five finger discount. These slaves had so little and their masters so much, stealing was an accepted practice. For some of us, who leave our cars or even our homes unlocked, who loan out our possessions and soon receive them back, we would be shocked how common robbery is in this culture. But Paul knew such a practice could not continue in the Church.

Paul’s command makes a powerful assumption. He begins with a command: "Those of you who are stealing must stop!" The imperative is present; the presupposition is that professing believes are stealing. Wouldn’t those whose lives were changed by Christ have stopped such practices long ago? Not necessarily. But by giving this command in a form we could best translate to say: "You thieves must now stop!" Paul also is talking not just about thefts punishable by the civil courts, but to all unjust acquisition.

Stealing in Our Day

While stealing may not be as blatant today as it was then, it is still a huge problem.

The US Commerce department reports that over 4 million people are caught shoplifting every year. And for every person caught 35 go undetected. This means that over 140 million shoplifting incidents occur in our nation each year. What is interesting is that according to another study, very few shoplifters steal out of need; 70% are in the middle income bracket and 20% even had high incomes. The image of the person stealing a loaf of bread to feed hungry children is the abnormal situation.

A paper given at an American Psychological Association symposium on employee theft presented a breakdown on the $8 billion that inventory shortages cost department and chain stores every year. Of these losses, 10% were due to clerical error, 30% to shoplifting, and a shocking 60% ($16 million a day!) to theft by employees. Theft can be as blatant as walking off with merchandise or as subtle as padded expense accounts, inadequate income tax reporting, customs dodges, "borrowing" and forgetting to return, and using the employer's time for personal benefit.

There are many different ways that we can steal, of course. While we may quickly identify stealing with robbery, with depriving another of what belongs to him, when we conjure up a picture of a thief that automatically excludes ourselves. We image robbery as that which is done in the stealth of the night or at gun point. But stealing encompasses so much more.

We steal through business.

When we willfully manufacture a defective product, selling it under the pretense of quality, we are stealing. We then cover our theft by the capitalist motto: "Let the buyer beware!" thinking that this excuses our deception. We steal in time spent at work doing anything but work; we steal from our employees by manipulating wages so as ensure their productivity without giving them their due. The trouble is, we may never consider it stealing at all because we define sin by the laws of man rather than the Law of God. With such a skewed view of right and wrong, it is no wonder we can justify our piracy.

Charging more than a product is worth has been considered theft in the Christian tradition. And yet, we seem to think that a just price is whatever the market allows. If the supply is scarce for a particular item and the demand is high, there is no moral difficulty in charging the top dollar. Nevertheless what may be legal and even sanctioned by the reigning economic theories of the day is not necessarily just and right by biblical standards.

We steal through robbing another of his good name.

This section began with the general command to put off falsehood, to speak truthfully to each other. Do we consider our gossip as fraud? When we pass on truth concerning another which will harm them, we take something we can never return. It was Shakespeare in Othello who made this powerful point when he said:

Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,

Is the immediate jewel of their souls:

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. (Shakespeare: Othello, 3.3.155)

We steal through neglect.

We steal in ways we often don’t consider, by our sins of omission. We pay a set fee for the use of this building. While it may appear exorbitant to some, most of the money goes to the janitor who makes sure everything is working well for us and cleans up after us. A small amount pays the utilities. So what happens when we enter or leave the building allowing the doors to stick open, causing the heaters to work overtime to warm Waukesha on a cold winter day? No one maliciously sees this as an opportunity to rob the School District, but the effect is the same.

We may borrow with the best intentions of returning, but as weeks turn to months and months to years, the line between what is mine and yours blurs. I've always wanted a book stamp which reads: This book stolen from the library of Chris Vogel.

We steal from God.

The God who created us demands our worship. We steal from Him when we set our interests before His commands. We steal from God when we refuse His gift of grace in Christ and demand that our righteousness count for something. When we take credit for God’s gracious gifts, when we refuse to credit Him for our changed lives, we are stealing. We steal when we withhold from Him His due. In Malachi 3 God accuses His people of theft in withholding of the tithes and offerings. We rob from God when we refuse to obey.

Faulty thinking which stealing reveals

Stealing is a denial of God’s sovereignty.

Why do we steal? We do so because at the core we do not think God is in control. This is the common thread to all our sinful choices – that God has checked out; He is not going to provide for me, so I must provide for myself in ways outside His lawful means. Stealing denies that God is the one who created me and all things. Stealing is an attack on the doctrine of creation for it denies that with what God has made He has also placed us over that creation as stewards, as administrators of His creation. Stealing seeks to erase the lines of private property. A biblical view of property is that what I possess I possess as a gift of God. What I have been given I have received by God’s grace. If I take what belongs to another, then I trample on God’s grace.

Stealing is a denial of God’s goodness.

To deny God’s sovereignty is to also deny God’s goodness. When we steal, when we refuse to fairly compensate another for what God has given him or her, we behave as though God does not care enough to provide for us. We behave as orphans, grasping at whatever will satisfy irrespective of our Father’s love and care for us. Behind stealing is coveting and what feeds coveting is the idea that what another possesses must be yours since what God gave you is not enough. God is either unable or unwilling to give me what I need in life.

We are to put on sharing

How do we cease being a thief?

If Paul assumes we steal, if we are to put off stealing, what is to be in its place? Paul corrects our view with the truth and adds a purpose to what the Christian life is to look like. Instead of stealing we are to be working. It is not enough to stop stealing. When is a thief not a thief? If you say when he stops stealing, you’re wrong. A thief who is not stealing is just a thief between jobs. That’s not good enough. Just as he used his hands to steal, now he is to use those same hands to do what is right.

What is to replace the stealing? Work. If what is at the root of stealing is a poor view of God’s creation, the correct response is to return to a correct view of creation which assumes a correct view of work.

We must not only cease stealing, we must begin working. Working is part of what we call the cultural mandate. As image bearers of God, we follow God in creating as we are stewards of God’s creation. In Genesis 1:28-29 God has made everything good and then gives it to Adam to tend. What we possess, we have not by mere chance, nor by personal creation of something out of nothing, nor by the benevolence of others, including the state, but ultimately from God. The prohibition against theft rests first on the principle of God's sovereignty over all that He has created. Ownership is never ultimate, but derives from God's kind permission. Work is what we were created to do.

Work is good. Work is not part of the curse, but it is cursed. God’s curse after the Fall was placed on that which is good as a reminder of our sinfulness. But the presence of the curse on labor means that labor itself is meant for our good. It is in our work, no matter what that work may be, be it our work as students to learn, mothers of young to care and nurture them, in business to produce a good product to be sold at a fair price – all that is part of what it means to bear the image of God.

Beginning next week we start a new semester of adult classes. Two new classes are being offered, the one called The Call deals with this idea of vocation. Our calling is more than our job. This is not a class about what you do 9-5. Rather, it will look at what we do with our lives. What Paul says here in Ephesians 4:28 is that we are to work, doing something useful.

That which is useful is literally "the good." Paul uses a word that is filled with moral ideals. It is not just that we are to provide something, but that we should evaluate our lives to see if what we do is in itself good. Producing a well crafted motorcycle is good. Raising godly children is good. Running a store selling quality items is good. Teaching the next generation is good. Do you see the goodness of not only work itself, but that what you do is itself good?

But it is not enough not to steal in order not to be a thief. It is not enough just to work, either. Notice the purpose here of our working: it is to have something to share with those in need. The opposite of one who takes what does not belong to him is one who gives what has been given to him.

Whereas the thief uses the labor of other people to supply his own needs, the Christian is to use his own labor to supply the needs of others. You and I stop stealing when we begin giving, when our hands cease being clenched tight, but are open toward the needs of others. Giving is perhaps one of the best indication of a changed heart, of a renewed life. It’s seen in the lines of your checkbook, who is in your home, what you do with your time.

A thief steals in order to have what is not his. A person may work, but do so only to horde what God has given him. But a far better way of living is to work in order to give. Remember, you can remain perfectly within the law of the land; you can fulfill its demands so that no one would ever question your ethics. But inside you are still greedy and covetous. Greed may drive you to steal, but it will also drive you to work. The Christian philosophy of labor is thus lifted far above the thought of what is right or fair in the economic field; it is lifted to the place where there is no room for selfishness or the motive of personal profit at all.

Renewed thinking, thinking which lives at the foot of the Cross, is that which thinks of others.

It goes without saying that we all desire to earn more than we spend. Many times we fail at that and should repent. We should operate in the black. There should be a surplus. But that extra though is not just for a rainy day (although prudence tells us to be sure to provide for our families). Yet, we must remember that God has given out of His abundance in light of our need. We must do the same.

Next month as we elect deacons, a change will take place at Cornerstone. The work of the deacons will be to find ways to encourage us to be generous, to give to those who need, so that we can live out the reality of our faith before the world. We will show others how God has given to us as we give to others.

Someone said, "There are roughly four kinds of people in the world.

The robber says, "What's yours is mine and I'll take it."

The miser says, "What's mine is mine and I'll keep it."

The humanist says, "What's mine is yours, so I'll loan it."

The child of God says, "What's mine is God's, so I'll give it."

How can this change take place?

Have you ever noticed in the Lord's Prayer, how we move from the request to receive daily bread and then we talk about having our debts forgiven? God, by His grace, gives us food to eat, water to drink, so we are born debtors to God. There is no way we can even the score. No matter what good we think we can do, no matter what we imagine is possible for us to achieve, we are just another day older and deeper in debt, and it is not to the company store or Citibank that we owe our soul.

That is why the next line after the request for sustenance is so comforting. A banking term is used: not forgive us our sins, but in Matthew 6 we ask God to waive our outstanding loans. Our debts are remitted. God's forgiveness extends not only to what we’ve done, but to what we’ve not done. If we did everything perfectly, we would still be unworthy of His goodness to us. We would have taken that which we did not earn and will spend it without the ability to pay it back.

And it is here we realize God's grace comes to us. There is no better picture of how God treats thieves like you and me than what happened 2000 years ago. As Jesus was hung on a tree He fulfilled an obligation that was not His. He paid a debt He did not owe, a debt of our sin. But on either side of Him hung two others, justly condemned criminals. They were bearing the weight of the Roman penalty for robbery. The one had nothing but contempt for Jesus; He mocked Him and died in his own misery. The other, though, recognized the death that Christ died was for a robber like he and so, admitting his need, asked Christ for forgiveness, that Jesus would remember him, that He would not hold his debt against him. To that one, Jesus gave those wonderful words: "Today, you shall be with me in Paradise."

Those words are not just for common criminals, condemned to die, but for common sinners like you and me. We need to never forget that we are debtors, that our sin separates us from God. Because of that, we deserve nothing but to be thrown into a debtors prison for eternity. Yet, God, who is rich in mercy, set us free from slavery and made us sons and daughters. In light of God’s wonderful gift of grace let us give graciously to others.

Sermon Notes