Sticky Fingers

Over our two months of exploration, a couple major attractions should be overshadowing our walking tour of the Ten Commandments.

What I hope first captures your attention are the positive aspects of the Commandments – the holy attitudes and loving behaviors that the Lord prefers and encourages. Those Words of Life, first given to Moses atop Mount Sinai, all point to what Jesus much later will call the Greatest Commandment: Loving and serving God, loving and serving friend, neighbor, and stranger, as you yourself would want to be loved.

The regular, Spirit-led practice of loving wholly and unconditionally is proof positive that those Commandments once written in stone are now written on your heart.

Just as the prophet Jeremiah foretells, “For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” (31:33)

Just as the prophet Ezekiel declares, “I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.” (36:26)

And just as the apostle Paul affirms, “You show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.” (2 Corinthians 3:3)

What I pray you’ve also found worthy of note is the broad umbrella of the Commandments. They cover more ground than first meets the eye or ear.

As we’ve already learned, “murder” involves physical death by the hand of another as much or more as lethal blows and fatal assaults that pummel souls and spirits without mercy. “Adultery” indicts all intimacy – physical, spiritual, and emotional – that severs itself from commandment love and authentic emotion, never feeling the need or necessity of honest, sincere commitment.

Do not, sisters and brothers, think more highly of oneself than you ought (Romans 12:3), by skipping over these and those Commandments that you think you’ve never broken. Do not, friends and neighbors, squander the gracious opportunity to fess up to your brokenness, by remaining so stiff-necked, when the Lord extends heaven’s hand of forgiveness, grace, and peace – again, and again, and again.

As both bane and blessing, the Commandments stretch the breadth and depth of our understanding that God comes to us in Christ not to condemn but to save, not to reject but to love. And our living, breathing embodiment of the Commandments – at work and play, in the classroom or the coffee shop – becomes our thankful and faithful response to such undeserved favor and privileged status.

Heads this morning now humbly bow before the Eighth Commandment – again, a seemingly simple and straight-forward prohibition, this time of theft.

Consider it gratitude for grace that our favorite lyrics call amazing; abide in its peace that cherished Scripture deems beyond understanding. And trust this Good News that is for you, too: God’s Law is not a means to an end. God’s Law means to personify never-ending gratitude in God’s people through the inspiration of holy living.

Its obvious forms of outright robbery and burglary are surely forbidden. But as it always is with the Word of the Lord, his Eighth brings poignant reminder that theft comprises a vast, gurgling swamp of various and sundry felonies, high crimes, and misdemeanors. As they say, the devil is in the details, and those sordid details are what poke us in the ribs, where we feel the pinch; why God’s brow deeply furrows, why tears pour from divine eyes.

In this morning’s lesson, the acute source of such human pain and divine sorrow – God’s lament over theft – lies in particular with what for too many passes as ethical business practices.

And into our ailing economy steps Amos, a simple, rustic shepherd whose rich, prophetic baritone rumbles with eloquence. Like his fellow prophets, Amos blows into town with a blaring message: God is done with you, people! In no small measure because of how you buy and sell the poor to line your own pockets and stock the bar for the weekend’s booze cruise.

It’s not that people aren’t going to church. Oh, they’re all there for weekly Sabbath worship.

No, what’s got God’s goat is that worship has fallen into rank hypocrisy. Stumbling boldly but blindly into the temple, the supposedly faithful and true believers scurry like rats through the door with hands stained by the blood of the poor. None of them notices. But God surely does! And what the Lord sees is nauseating.

Through Amos the Lord makes crystal clear that he’d just as soon prefer folks stay home and not even try to worship him, rather than arriving at church reeking the wicked stench of shady lives ruled by greed and plunder – smugly settling into their pews with absolutely no desire or intention to change, absent even the most basic awareness that their business practices and lifestyles of the rich and famous are not sustainable!

To make a bad vibe even worse, God further spots people watching the clock, feeling impatient and anxious for the service to end sooner rather than later. Why? Because of what people talked about in the fellowship hall over coffee and cookies. They talked about business and commerce, their own profit, and surely not another’s gain.

“Can’t wait for the Sabbath to be over, because I’ve got lots to sell tomorrow.”

“I know, right?” was always the instinctive reply. “These forced Sabbath days off are a real pain, eh?”

“Can’t wait to get back to work tomorrow. I’ve got a new pricing scheme that I’m just itching to roll out when the doors open at 9.”

But sadly, in reality, their supposedly solid business plans really were complex sets of stealth and scheme by which to milk every last shekel from an already-impoverished Israelite society. Feel the financial pinch, as you listen for the Word of the Lord. This is the New Living Translation of Amos 5:

What sorrow awaits you who say, “If only the day of the LORD were here!”

You have no idea what you are wishing for. That day will bring darkness, not light. In that day you will be like a man who runs from a lion – only to meet a bear. Escaping from the bear, he leans his hand against a wall in his house – and he’s bitten by a snake. Yes, the day of the LORD will be dark and hopeless, without a ray of joy or hope.

“I hate all your show and pretense – the hypocrisy of your religious festivals and solemn assemblies. I will not accept your burnt offerings and grain offerings. I won’t even notice all your choice peace offerings. Away with your noisy hymns of praise! I will not listen to the music of your harps. Instead, I want to see a mighty flood of justice, an endless river of righteous living.” (Amos 5:18-24 NLT)

Ouch! Biblically speaking, we’re a long way away from laying down in green pastures with the Lord as our Shepherd and having no want.

Flipping ahead to chapter 8, God invites Amos into dreamy vision: “What do you see, Amos?” “Fruit,” he replies.

In the Hebrew of the Old Testament, the word for “fruit” looks a lot like the word for “the end,” which makes this a wordplay, a pun lost in translation. In the greatness and prosperity around him, Amos sees sweet “fruit.” But God instead declares that – because of greed – “the end” has come for God’s people and their biblical nation of Israel.

Greed by another name or mutual consent is still greed – a robust, mutant variant of theft well banned within the Eighth Commandment and named in Amos 8:

Then the Sovereign LORD showed me another vision. In it I saw a basket filled with ripe fruit.

“What do you see, Amos?” he asked. I replied, “A basket full of ripe fruit.” Then the LORD said, “Like this fruit, Israel is ripe for punishment! I will not delay their punishment again. In that day the singing in the Temple will turn to wailing. Dead bodies will be scattered everywhere. They will be carried out of the city in silence. I, the Sovereign LORD, have spoken!”

Listen to this, you who rob the poor and trample down the needy!

You can’t wait for the Sabbath day to be over and the religious festivals to end so you can get back to cheating the helpless. You measure out grain with dishonest measures and cheat the buyer with dishonest scales. And you mix the grain you sell with chaff swept from the floor. Then you enslave poor people for one piece of silver or a pair of sandals.

Now the LORD has sworn this oath by his own name, the Pride of Israel: “I will never forget the wicked things you have done!” (Amos 8:1-7 NLT)

The whole tragedy lasted not even 20 minutes from beginning to end.

Yet within that narrow window, New York City experienced the worst workplace disaster in U.S. history up until then.

Though many years in the making, the grisly event unfolded on March 25, 1911, just before quitting time at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. Workers – mostly young, immigrant women – had sweat through another long, grueling day of work on the eighth and ninth floors, and they were more than ready to punch out, slip on their party clothes, and enjoy a little fun on the town that Saturday evening.

Then, someone screamed “fire.” And the rest, as they say, is history.

So much of Old Testament revelation addresses fair business practices, and such Word also speaks volumes about God.

Theologians of our own day seize-hold of that living and spoken Word to claim it’s not enough simply to set up a society in which everyone has an equal chance to get ahead in life and live the dream. Truly just societies also must labor overtime to ensure that those already poor and marginalized are not further exploited but actively lifted up.

Building the biblical case is easy enough. Indeed, the Lord’s First Testament is absolutely chock-full of God expressing deep concern and special care for the Bible’s odds-on favorite trifecta of widows, orphans, and non-native residents within one’s land. These were – and remain – vulnerable constituencies.

By tradition the men ruled the roost of ancient Israel. Family name and inheritance provided stable places in society and rooms with riverfront views. Thus, a woman without a husband, or a child with parents, or a newcomer lacking any prior claims to land and livelihood very well could be and most often was left high and dry with no legs to stand on. Which is precisely why the Bible over and again charges the rest of the faith community with a positive obligation and solemn responsibility to protect these three groups in particular and also in general those poor in body, mind, or spirit.

As another notes, God’s Word leaves no room for debate: God detests poverty and wills its elimination.

But if one constant spans the length of human history and crosses the boundaries of culture, it would be greed. The rich – many but not all – tend to want to get richer, and they comfortably rely on clever and sometimes-legal ways of protecting what they already have. Then as now, the way the rich get richer – sometimes but not always – is by putting the squeeze on the poor.

And as yet another observes: If theft could be limited only to such obvious misdeeds as purse-snatchings, shoplifters, and window-smashing thugs who steal Blue-Ray players and laptop computers by night, then the Eighth Commandment’s condemnation of theft would be simple and straight to ponder and apply as the law of the land.

But it’s complicated. In market-driven economies, we must seek out fraud and hold accountable its perpetrators among both labor and management. We must sift and winnow through sketchy advertising claims and flimsy political narratives to separate the wheat from the chaff.

The Spirit through the Eighth Word compels us to hard questions – to ponder and wonder if people richly blessed with lots of money, most of whom mostly spending their money on themselves, are guilty of a form of passive theft, simply by virtue of holding back with a death grip those resources at hand that easily and painlessly could be shared with others, including those in need.

And here’s the point of inflection: “Do not steal” hits not only Wall Street embezzlers, cat burglars, and armed robbers. “Do not steal” smacks everyone up alongside the head! God’s Law against stealing rises from human propensity to grab more than our fair share through devious, duplicitous, and in the end disastrous means – sometimes, without even realizing it!

And blessedly so, the Eighth Commandment spurs you and me to generosity, encourages us to share, give, donate, and offer freely and joyously. No. 8 maintains healthy balance between the opposing poles of wrong-taking and right-possessing.

Because in this Commandment, what God assumes is our possession of things. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that.

Nonetheless, there’s a right way and wrong way to acquire the trappings of life, even as there are right and wrong ways of possessing the stuffs you acquire. Regardless of collar color: If the money you earn comes via unjust practices or behaviors, or because you cheat a fair wage from your employees, or since you regularly deny your boss of your honest day’s work, then beyond a doubt you are guilty of stealing.

Further, as a salaried or hourly worker, as an at-home caregiver or retiree, even if everything you own has come through legitimate avenues of honest work, it still remains possible you’ll hold onto that proper gain in ways that constitute passive stealing. If you never give anything away, never share with those who have less, but instead use what you have only for your own pleasure, then you may well be on your improper way of owning even what is legitimately yours.

Ill-gotten gain is wrong, but so is self-centered use of even well-earned reward.

Much to think about, as autoworkers strike for hefty shares of record profits. Much to ponder, when point-of-sale screens more and more flash prompts of pre-calculated tip options – 10, 15, or 20 percent. Just for pouring a cup of coffee? Much to understand, in that showing up for work on time is no longer considered a given.

Much to think about, much to ponder, much to understand: the Eighth Commandment, the Word of the Lord. “Let justice roll down like waters, righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message during worship on Sunday, September 24, 2023. It is the ninth in his current series on The Ten Commandments. Scholarship, commentary, and reflection by Gustavo Guiterrez, Scott Hoezee, David Holwerda, and Lewis Smedes inform the message.

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