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You Shall not Steal; You Shall Not Covet Your Neighbour's House, Wife, Workers, or Animals

March 20, 2024; Rev. Kurt A. Lantz, Pastor
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There are two places in the Bible where the Ten Commandments are listed one after the other in the fashion that we have come to memorize them. That is in Exodus chapter 20 when the people are at the foot of Mount Sinai, and the LORD has summoned Moses up on to the mountain. The LORD spoke the Ten Commandments amid thunder and flashes of lightning and the sound of a trumpet.


They are repeated more than 40 years later when the people have completed their sojourn through the wilderness and are about to enter the promised land. Moses repeats the words of the LORD to the people word for word, perhaps even reading them off of the second set of stone tablets upon which the LORD had written them with His own finger. This is recorded in Deuteronomy chapter 5, the name “Deuteronomy” meaning “the second law.”


But throughout all of the time in between we have the instructions from the LORD through Moses about how these Ten Commandments are to be applied to real life situations that come up as the people live their lives in the presence of God’s holiness, and with themselves infected with sin. We need those kinds of explanations and applications for our day, too. For although we continue to live in God’s holy presence here in His Word and Sacraments, and with ourselves infected with sin, the commandments may remain the same but the circumstances are a little different.


My neighbour does not have an ox or a donkey, as would be quite common in Old Testament times. My neighbour has power tools and a car, though. He does not have male or female servants, unless we are supposed to include the appliance repairman and yard maintenance crews he has contracted to work on his property. It is important that we don’t restrict God’s commandments in order to restrict their application, so that we might be able to skirt around the literal meaning of the words and still transgress the LORD’s intention.


He has made it clear that such a practice would incur His wrath and punishment, because such a practice would also cause harm to our neighbour. So in our first reading tonight we have one of those places where the LORD does more than recite the Ten Commandments as we have memorized them. He explains what keeping these commandments will look like in daily life when the people are settled in their own land.


In the context of occupying the promised land, not just cities but the whole countryside, the LORD explains “You shall not steal” means “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner” (Leviticus 19:9-10).


That is perhaps not the kind of meaning we would want the commandment to have. We would want the commandment to prevent anyone from taking anything off of our land whether it is still on the vine or on the ground. But the LORD has informed us that what is on the ground belongs to the poor. Furthermore, whatever was not quite ripe at the time when you harvested is not yours to take either. It is to be left for the poor whether it is on the ground or on the vine. That is not a conclusion we would have come to on our own.


Well, I don’t have a field of wheat or a vineyard of grapes. Just a small vegetable garden. And I don’t have the poor coming to gather what is left from the harvest, unless you count the rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks, and birds. This explanation may work for farmers and those who live in the outskirts, but it does little for me.


Yet the passage in Leviticus 19 goes on to tell me other applications of the commandment “You shall not steal. You shall not deal falsely; you shall not lie to one another. You shall not swear by My name falsely, and so profane the name of your God: I am the LORD” (19:11-12). Here we have the second and eighth commandments thrown into the seventh commandment. The context here is the wheeling and dealing that we might engage in so as to obtain cheaper goods or to get a higher price for the things we sell.


I used to like going to garage, yard, and estate sales. I like to find interesting, odd items. It used to be the place to take our children to buy some used things for themselves when we couldn’t afford the things at the toy stores. That was all great for the things in the one or two dollar bins.


But when it came to higher priced items like used stereo equipment or furniture I hated the expected bargaining, where one party would say the price was one thing and another party would offer to pay a lower price. The seller would talk up the worth of the item and the buyer would say how they really didn’t need it and were not seriously interested. It could become a game of lies and deceit with the winner being the one who sold something for more than it was worth or the one who bought something and didn’t pay its true value.


Again, most people in our society wouldn’t see this as breaking the seventh commandment at all. We don’t see these little lies and deceits as stealing. We see ourselves as being responsible, getting the most out of the money and goods that God has given to us. We say it is all part of the economy of second hand sales. There is a certain amount of deceit that is expected in order to get a good bargain. Without the explanations that the LORD gives to us about His intentions, our sinful nature would never lead us to a true interpretation of His commands.


In yet another application, the LORD said in our reading, “You shall not oppress your neighbor or rob him. The wages of a hired servant shall not remain with you all night until the morning” (19:13). It is oppression and robbery not to pay someone promptly when they have done their work. For day labourers, this meant paying them at the end of the day and not making them wait until the next day.


This would indicate that it is the LORD’s intention that we pay promptly for work as it is done. If people work for us on a daily basis for long periods of time, their wages should be given at reasonable intervals that make it possible for them to take care of themselves and their families. If we hire someone on to complete a job, they too should be paid along the way at a reasonable time for the work they have done, even if they have not yet completed the job entirely. A delay in completion of their task should not result in us holding back payment for what they have already accomplished.


We might call such a holding back of payment a means to insure that the job gets completed, that the contract is fulfilled, and our satisfaction is guaranteed. The LORD calls it oppression and robbery to hold back someone’s wages, depriving them of the ability to pay their own regular expenses. Without these Scripture passages that show how the LORD expected His Ten Commandments to be put into practice, our sinful nature would lead us to find loopholes and excuses for transgressing the LORD’s intention to protect what belongs to us and what belongs to our neighbour.


By combining our meditation of the Seventh Commandment from Luther’s Small Catechism with the explanations given for the Ninth and Tenth Commandments, we see a greater picture and a clearer understanding of God’s holy will in regard to protecting what belongs to our neighbour. Similarly, we see that the LORD Himself drew in the second and eighth commandments to show us that any transgression of His will in the matter of the seventh is a profaning of His holy name, and the practice of lies and deceit against our fellow man.


Our psalm for tonight, appointed for the Fifth Sunday in Lent receives special emphasis as its antiphon provides us with the name for the Fifth Sunday. “Judica” means “Judge me” but when a favourable judgment is given it is a vindication. “Vindicate me, O God, and defend my cause against an ungodly people, from the deceitful and unjust man deliver me” (Psalm 43:1). It is a cry for God’s commandments to be kept. We don’t want to be the victim of deceitful and unjust people taking advantage of us. We want the Seventh, Ninth, and Tenth Commandments to be upheld, if not in this world, then before the eternal judgment seat of the Almighty on the last day.


But our sinful nature has been exposed by these commandments. They reveal how we would deal with our possessions and with our neighbour, that we are the deceitful and unjust man. It is against this sinful man within us that we need God’s intervention. How will He vindicate us from our own sinful nature?


He accomplished it through the incarnation, suffering, death, and resurrection of His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. He vindicated us by not only taking on our human nature in innocence, but then taking our sins upon Himself. He suffered the just penalty for our transgressions, and the death of the immortal, eternal, divine Son of God, atoned for the sins of the whole world, for our sins in their entirety.


St. Paul spelled it out for us. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2 For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. 3 For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:1-4).


The LORD has vindicated His people by sending His Son in the flesh. We cannot be vindicated by the law. The Seventh Commandment and all of the others condemn us. But in Christ, God has done for us what the law cannot do. Christ fulfilled the righteousness of the law, all of the commandments, all of God’s intentions for them in every time and circumstance. And then God placed us in Christ. He vindicated us. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” He has delivered us from the unjust and deceitful man that is ourself.


As those who are now in Christ Jesus, vindicated before God, we are led by His Spirit to no longer walk according to the flesh, trying to get the most for ourselves at the expense of others, but we are led to walk according to the Spirit of His gracious giving. His Spirit will always war against the spirit of our old sinful man, yet He delivers us from this body of death. “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 7:25).

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