Okay. So where are we in the story of the Exodus?
The people of Israel, who were slaves in Egypt just two months before this, are now standing at the foot of a mountain on the far side of the wilderness, a mountain burning with fire, black with stormclouds. And God himself is speaking to them from the mountain with a voice like thunder.
And God has been outlining for them the values of the new nation he wants his people to establish with him. Basically, he has been describing himself in very simple terms. He has been saying, “This is who I am as your Heavenly Father, and these are the ways I want you to grow up to be like me.”
And so far in our reading God has spoken seven times, he has issued seven commandments, seven values, seven words that define who he is, who he wants his children to become. Those seven defining words are: love, relationship, integrity, rest, honour, reconciliation, and sexual faithfulness.
But apparently, there is more to say. And we can tell because God goes on to speak yet another word, another commandment here:
 “You shall not steal.”
And just like the previous commandment that says, “You shall not murder,” this commandment makes immediate sense to us. It does not really need much explanation, does it? “Stealing” means taking something that belongs to someone else. Don’t do that!
Clear enough, yeah?
In fact, just like the commandment that forbids murder, we could respond by wondering why God feels like he needs to say this. Isn’t the idea ”stealing is bad” already obvious to everyone?
Well, actually, not so obvious to everyone.
See, contained within this commandment there are some implied concepts that are obvious to us in the modern world but were not obvious to the people of Israel who had just escaped from slavery in ancient Egypt.
For instance: the concept of personal property. The fact that stealing now exists as a concept means that personal property now exists as a concept.
Now, we say, “Of course!” The idea of personal property is so basic that we don’t even think about it anymore. But for the people of Israel, this was a radical new concept. Because the thing about slaves — especially slaves in an ancient civilization like Egypt — was this: they did not have property. They were property. They did not belong to themselves, they belonged to their masters. And, ultimately, in Egypt, they belonged to the king.
And this would have been true in most civilizations in the ancient world. Their understanding of personal property was very different from ours. In many cases, really, there was no personal property: everything was owned by the kings or the priests, by the nobility. For common people, when it came to land, there was no freehold property, only leasehold.
To put all this in modern terms, we could say that in the absence of personal property all property was owned and administered by the state. Now, to some people today, that sounds like utopia — as long as we get rid of the slavery bit, of course. But there is actually a big problem with such a system: when the state owns everything, this means that citizens can sin against the state, but the state cannot actually sin against its citizens.
For instance: in ancient Egypt, if I steal my neighbor’s cow, I have actually stolen some nobleman’s cow, and the penalty for robbing a nobleman in those days was really terrible! But if a nobleman steals my cow he does not get punished at all, because he is not actually stealing, he is simply taking what belongs to him.
Because of this, societies that delete the concept of personal property have always become horribly unbalanced, unequal. Historians see it in countless ancient societies, and we have seen it — we are seeing it — in communist societies today.
The people of Israel have been living in a society where, if you are in the top 1%, you are above the law: you can take what you want whenever you want. But if you are a commoner — or even worse, a slave — you have no real human rights, because you have no real property.
So when God speaks from the mountain, to everyone all at once, saying “You shall not steal,” he is speaking a radically new concept into existence: this idea that everyone is allowed to own property. From now on, in God’s society, property is going to be personal, owned at a family and clan level, not at the state level. Some families will be larger and richer, some will be smaller and less powerful, but each family will own its own property: their own land, their own tools, their own animals.
Which also means that everyone is now equal under the law. From now on, in God’s society, no one is allowed to steal. It does not matter how rich or powerful you are: “you shall not steal”, and if you do steal you will pay an appropriate penalty for what you stole. In the same way, it does not matter how poor or powerless you are: “you shall not steal”, and if you do steal you will pay the same appropriate penalty that a nobleman would pay for the same crime.
And what is true of property is also true of human beings: in God’s society children actually belong to their parents now! — so rulers are not allowed to kidnap them or kill them anymore, like Pharaoh did back in Egypt. And a wife belongs to her husband, a husband belongs to his wife now! — so kings are not allowed to force men into the military anymore, or force women into domestic or sexual service.
Now, again, these concepts are so obvious to us that we listen to all this with a kind of disbelief. But the only reason these concepts are obvious to us is because we have all grown up with a modern understanding of property rights. And the modern understanding of property rights is based on this commandment.
We were all born into a world dominated by Judeo-Christian values. Those values feel natural to us, but they are not natural. They have been taught; they have been learned. Without God’s equalising law in place, a “natural” human civilization will always slide into the tyranny of the 1%, where the state owns its citizens and its citizens have no rights in comparison to the state.
And we should give credit where credit is due: a lot of the reason we live in a Malaysia where we have personal property rights is because of western colonial powers, especially the British. I know it is popular today to focus on all the bad — and there was a lot of bad. But it could have been much worse. In fact, it actually was much worse for a long time. Reflect on this: Malaysia was colonized for a thousand years by Hindu kingdoms, then by Buddhist and Muslim traders. Did any of those value systems introduce property rights to Malaysia during the many centuries they were in power? They did not. It was only when people influenced by the Judeo-Christian law of God showed up that conditions here began to change to what we enjoy today.
We really have a lot to be thankful for. That God should choose funny-looking people from some tiny islands in the North Atlantic to spread his concept of human rights to nations all around the globe…well, that is exactly God’s style, isn’t it! That is God’s sense of humor at work: using the least of all nations to change the world.
But now it might occur to us to ask how God was able to justify this new concept of property rights to the people of Israel.
After all, it is hard enough for us to look back and try to understand how bad it was to live in a society without equality, without personal property rights. So it must have been absolutely impossible for the people of Israel to look forward and try to understand what an equal society might even look like!
As they stood there listening, and as they realized that God was talking to everyone equally, saying “You shall not steal,” they would have said, “Wait a minute, this idea will never work! Obviously some people are more rich and powerful than others, because they have been favoured by the gods, they represent the gods. So it is only right for them to own everything, and to take whatever they want from those who are poor and powerless. If we try to stop them, the gods they represent might get angry and destroy us all. No, no, no, it’s just too risky to suddenly say that everyone has equal property rights.”
So how is God going to help his people see that his new version of society is actually a huge improvement over the old one? How can he describe a new world to them before they even have the categories to understand it?
Well, God is going to have to describe his new equal society by using concepts they are already familiar with. And the most important concept is the concept of inheritance rights.
We have already noticed that this radical new idea of equal human rights is based on the radical new idea of personal property. But what is the idea of personal property based on? It is based on the idea that the people of Israel are God’s children. They are the children of the King over all kings. And when a king gives property to his children as an inheritance, that property is theirs, property that they hold and administer on behalf of their father and the whole royal family.
In other words: people in God’s new society are all equal because they are all royalty. There are no commoners in God’s country because God’s people are all princes. The land is no longer owned by the 1% because it is owned by the 100%.
But God is not going to explain all that in this passage today. Over the months to come, God will begin to talk though all the implications of these ideas for Israel’s future society. He will talk a lot about inheritance laws in the Book of Numbers especially.
Today, however, it is enough for God to tell his people that, starting now, everything they own belongs to them, personally, because they are God’s children and God has given it to them. Does a man have a wife? She is his because God gave her to him. Does a woman have children? They are hers because God gave them to her. Does a family own a lot of property? That wealth is theirs because God gave it to them. Has a family lost all their property? They are still the children of the King, and their Heavenly Father will one day restore their inheritance.
And so this is why God says: “Really, you shall not steal!” Because when a person steals, they are really stealing gifts that God has distributed. They are trying to override God’s will; they are trying to be God. And God is saying, “Don’t do that! It will not end well for you.”
But now another question — or objection, really — might occur to us.
Because the truth is that, even in a society where people are all theoretically equal as God’s children, there is still a lot of inequality. So is God telling us to close one eye to inequality? If stealing is really a kind of unauthorized redistribution of God’s gifts, is God commanding his people to just accept the way he has distributed the wealth in a society? If someone is over here buying their second super-yacht while 100,000 people over here are barely able to feed themselves, are we supposed to say, “Ah well, God wills it. What can we do?”
No, we are not supposed to respond to inequality by closing one eye.
But we are not supposed to respond to inequality by stealing either. If it is not right for the rich to steal from the poor, then equally so it cannot be right for the poor to steal from the rich either. So what are we supposed to do?
Well, this commandment does actually provide a proper way for God’s people to respond to the unequal distribution of wealth.
Just like the other negatively worded commandments, there is an unspoken positive commandment implied here. “You shall not murder” also meant “you shall give life.” “You shall not commit adultery” also meant “You shall be faithful to marriage.” So “you shall not steal” also means “you shall be responsible with the property God has given you.”
Remember, in God’s society we are all royal children now, and all that we have is an inheritance from our royal Father. Now that is freedom from slavery! But this freedom does not mean we are free to do whatever we want with our property. We are bound by family obligations, by covenantal family values. We hold our property in trust, for the glory of our Heavenly Father and for the glory of our royal family. The third commandment, “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord,” taught us that we represent our Father to one another and to the nations of the earth. And the fifth commandment about honoring parents warned us that if we begin to abuse our inheritance, we are in danger of having it taken away and given to another.
So now we want to know: how does our Father define being responsible with our property?
Well, the simplest way to answer that question is to go right back to the beginning, where God gave Adam property — a garden — and told him to work it and keep it. Adam was to invest in his property, and protect it.
Nothing, really, has changed about that: we are also called to work and to keep, to invest in what property our Father has given us and to protect it. So:
How does our Father define being responsible with our property? Being responsible means working and keeping, investing in our property and protecting it.
So let’s talk about those details now: what does it mean to work, to invest? What does it mean to keep, to protect?
Well, to protect, at its most basic level, means to value our property. The commandment “you shall not steal” also implies “you shall not let yourself be stolen from.” One of the great sins described in the bible is treating an inheritance from God as if it is nothing. That is what Esau did: he let his brother Jacob steal from him because he did not value what Jacob stole. So being responsible means valuing God’s gifts appropriately and safeguarding them.
Now, we do need to be wise here: there are some elements of our inheritance that we must protect even to the point of laying down our lives. A man’s wife, for instance, is not to be seduced or stolen. Sons or daughters are not to be lightly given away. This is why the bible says that true covenantal love means laying down our lives for our families. Our clothing, however, is in a different category. We ought to care for our clothing, because it is a gift from our Father, but — as Jesus says in the New Testament — “if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.” There are some things the bible commands us to fight to the death to protect if necessary; there are other things that are not worth spending human lives to protect. Wisdom is knowing the difference.
But this brings us to the other side of proper responsibility: what does it mean to work our inheritance, to invest in it?
Well, to invest, at its most basic level, means to take what you have been given and grow it, expand it. Adam was supposed to expand the garden until it filled the earth, so the whole earth could enjoy the peace and prosperity that comes from life in covenant with God. In the same way we are supposed to grow all that we have been given until it fills the earth for the benefit of the earth. And here is the thing about investment: it requires some measure of risk. Protecting our inheritance means keeping it; but investing our inheritance means giving it away.
And again, this is a matter for wisdom: there are some elements of our inheritance that we must reserve for our own use alone, but there are other elements that we must not reserve. There are some elements of our inheritance that will only grow if they are sown like seeds in the soil of the earth. We have already discussed how one of scripture’s great sins is to let our inheritance be stolen because we think it is not worth protecting; the equal-but-opposite great sin is to cling to our property because we do not trust our Father to care for us — Jesus told more than one parable about that sin.
So, to summarise: “You shall not steal” also means “you shall be responsible with your property.” Being responsible means protecting and investing.
But now: how does this explain what we are supposed to do about the unequal distribution of wealth?
Well, if as Christians we are poor and powerless, this is how we are called to respond to that inequality: we refuse to steal and so dishonor the name of our God. Instead, in the words of the apostle Peter in the New Testament: we entrust ourselves to him who judges justly. If we truly are the covenant-bound children of the Living God, then we can and we will trust that one day all our rightful inheritance will be returned to us by our Father’s hand.
And this gives us the freedom to be responsible with what our Father has given us in the meantime: refusing to share our spouses; making sure we invest in our children; not forgetting to show hospitality to strangers; and as we have opportunity: doing good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers. History has demonstrated that when poor Christians are biblically responsible with their wives and children and personal property, over generations their society is changed into something that more closely resembles God’s heavenly kingdom.
But if as Christians we can be counted among the rich and powerful, then we do have a more direct responsibility to respond to an unequal distribution of wealth. In a sense, the wealthy among God’s people have received a more visible advance on the inheritance that will one day come to us all. Which basically means that wealthy Christians have more property to invest — more property to risk — now, during this age.
This is King Solomon’s advice on the topic, from his Book of Ecclesiastes: “Ship your grain across the sea; after many days you may receive a return. Invest in seven ventures, yes, in eight; you do not know what disaster may come upon the land. Sow your seed in the morning, and at evening let your hands not be idle, for you do not know which will succeed, whether this or that, or whether both will do equally well.”
So the bible does tell us that, if we have the means to invest, we should invest. We ought to be working to expand whatever wealth our Father has given us.
But why? For what purpose?
This is what the apostle Paul says in his first letter of advice for Timothy, the young pastor: “Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. Why? For what purpose? Because in this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.”
Basically, Paul is saying that when God blesses the earthly investments of some Christian families, he does this so those Christian families can re-invest that wealth back into providing life for other human beings who are struggling to provide life for their own families. And when wealthy Christians re-invest in this way, they are not just responding to the unequal distribution of wealth in this world, they are also making an investment in the next world. Super-yachts are not going to make the transition to the new heavens and the new earth; but human beings are.
Money can be transformed into expressions of conspicuous wealth in this world, and the world will say this is a wise and godly way to continue to grow our capital — because you have to look successful to be successful, right? But God condemns that. Rather, he commands us to take our money and transform it into eternal life for human beings: feeding them, body and soul, in hope that our Father might see fit to adopt them into the royal family along with us. So:
In answer to our question, the proper way for God’s people to respond to the unequal distribution of wealth is by taking responsibility for the property God has given them. And taking responsibility means that, whether we are rich or poor, we are called to protect what ought to be protected, give away what ought to be given away, and trust our Father for the results.
Okay. We have come a long way from where we started with this very simple commandment!
We were wondering why God would take the time to say something so obvious as “You shall not steal.” But then we realized that there are some not-so-obvious concepts contained within this simple commandment. First we realized that “You shall not steal” means “You shall not forcibly redistribute the personal property that God has distributed to others.” Then we realized that “You shall not steal” also means “You shall be responsible with the property God has given you.” And then we learned that “You shall be responsible” means keeping what ought to be kept and giving away what ought to be given away.
But still, we might be wondering what this commandment really has to do with us. I suspect that most of us here are not regularly tempted to break into somebody’s house or hotwire somebody’s car or even snatch somebody’s purse. And because modern Malaysian society is built upon a Judeo-Christian concept of personal property, most of us understand at an intuitive level that we are obligated to work and to keep, to invest in the economy while also being good stewards of the property we already possess.
So what is our application? Have we finally come to a commandment where we can say, “Yeah! Well done, everybody! Let’s go home.”
Because here’s the thing: in the final analysis, “you shall not steal” means that if we do not appropriately keep what ought to be kept, or give away what ought to be given away, then we are actually abusing our inheritance and stealing from God.
Let me explain: a man who steals his neighbor’s property is not just robbing his neighbor. He is robbing God. Because God gave that property to that neighbor, and the neighbor is actually holding that property in trust for God. Clear so far?
Okay. Let’s say the neighbor is a Christian, and the authorities get his property back from the thief. And then the Christian goes up to Genting and gambles it away. He just robbed God. Because he was actually holding that property in trust for God, and God entrusted that property to him so he could invest it in his children or in the neighborhood.
Or, let’s say that Christian works hard to invest that property well, and gains interest on it, and uses that interest for all kinds of good works — but because he is working all the time his wife turns into an idle gossip, a busy-body, his children grow up wild and disobedient…again, he has just robbed God. Because he was actually holding his family — his wife and children — in trust for God, and God entrusted that family to him so he could keep them, protect them from corruption. Instead, that Christian valued his financial investments more than he valued the people God entrusted to his care. He should have used his property to purchase time to spend with his family, instead of letting that property consume all of his time.
Basically, a Christian who overvalues what is not actually valuable — or undervalues what is valuable — is just as guilty of robbing God as a man who steals a car, or enslaves another human being.
And let’s be honest here: we are all guilty of this failure. Wisdom means knowing the difference between what must be protected and kept, and what must be invested, spent, given away for a larger purpose. And we often mix these things up. We often use our Father’s gifts to invest in ultimately worthless possessions, while at the same time failing to value and protect God’s most treasured possession: his children. Our fellow human beings.
That is what this commandment is really all about: loving God by loving people. And we know this because that is what the last three commandments have been about. ”Honor your father and mother“ was all about loving God by loving people. “Do not murder” and “do not commit adultery”: also about loving God by loving people. The specific thing this commandment adds to the conversation is the idea that people are more important than any other physical possessions.
And we know this! — because we are Christians. And yet we have broken this commandment, we continue to break this commandment.
What are we to do with our guilt?
Well, since we are going back to basics, we are going to return today to the basic application of all these commandments. And that basic application is: remember. Remember that we are the children of God by adoption through a covenant that has been sealed by the blood of Jesus Christ, the only true-born Son of God.
Even though Jesus was in very nature God, he made himself nothing, and became a human being just like us. He practiced perfect wisdom. He knew exactly what he needed to give away for a larger purpose — his own life — and he knew exactly what he needed to keep: his relationship with Heavenly Father. In fact, he knew that giving away his own life was exactly the thing that protected his relationship with his Father. By dying, by pouring his blood out upon the earth — by pouring his Holy Spirit out upon his people — Jesus poured out his life upon this creation, an investment that will lead to a new creation.
And that new creation is made available to us through a covenant. If we believe that Jesus did what he said he did, and if we agree to repent of our self-love — our stealing — and join his family, if we pass through the waters of baptism as the people of Israel passed through the waters of the Red Sea, then we will be reborn as God’s children.
And once we are reborn, several things happen. First of all, we are forgiven. Second, we receive the promise that all we have stolen and misused will be restored to its rightful owners, while everything we have been robbed of will also be returned. Third, we receive an inheritance that is kept in heaven for us: the promise of meaningful work and meaningful rest in the creation that is to come, where we will always have the wisdom to know the difference between what needs to be kept and what needs to be given away.
So if you are here today, and you are not a Christian, that is what you should do: allow yourself to be bound into covenant with God, and you will discover a life you never knew existed.
But in the meantime, for those of us who are already God’s adopted children, what are we to do with the grief and the shame of knowing that we continue to steal from our Father? We hate it, but we do it — partly because we are just stupid kids who have to make the same mistake a thousand times before we learn; partly because we are still stubbon, willful, selfish brats who think we know better than God. We are supposed to grow up to be like our Heavenly Father, and we know it, we long for it even while we sabotage our own progress. Is there anything we can do to speed up our growth in grace?
Yes, there is. Here, again, remembering is important. Fixing our minds on who we are and what our Father wants us to become. Who are we? We are the children of God. What does our Father want us to become? Wise children who value human life above any other possession. That is the lesson he is teaching us; that is the lesson we should set our minds to learning. So:
Are you poor in the eyes of the world, but you have a good wife? Then you are wealthy! Scripture says that a wife of noble character is worth far more than rubies. If that is the case, then protect her, and invest in her, so that on the day our Lord returns you will find her standing alongside you in the new creation.
Are you rich in the eyes of the world, but you have a quarrelsome wife? Oh, well then: you already know that no amount of wealth is going to make you happy! Scripture says that a disgraceful wife is like decay in her husband’s bones. Now, if that is the case, what should you do, in your situation? Should you divorce her? No! Your Heavenly Father gave her to you. So protect her. Invest in her. Preach the gospel to her, live the gospel with her, in hope that one day she will grow up to be more like God.
Are you poor in the eyes of the world, but you have children? Then you are have the greatest of all inheritances. Scripture says that children are a heritage from the Lord. So protect them and invest in them. If you do this, scripture says, then when they are grown your children will be a blessing to you and to the nations — they will also learn to be generous and lend freely — and so you will end up bringing greater equality to this world than many who are millionaires.
Are you rich in the eyes of the world, you have a good wife, but you do not have any children? Then you are blessed, because our Father has already given you everything you need to adopt as many orphans as you can afford — and widows also. After all, as the apostle James says, religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress.
Are you poor in the eyes of the world, and yet you refused to marry because you never found an appropriate Christian man or woman, if you remained true to your Heavenly Father despite all the pressures of society and even your own longings, then you are fortunate above all. Because you are the inheritor of this blessing from the prophet Isaiah: “Sing, barren woman, you who never bore a child; burst into song, shout for joy, you who were never in labor; because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband. The children born during your bereavement will yet say in your hearing, ‘This place is too small for us; give us more space to live in.’ Then you will say in your heart, ‘Who bore me these? I was bereaved and barren; I was exiled and rejected. Who brought these up? I was left all alone, but these — where have they come from?’”
And this prophecy has already been fulfilled by Jesus Christ. “Truly I tell you,” he said, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields.”
In other words: if that is your situation, then Jesus’ Church itself is your property. These are your brothers and sisters, your parents and children. So protect them, invest in them, take responsibility for the inheritance your Father has given you. If you do this, Jesus says, you will receive persecutions, but: “in the age to come eternal life.
“Many who are first will be last, and the last first.”
Brothers and sisters, we long to learn wisdom. We long to be healed of our self-love, our foolish undervaluation of the inheritance we have been given. Well, this is how healing happens: slowly, step by step, as we return again and again to the throne of grace and are reminded again and again of what really matters in this world.
It is easy to become discouraged, as we look around at the gross inequalities in our world, as we are tempted to dwell on our own ineffectiveness, our own sins and failures. So I want to close with this encouragement:
First, back in Chapter 15, right after Israel had been born again through the Red Sea, God told them, “I am the Lord, who heals you.” He is the Lord who heals us. We will be healed. So let us cling to that promise.
And second, here is the evidence that really, truly, he is the Lord who heals his people: modern statistical studies show that Christians are by far the most generous people on earth. We give away billions of dollars to the poor every year, billions more than Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, and far more than the secular people of the world who love to talk so much about equality. They talk! but we do. Business tycoons and politicians donate millions, and make sure the media is there to record them doing it; but ordinary Christians just like us all over the world quietly invest not just their money but their lives, and it is Christians who actually make the difference.
We really are being redeemed. So let us not be discouraged, but let us press on, let us give more tomorrow than we did today, and in this way lay up treasure for ourselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that we may take hold of the life that is truly life.