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Economics of the Straying Ox

San Williams

August 7, 2011
Exodus 20:15; Deuteronomy 5:19

08-07-2011 SermonYou shall not steal


Stealing is just wrong.  This conviction is universally shared by people of every culture and religion, as it has been across the ages.  The Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament says, “The ethical consciousness of all people concurs that stealing is wrong.”  I’d guess that some of you here this morning were children when you first experienced the force of the commandment against stealing.  Trailing behind your mother in the grocery story, a candy bar accidentally fell from the shelf and miraculously landed in your pants pocket.  Later, when your mother discovered your theft, she might have taken you firmly by the hand, put you back in the car and returned to the scene of the crime—where you were forced to hand over the stolen goods to the manager while making an embarrassed apology. Yes, from an early age we are taught that stealing is wrong.  The Hebrew word for stealing means, literally, to carry something away as if by stealth. Stealing undermines community, sets neighbor against neighbor, and causes much suffering and deprivation.  Thus, the 8th Commandment:  You shall not steal.

But while universally regarded as wrong, stealing is nonetheless rampant.  How many of us have alarm systems in our homes and places of business?  Jan and I are on an on-line neighborhood list serve that almost daily reports some kind of theft in our neighborhood. There are conventional thefts such as burglary, shoplifting, pick-pocketing and purse-snatching. The pilfering of public property is epidemic—stealing from hospitals, building sites, and churches and so on.  One hotel in its first year of business reported having to replace 38,000 spoons, 18,000 tiles, 355 coffee pots…and 100 Bibles!

And thanks to the world-wide web, opportunities for stealing have gone viral. We not only worry about credit-card theft, but now identity theft has become a major concern.  Internet thieves are forever devising new schemes to rob the public.  I keep getting e-mails trying to trick me into forwarding my personal information.  Just the other day, I received such an e-mail from a self-described missionary in Africa, who wrote that a wealthy individual had left $62 million and had chosen our church as recipient.  If I’ll just fill in my contact information, this person wrote, including social security number and church bank account number, etc., a check will be in the mail.  Such fraudulent schemes sound ridiculous, but they prey upon the gullible, the unsuspecting, the elderly.  Alas, there are countless ways to steal.

Now when it comes to the eighth Commandment, our first response might be “not guilty.”  Here’s one commandment about which we might say, “Our hands are clean.”  After all, we’re not going around snatching purses, mugging people on the streets, or robbing banks.  Surely we can check this commandment off our list of concerns.

But on further reflection, we learn that this commandment has a broader application than simply to refrain from theft.   Like the other commandments, this one directs us to watch out for, and act on behalf of, our neighbor’s welfare.  In this case, the neighbor we are to help is one who has suffered loss by theft or experienced some other economic misfortune.

For example, in Deuteronomy 22, we read:  “You shall not watch your neighbor’s ox or sheep straying away and ignore them; you shall take them back to their owner…you shall do the same with anything else that your neighbor loses and you find.  You may not withhold your help.”  (Deut. 22:1-4)   The term translated as “ignore” and “withhold your help” in this verse is literally, “to hide oneself.”  So here is the larger challenge:  even if we don’t ourselves steal from our neighbor, we can’t “hide ourselves” from our neighbor’s economic endangerment.  In his book on the 10 Commandments, Patrick Miller calls this command “the economics of the straying ox.” It goes like this:  If a neighbor’s ox strays, putting the neighbor’s economic welfare in jeopardy, we cannot hide ourselves, but we must act in whatever way we can to help our neighbor recover what is rightfully his.

The Protestant Reformer Martin Luther puts it succinctly in his commentary on the 8th commandment:  “We are commanded to promote and further our neighbor’s interests, and when they suffer any want, we are to help, share and lend to both friends and foes.”   Luther even wrote a hymn, poetically exploring the implications of the eighth Commandment.

Steal not thy neighbor’s good or gold,

Nor profit by his sweat and blood;

But open wide thy loving hand

To all the poor in the land.

A generation later John Calvin also extended this commandment beyond matters of simple theft. He wrote:  “It follows, therefore, that not only are those thieves who secretly steal the property of others, but those also who seek gain from the loss of others, accumulate wealth by unlawful practice and are more devoted to their private advantage than to equity.”

So the 8th commandment carries more of a punch than we may at first realize. Both scripture and the Reformers call us to recover “the economics of the straying ox.” That is, to watch for and to help our neighbors when their livelihood is in jeopardy.

This past week, a group of construction workers has been protesting on Guadalupe Street behind our church.  One of the contractors working on Belmont Hall at UT has refused to pay payroll taxes. No payroll tax, no unemployment tax, and no worker’s compensation insurance to assist injured workers.  This contractor, like so many others, tries to get around the tax by classifying their workers “independent contractors” rather than “employees.” But such practice steals from the workers, cheats the state out of millions of dollars, and is unfair to legitimate contractors who are playing by the rules.

The truth is, it’s easy for us to hide ourselves, look the other way, or consider it none of our business when workers are victims of wage thief or unsafe working conditions, or when they are denied worker’s compensation and other lawful benefits.  In his letter to the early Church, James lets Christians know that the plight of laborers is their business. Applying the 8th commandment, James warns those employers who mistreat their laborers:  “Listen!” he cries.  “The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvester have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.”  (5:4).

Friends, the commandment against stealing means more than simply keeping your hand out of the cookie jar.  It calls us to watch out for individual and systematic practices that rob our neighbors of economic wellbeing, especially when the gap between the wealthiest Americans and everyone else keeps widening…when the average CEO of a large U.S. company makes 364 times that of the full-time and part-time workers…when the top 1% of American households hold more wealth than the bottom 80%…when credit card companies can charge 20% interest…when famine is leaving millions with no economic means whatsoever?  Metaphorically speaking, our neighbor’s ox has strayed.  We can’t hide behind gated communities or wall ourselves off from our neighbor’s plight.  We must try to help. Anything less would be stealing.