Four Major Stories This Week
- Ukrainian Conflict with Russia
- China’s conflict with Vietnam over drilling rights
- Abduction of school girls in Nigeria
- Antarctic Ice Shelf is irreparably melting
All four stories could be understood as violations of the command “You shall not steal”.
- Ukrainians are claiming Russia is stealing their country
- Vietnam is claiming China is stealing their oil
- Boko Haram is stealing these children from their families, their faith and their future
- Present pollution is stealing environmental health from future generations
But the big story is…
Justin drew a crowd and when he saw a woman reach for her cell phone he assumed she was taking pictures of him. She accuses him of reaching into her bag to grab her cell phone to delete the pictures only to find it locked. He pressured her to unlock it and she did so to demonstrate she had not taken any pictures. She claims he proceeded to say unkind things about her to her 13 year old daughter who was with her. According to other reports there were plenty of other people around by that point.
Justin defended himself on Twitter
“It is hard to defend myself and my privacy every moment of the day,” “Then to see rumors. The truth will set u free.”
My mom raised me to be kind to others. I get judged, harassed, and I try to take the high road. Sometimes it isn’t easy. But we keep trying
I will continue to be the man my mother raised. I love people and I will try to be kind even when things are not fair. Don’t believe rumors
LA police have not commented nor as of yet charged him with a crime.
Can Taking A Picture Be Considered “Stealing”?
I think Justin things so and many of us might agree. The fame that has made him powerful and wealthy comes at a price, his privacy. Is privacy a possession even though you can’t touch it or point to it? What exactly IS a possession? What exactly IS stealing?
Of Selves and Keeping
Lew Smedes begins his discussion on this commandment in this way.
In the Eighth Commandment, the Lord God invades the mysterious world of our personal relationship to things. Between persons and things is a bond we call ownership, and God tells all people to respect that bond. Behind “Thou shalt not steal” must lie a permission to keep things. Respect for persons, the common thread we see running through all the commandments, here requires a particular attention to persons in their relationship to things which are truly their own and therefore bound up with their very selves.
Lewis B. Smedes. Mere Morality: What God Expects from Ordinary People (Kindle Locations 2579-2582). Kindle Edition.
Genesis and Stuff
Genesis 1 is the story of the relationship between the God-selves (remember the Trinity has three of them) and this world of things. After each ordering day He declares the stuff “good”.
Genesis 1:26–30 (NET)
26 Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, after our likeness, so they may rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move on the earth.” 27 God created humankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them. 28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply! Fill the earth and subdue it! Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and every creature that moves on the ground.”29 Then God said, “I now give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the entire earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food.30 And to all the animals of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to all the creatures that move on the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” It was so.
I was told that in early conflicts between European immigrants to North America and the aboriginal people who got here first that the Native Americans thought you couldn’t “own” land. What we see in conflicts between Ukraine and Russia, Vietnam and China and our concerns about environmental devastation is that “ownership” is complicated. The issue really isn’t so much “can I possess these things”, it is “what is the relationship between my self, other selves, and the stuff we are able to manage or control.”
You Can’t Take It With You
If you don’t have a “self”, you don’t have possessions.
As a pastor I get to be with families when there is a death. What happens almost right away when someone dies? Often someone in the family will lay claim to some possession the person had others will protest. We in fact have laws and practices about this because conflicts surrounding death and stuff are so extremely common.
It is a sobering thought to know that while we are alive, self trumps stuff, but we are only alive for a little while. Once we are gone, no longer an active self in-play in the relational matrix that is our world, our connect to “stuff” evaporates.
Is Money “Real”?
I continue to follow the story of Ryan Bell, the former Seventh-Day Adventist pastor and teacher in his “year without God” which really isn’t quite how it sounds.
He recently wrote a blog post about faith and “public truth”. In the debates between theists and atheists there is often a lot of talk about “evidence”. “Faith” is often construed as “assertions without evidence” and people want to say that such assertions are out of bounds for public discourse. I hear this and I think “really?”
Consider money. If Golden One tells me that I have $300 in my checking account, I don’t for a minute imagine that there is a cubby-hole in the vault on Florin Road with three hundred dollar bills stacked in it. I don’t for a minute imagine that when I got to AM/PM and buy gas that someone from the credit union runs down to deliver $45.67 in cash to the guy at AM/PM. What has happened? An electronic message has been sent reducing the number in their computer attached to my account and increasing the number in some other computer.
It gets more spooky in fact because we might ask “what is a dollar?”
You may pull out some cash, but that cash really isn’t a “dollar”, it just represents one, no more or no less than the number I can pull up in my banking app. If you believe that the only things that qualify for “public truth” are things we can see, taste, measure, observe in the material world then you had better let go of currency because currency is simply a product of faith. Whenever you accept currency you are exerting faith that at some point in the future there will be another self out there that will recognize it, accept it and regard it. That’s all it is. All money is is an expression of relationship between selves.
The Command is More about Relationships Than Stuff
This command is more about our relationships with other people than it has to do with the stuff. The stuff is incidental.
On one hand we might imagine that the stuff is more important because we go away from this world and it stays. On the other we know that people matter more than the stuff.
The Christian story says that our relationship with stuff will never end, but the stuff we are fighting over today is in the “age of decay”. The reason we cannot really possess it is, however, because we are decaying too, and in many cases even faster than the stuff we are in conflict over. In the resurrection, we, and stuff, are translated into something that doesn’t decay. There is new stuff, the stuff of Creation 2.0. We ourselves will be made of that new stuff, the same stuff of Jesus’ resurrected body.
Our selves also make the transition and that is why we must be careful with other selves, to respect them, to honor them, to love them.
“Jesus, tell my brother to divide the inheritance…”
A great example of this is found in Luke 12.
Luke 12:13 (NET)
13 Then someone from the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”
We can assume that a father of two brothers died. The elder brother probably was responsible to settle the estate and for some reason has not done so to the satisfaction of his brother.
Jesus has drawn attention from people (like Justin Bieber I guess) and this guy instead of taking a picture of Jesus with his cell phone instead wants Jesus to use his authority to settle the dispute with his brother.
Luke 12:14 (NET)
14 But Jesus said to him, “Man, who made me a judge or arbitrator between you two?”
This answer is fascinating. Is this in keeping with Jesus?
- We find Jesus sharing his judgments on all sorts of things he runs into. His teaching is full of it.
- We find Jesus sometimes knowing things in a supernatural way.
- Jesus goes out of his way to attend sick people on a regular basis, he could find the other brother if he wasn’t available.
- We assume Jesus could do basic math and knew the inheritance laws of the time.
- Surely Jesus could just said to the other brother “OK, give your younger brother the house in Capernaum and 25 goats and call it square.”
If he had, what would that have accomplished? Was the conflict really about the stuff? Maybe. In my experience it often isn’t.
What if Jesus said it and the older brother didn’t comply? Just because Jesus was Jesus didn’t mean people did what he said, in fact most did not.
The truth is that they had judges and law enforcement and lawyers and prisons for this. Would the younger brother want Jesus to somehow compel the older brother to comply by his judgment? Should Jesus beat him until he does?
Jesus refuses to get into the matter with the man, but uses the example of the man’s request as an opportunity to teach the crowd (notice the transition from “him” to “them”).
Luke 12:15–21 (NET)
15 Then he said to them, “Watch out and guard yourself from all types of greed, because one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” 16 He then told them a parable: “The land of a certain rich man produced an abundant crop, 17 so he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’18 Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19 And I will say to myself, “You have plenty of goods stored up for many years; relax, eat, drink, celebrate!” ’ 20 But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded back from you, but who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’21 So it is with the one who stores up riches for himself, but is not rich toward God.”
If in fact we assume Jesus could know the man and the case the implication is simple. The man cares more about the money than anything else. The man cares more about the inheritance than he cares for his brother or perhaps even his father.
The question asker is lost to view, and in his place is this “barn builder”. We would call the barn builder “self-absorbed” and that absorption was played out in his relationship to things.
The barn builder became wealthy because of an abundant crop. Did he create the soil? Did he bring the rain? Did he write the genetic code of the plants? He now possessed a wealth of food mostly because of the generosity of God. All of his self-talk, however, betrays the how he sees the world.
How A World From God Changes the World Of Things
If there is no God who gives and remains involved then the parable doesn’t work. The man IS in possession of the stuff and as long as he can continue to control it from the other human selves with which he is in competition who is to judge.
But God is large in the story and decides to remove from the more foundational gift of his life that the man simply assumes and takes for granted. God slyly then asks “and the things you’ve prepared, whose will they be?”
Jesus then gives the moral of the story. This is how it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.”
Jesus could have said “not rich towards others” and it certainly would have been in keeping with many other things he said, but he draws it back to God.
We’ve noted that this thing called possession is a ticklish thing. We need to have a self in order to possess and if there is no self available then the stuff is up for grabs. If there is no divine source and giver of things in the picture, our relationship to things is also changed.
If you are walking down the road and you come across a 20 dollar bill, you might look ahead and see if someone dropped it. Finding no other self that may perhaps lay claim to it, you call it yours.
In a world where all things come from God, because no matter what thing we come across it had its origin before us, the natural resources upon which it is based was not of human creation but all derived from something before it. God has claim over all stuff and that changes our relationship to it. If there is no god, then all of creation is like the 20 found on the sidewalk.
From Genesis 1 forward the assertion is that all this stuff is God’s. His self doesn’t go out of existence, doesn’t decay, so he possesses it in a way that we cannot. All things belong to him, not us. We are given selfhood and power to use it, subdue it, control it but only for a short time.
All possessing is contingent upon the capacity to possess, and our capacity to possess is fragile indeed. It is temporary and fleeting.
The truth is we are even unable to adequately possess our own selves. When we were children our parents possessed us in a way. When strength or sanity fails us we no longer possess ourselves and others come to lay claim to the things we worked to accumulate.
Justin Bieber can be our poster child for this. At the tender age of 20 he has looks, talent, fame, wealth, power, yet he lives in fear of a soccer mom with a cell phone that she’ll capture an image made of zeros and ones and post it on Facebook or Twitter. He cannot control or possess an image of himself which at this point is beyond his control.
What did Walker Percy say? “Show me a man with his needs satisfied, and I’ll show you a man in serious trouble.”
Jesus comes to us and notes “you can’t manage the world, you can’t even manage your own self. Follow me.”
We, like the brother asking Jesus to be his brother’s judge (not his own), cry out to Jesus to make him an instrument in the insecure business of self in search of its happiness, permanence and importance. Jesus notes that everyone who hangs on to their self loses it, and everything attached to it. Everyone, however, who loses their self for Jesus, finds their self.
Jesus notes that you can’t keep your stuff, nor your self in the age of decay, so you might as well give it away to be generous to God because your self and your stuff all come from God anyway. It’s all his.
Jesus promises that if you do this God will give your self a new body in a world where stuff doesn’t decay and neither does our story.
If in fact your life is a gift which you can’t secure, why not be generous with what you have? You can’t keep it. It doesn’t secure you. You are free.
I feel sorry for Justin, trying hard to defend himself and his privacy every day. Going to twitter to try to convince the world that his mom raise him right and he’s really a “good person.”
Gratitude is freedom. The more Justin tries to secure his self the more it seems to slip through his grasp.
Jesus asserted that life is not found in trying to secure self by securing stuff, but by using self and stuff for God and others. To be rich to God is to use the stuff of creation for the purposes to which God gave it. God, who lives “your well-being at my expense” gave the creation for glory and for flourishing.
The barn builder’s bounty should have been the glory of his community, in which case the generous farmer would have in fact received glory from his community. In the end he became nothing because he was a small thing and the glory he tried to keep for himself was given to another.
Who Owns You?
Initially the command “do not steal” seems the most obvious and simple. You learned this when you were small. It touches, however, on what is foundational to us all.
In a culture that continually asserts that we are self-creating, self-sustaining, self-autonomous, the gospel says we are not, and happily so. It says that even our selves, our identities, our being, along with everything else in the world, the stuff of the world that we share are gifts from God. To the degree that we have power and will we act upon it and within it to do this and that, but in the age of decay such action is temporary and fleeting.
The gospel story is that this impermanence itself is impermanent as the one who came with our flesh and the stuff of earth saw that it was better to give than to receive. To people who are hungry for permanence but absent of the power to secure it he secures it for us.
What is your only comfort in life and in death?
A. That I am not my own,
body and soul,
in life and in death–
to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.
He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood,
and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil.
He also watches over me in such a way
that not a hair can fall from my head
without the will of my Father in heaven:
in fact, all things must work together for my salvation.
Because I belong to him,
Christ, by his Holy Spirit,
assures me of eternal life
and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready
from now on to live for him.