Topical Scripture: Exodus 20:15-17
In America, apparently no price is too high for the things we want. Who would have dreamed we’d spend $5 for a cup of coffee, or $3 billion on bottled water? But we’re drinking it. The price of gasoline hasn’t been this high in years, but we’re still buying it.
Our culture measures us by what we wear, drive, or own. Against all this materialism, we find the eighth commandment. Two words in Hebrew, four in English: “You shall not steal.” Let’s look at what the commandment means, and how to keep it today.
What is stealing?
We steal when we take the possessions of others. My family’s home in Houston was vandalized; a thief broke the window of our van in Atlanta and stole what was inside; our church has lost technical equipment to thieves in recent years. A few months ago my car wouldn’t start, so I had it towed to a local repair shop. They wanted $2,000 to replace the head gaskets; I took it to the dealership, who fixed the problem for a fraction of that cost and never had to touch the head gaskets. Stealing is taking the possessions of others.
We steal when we take advantage of others. Forth eight percent of American workers admit to taking unethical or illegal advantage of their employers in the past year. This includes cheating on an expense account, paying or accepting kickbacks, secretly forging signatures, and breaking legal statutes and codes. American industry loses $3 billion per year because of employee’s time spent in personal internet use while at work.
We steal when we take advantage of the government by cheating on our taxes, money which honest citizens must make up. In short, we steal whenever we take financial advantage of others.
We steal when we take the ideas of others. When I taught at Southwestern Seminary I heard the motto from students: if you steal from one source, it’s plagiarism; from two sources, it’s research. No, it’s not. My brother in law once worked as a custodian at a church while going to seminary. He cleaned the pastor’s office, and always knew what sermon they’d hear that Sunday from the open book of sermons on his desk on Friday.
We steal when we take the reputation of others. Remember a few years ago when someone accused Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger of sexual abuse? This godly man was completely vindicated, all charged were dropped, and the person making the allegation apologized, but the damage was done to his reputation. That man stole his good name.
Shakespeare said it well: “Who steals my purse steals trash; ’tis something, nothing; ‘Twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands. But he that filches from me my good name Robs me of that which not enriches him And makes me poor indeed.” Before you say anything negative about any person, ask yourself first, Is it true? Is it fair? Is it necessary? To take the reputation of others is to steal.
How to keep the eighth commandment
So, how do we keep the eighth commandment?
First, we see things as God does. Material success is not the highest value in life—a relationship with God is. Jesus warned his disciples: “What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Matthew 16.26).
As God sees things, material success is a means to an end, given for the purpose of serving God with that which he has entrusted to us. If I value God more than possessions, I’ll not offend him by stealing from you.
Second, we acquire things as God directs. Scripture gives us three ways we are to acquire possessions, a kind of philosophy of economics. We are to work hard: “He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need” (Ephesians 4.28).
We are to invest wisely. In Jesus’ parable of the talents (measures of money), he commends the men who doubled their investments, while criticizing the man who did not (Matthew 25.14-30). And we are to pray dependently. When our need is greater than our supply, we are to pray and ask God’s help. The early Christians gave to the common good of the believing community, and their resources were “distributed to anyone as he had need” (Ac 4.35). As we work hard, invest wisely, and trust God, we acquire things as he direct. Then we will have no need to break the eighth commandment.
Third, we use things as God leads. God has blessed us with material possessions, so that we might use them to help others in his name. He gave the Samaritan a donkey and some money, to give to the man in need. We are to do the same with the donkey and the money he has given to us.
The old song says, “Loving things and using people only leads to misery; using things and loving people, that’s the way it ought to be.” If I value you more than your possessions, I’ll not steal what is yours. In fact, I’ll give to you from what is mine.
It is imperative that we see things, acquire things, and use things as God directs, that we keep the eighth commandment. For our own sakes.
What is a “lie”?
When I worked as a graphic artist during seminary, I had a customer who kept a “lie book” in his pocket. Whenever he told someone a lie he would write it down, so he could remember it the next time he saw that person.
The commentaries claim that this is the commandment of the ten we break the most often. Do you agree? Raise your hand if you’ve never lied. Be careful—don’t lie.
The psalmist lamented, “Help, Lord, for the godly are no more; the faithful have vanished from among men. Everyone lies to his neighbor; their flattering lips speak with deception” (Psalm 12.1-2).
What is “false testimony”? Why do we commit this sin? Why is it wrong? What can we do about it? These are our questions today. We live in a “post-modern” culture, where truth is considered to be subjective and personal. There’s no “right” or “wrong,” just what’s right or wrong for you. No absolutes—which is itself an absolute statement. So, let’s be clear—what is a “lie”?
False words are of course lies. We lie when we tell half-truths, when we exaggerate, when we misquote, when we slander others and gossip about them. False appearances are lies. The psalmist said of his people, “they take delight in lies. With their mouths they bless, but in their hearts they curse” (Psalm 62.4).
Sometimes we gossip in spiritual guise. “Pray for the Does, they’re having marital troubles”; “I’m concerned about the Joneses, their son (or daughter) is really struggling in school.” We pretend to care, which is a lie.
Withholding the truth is a lie. Listen to Leviticus 5.1: “If a person sins because he does not speak up when he hears a public charge to testify regarding something he has seen or learned about, he will be held responsible.” The sin of silence is as real as the sin of speech.
Last, rationalization is a lie. Everyone’s doing it; it won’t hurt anyone; no one will know. It’s just a “white lie.” But “white lies” are an oxymoron. In a Peanuts cartoon (August 1997), Charlie Brown says to Linus, “We’re supposed to write home to our parents and tell them what a great time we’re having here at camp.” Linus answers, “Even if we’re not? Isn’t that a lie?” Charlie Brown explains, “Well…it’s sort of a white lie.” To which Linus asks, “Lies come in colors?” No, they do not.
Why do we lie?
Let’s ask our second question: why are such lies and deceit so common? The first sin in the Bible was a lie. In Genesis 3 we read that the crafty serpent asked the woman if she was allowed to eat from any tree in the garden. When she answered he lied, “You will not surely die” (v. 4). So she ate, and he ate, and eventually they both died. As will we, unless Jesus returns first. The first sin in the Bible is a lie.
The last sinners named in the Bible are also liars. In Revelation 22 Jesus says to John, “Outside [heaven] are the dogs, those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood” (v. 15, emphasis mine).
The psalmist said, “Even from birth the wicked go astray; from the womb they are wayward and speak lies” (Psalm 58.3). Why are lies so common to us?
One answer: we lie to compensate for our own failures. We have some sense of the way things should be, of life as God intended it. But we know that we are not living this way, that we have sinned, fallen, failed. So we compensate. We create a false self, an “idealized self,” the person we wish we were. And we spend the rest of our lives trying to live up to this person.
But no one can do it for very long. So, when we fall short of the perfectionism which drives us, we deceive ourselves and others. We lie. Cain lied to cover up his murder. David lied about Bathsheba to cover up his sin. Any sin they committed, or you commit, I can commit. There is no sin we cannot commit. If they lied to compensate for their own failures, so can I. So can you.
Another answer: to hurt those who hurt us. If someone lies to us, we lie to them. To hurt those who hurt us. We lie to get revenge. We repeat half-truths and rumors, we gossip and slander, to hurt people we think we have a right to hurt. After all, they did it to us, right?
Saul was convinced David was a threat to him, so he became a threat to David. He lied about him to his son, his family, his nation. If he lied to hurt his enemy, so can I. So can you.
Still another answer: to get ahead. We lie to get the account, to close the deal. To impress the girl or the boy. To please our parents. To further our own agenda. Ananias and Sapphira lied about the money they brought to the church, so they could keep some of it for themselves. If they lied to get ahead, so can I. So can you.
Finally: we lie because we are tempted by Satan himself. Jesus called him “the father of lies” (John 8.44). He helps us along, encouraging us to be less than honest with God, others, and ourselves.
Why is lying wrong?
Now we’re ready for our third question: why is lying wrong? If 91% of us do it today, and people did it all through the Bible, why is it so wrong? Here are the facts.
God says it is wrong. Listen to Psalm 101.7: “No one who practices deceit will dwell in my house; no one who speaks falsely will stand in my presence.” And listen to Ephesians 5.25: “Each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor.” God says lying is wrong.
Lying offends the character of God. Jesus is truth (John 14.6). The Bible calls our Lord “a faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he” (Deuteronomy 32.4). Thus lying runs counter to his very nature.
Listen to Proverbs 6.16-19: “There are six things the Lord hates, seven that are detestable to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked schemes, feet that are quick to rush into evil, a false witness who pours out lies and a man who stirs up dissension among brothers.” See how God feels about deceit?
Lying sacrifices trust. Do you remember the last time someone lied to you—perhaps a national politician or leader, or a personal relationship? Have you been able to trust them since?
Lying destroys people. Once a lie has been told about someone, it can never be taken back. The rabbis used to tell about a man who repeated gossip and slander about his rabbi. Finally he came to him and apologized, and asked what he could do to make things right. The rabbi gave him a bag filled with feathers, and told him to empty it into the wind at the top of a nearby hill. He did, and brought back the empty bag. Then the rabbi told him to go back and pick up all the feathers, which by now had blown across the town and the countryside. Of course he could not. The man then understood the damage he had caused. Do we?
In short, lies destroy. Never underestimate their power or the damage they can do. Who do you think said these words: “The broad mass of a nation will more easily fall victim to a big lie than to a small one….If you repeat a lie often enough, people will believe it to be the truth”? It was Adolf Hitler. And six million Jews died from his lies.
How do we keep the ninth commandment?
Now we’re ready for our last question: how do we keep the ninth commandment? How do we deal with lies, in our lives and our culture?
First, confront them as soon as possible. Don’t let their malignancy grow. Deal with this issue in your own life. If you find deceit in your words, your thoughts, your actions, confess it to God, right now. Deal with this issue with your children. Confess this sin to those you’ve hurt. This will hurt you, and make it far harder to lie next time.
Second, don’t listen to the lies of others. Know that if someone will lie about me to you, they’ll probably lie about you to me. Be the one who stops the cycle of lies and rumors and gossip.
Third, live with consistent integrity. Be the same person when you talk to someone as when you talk about them. Be the same in private as in public. Be one person, always. Will Rogers once advised, “So live that you would not be ashamed to sell the family parrot to the town gossip.” That’s good advice.
Last, stay close to God. Jesus always told the truth. In fact, he was the Truth. The best way to keep the ninth commandment is to get close to him—to ask his Spirit to fill and control you, to stay right with him as the source of your life. Then all which comes from your heart and lips will be right.
The tenth commandment
This commandment begins as do the other nine: “You shall not.” “You” is plural, showing that the commandment applies to us all and that we are all tempted here. It is in the present tense, because it is still relevant today.
And it is a command, not a suggestion or a principle. Someone said that God gave us the Ten Commandments in stone so we could keep them or break them, but not bend them. A command for all of us, for all time.
The key word, of course, is “covet.” his word simply means to long after or desire earnestly. It is a common theme in the Bible. Interestingly, the word itself is neutral. The question is not whether or not we will have desires, but what we desire, and at what price.
Some things we “covet” are good, as in wishing to emulate the great qualities of someone we admire. Some things we desire are natural, such as a good appearance or a nice car, or the ability to play golf well. So, what is “coveting” in the wrong sense?
The tenth commandment specifically prohibits two kinds of desires: to want something I should not possess, and to want something which belongs to someone else. These can be material things, such as “your neighbor’s house,” ox or donkey. Here’s a principle for life: don’t love something which can’t love you back.
This can be the wrong desire for status, as in coveting your neighbor’s manservant or maidservant, ancient symbols of place and status. This can be the wrong desire for people, as with “your neighbor’s wife.” It is wrong to want anything I shouldn’t have, or to covet what belongs to you.
This commandment is crucial. If we keep it, we will keep the other nine. If we don’t covet status or power above God, we will worship him, refuse idols, honor his name, and keep his day. If we don’t covet status or power with others, we will honor our parents and refuse to hurt people. If we don’t covet people, we’ll refuse adultery. If we don’t covet things, we’ll not steal or lie.
Breaking this commandment is at the root of all our troubles. So, why do we?
Learning not to covet
We covet things because we have the idea that things will bring us happiness. It’s no wonder. Thousands of people in our country spend forty hours every week designing ways to get us to buy more. They use music, slogans, sights, sounds, and colors. Their goal is to make us covet what they’re selling. Their message is everywhere. The typical American consumer is bombarded with 3,000 advertisements daily.
And they’re working. In 1967, 44% of college freshmen believed it was essential to be “very well off financially”; by 1990 that figure had jumped to 74%. By contrast, 83% in 1967 thought it was essential to have a meaningful purpose to life; by 1990, only 43% agreed.
We’re not the first people to struggle with coveting things. Do you remember the story of Ahab and the vineyard of Naboth (1 Kings 21)? Simply put, King Ahab wanted Naboths’ vineyard in ancient Samaria, but it was his father’s and he refused to sell it. Ahab became depressed and wouldn’t eat. So his wicked wife Jezebel arranged for two men to accuse poor Naboth of blasphemy; he was stoned to death, and Ahab got his field. The result was that Ahab and Jezebel died for their sin. Three people were killed, because one man coveting things.
From their story we learn not to want things we shouldn’t have, or things which belong to others. Why? Because such coveting will only hurt us, and hurt other people. It’s never enough. A servant asked his rich master, “How much money is enough?” His reply: “Just a little more.”
Recently a man on television interviewed people who had become instant lottery millionaires. He asked, “How many of you are happier today?” Not a single person raised his or her hand. One of the winners replied, “How many new suits can you buy? How many cars can you drive? Every time you get something nicer, it isn’t good enough, because you see and want something even nicer.” It’s never enough.
And we will use people to get more things. The right approach is to love people and use things, not the reverse. Martin Buber, the Jewish poet and philosopher, suggested that only two kinds of relationships exist: I-you and I-it. We should have I-you relationships with each other, and I-it relationships with things. When we reverse them, everyone loses.
It’s possible to use things for people and God, thereby keeping the tenth commandment. For instance, a few years ago Bo Pilgrim spoke at an outreach lunch our church created. He wore his pilgrim hat, put Henrietta the stuffed chicken on the podium, and simply preached the gospel. Then he called attention to a gospel tract he had written—there was one at every place, for all 220 people at the lunch. Inside each one was a $20 bill, to encourage us to take the tract and read it. He said, “It’s not mine, and there’s more where that came from.” He’s right. And he kept the tenth commandment.
We’re not the first. Listen to Paul’s confession: “I would not have known what sin was except through the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, ‘Do not covet.’ But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire” (Romans 7.7-8).
Here was Paul’s problem, the only sin he ever admits committing anywhere in the New Testament: coveting. Not after things or people, but status. Wanting to be a Pharisee of the Pharisees, wanting to be the most zealous for the law and the rituals of their faith, wanting to be the holiest man in the nation. Paul admits that this was his own heart.
I admit that this is an issue for me as well: wanting to impress you, to please you, to perform well for the sake of status and achievement. Who today doesn’t struggle here?
Coveting at its root is all about me. “I trouble.” Note that the middle letter of pride and sin are the same. But as with other kinds of coveting, we can never have enough. Enough status, or reputation, or honor. We always need a little more.
So what is the answer to our problem? First, we admit that seeking things, people, or status we should not have is wrong. Seeking things, people, or status which belong to someone else is wrong. We start there.
Second, we admit that we cannot solve this problem ourselves. Our fallen human nature wants things, people, and status. We must have the nature of Jesus as our own.
This was Paul’s experience. The same man who admitted that he had “every kind of covetous desire” later said, “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength” (Philippians 4.12-13). We can keep the tenth commandment, with the help of Jesus.
Listen to Jesus’ story with the tenth commandment: he, being in very nature God, chose not to covet the things, people, or status of heaven. Instead, he “made himself nothing” as a servant, to die for us. And so God restored him to the highest place and the highest name, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2.5-11). He refused to covet, and received from his Father more than coveting could ever have given him.
Now his Spirit is ready to help us have his humility. Will you admit that you need his help with coveting? Will you ask for that help? Will you trust God for it? Will you ask Jesus to make you like himself? The results will outweigh whatever they cost you today.
There was an elderly man who lived on the island of Crete. He loved everything about Crete—the hills and mountains, the beaches, the sunrises and sunsets. And so when he came to die, his sons laid him on the soil of Crete. He scooped into his hand some of that soil, and then he died.
He found himself outside the gates of heaven. They opened, and he started in. Then the angel saw his clenched fist and asked what was inside. “Crete,” he said. “I go nowhere without it.” The angel said that he would have to let it go to come inside. “Never,” he said, and sat down outside the wall.
A week went by. The angel came back out and asked him to let go of the soil of Crete and come inside, but he refused. Another week went by. Then an old friend from years before came out and asked him to release his dirt and come in, but he refused. Another week went by; his soil was dry and caked, and he cupped his hands under each other to hold it.
Then the gates opened, and his granddaughter came out to him. She said, “Grandfather, the gates only open for those with open hands.” He looked at the soil of Crete in his hands, then finally released it. It fell through the heavens as he took his granddaughter’s hand. The gates opened, and he went in. Inside, was all of Crete.
What’s in your hand today?