Tony Campolo loves to tell a good story. One of my favorites is the one he tells of the time he came home late from a speaking engagement. He had taken the bus so he was dropped off in downtown Philadelphia. It wasn’t a very good place to be at night. Even during the day people avoided the area. And sure enough, Tony hadn’t gone ten steps before somebody stepped out of the darkness behind him.
He could feel the weapon at his back. A voice demanded his wallet. Tony’s not about to do anything foolish, so he hands over his wallet. He can hear the robber rummaging through it. And suddenly the man gets very upset!
“Three dollars?!” he says. “You’ve only got three dollars in your wallet? What do you do for a living anyway?”
“Well,” says Tony, “I’m a Baptist preacher.”
“Hey! That’s great!” the man says, “I’m a Baptist!”
Thieves come in all kinds, don’t they? There’s the kleptomaniac who needs to pick up little things wherever she goes. There’s the high-tech computer expert who can manipulate the electronic signals that manage our credit card balances, and siphon off our money into his account. There’s the famous Robin Hood, who stole from those usurpers to the throne of King Richard the Lionhearted, and gave the goods to the poor people of the realm.
There’s the German Nazi conspiracy, that systematically robbed the entire European Jewish population of eyeglasses, and gold teeth, and pocket watches, and art treasures, and businesses, and families, and bank accounts, and life itself.
There’s the neighborhood gang of thieves that targets a dark home, and makes off with all the best of your goods in the silence of the night.
There are the rioters on the streets of Detroit, and New York, and Los Angeles, who use the chaos of racial turmoil to loot downtown stores.
There’s the office worker who takes home supplies, like staplers, calculators and computer diskettes.
There’s the couple who uses a friend’s pass to get into Holland State park for a little sunbathing, or a picnic on the beach.
There’s the Mafia and the Cosa Nostra who make thievery a big business.
There’s the child who slips a pack of gum into her pocket at Anchorage Party store, and “forgets” to pay for it when she walks out.
There’s the man who rewrites the figures of his income on his tax returns, and manages to “save” a little money. Thieves come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes they look a lot like us, like the people you’re sitting next to today.
And sometimes they seem like strangers who violate us, like when we come home from vacation to a ransacked home. The front door is jimmied. The stereo and television are missing.
At first you’re cautious … What if someone is still in the house? But then you get angry! What kind of a creep would do something like this? And then, when you get to your bedroom, and the jewelry box is smashed on the floor, and someone has rummaged through your closets, fondling your clothes, you begin to feel naked, and violated, and raped.
When someone steals from us, he takes away more than just a toy that we might like to play with. He takes away something of our inner self, of our very identity. Paul hints at that when he pens these words to the Ephesian Christians. He talks about two worlds, two identities, two ways of looking at life.
When you live by the rules of the one value system, he says, everybody gets hurt and dies. When you live in the context of the other value-system, there’s a freshness of new life. And, in the matter of property and possessions, Paul affirms four values in the community of God’s kingdom.
I. The Value of Work
The first of those values is that of work. Paul says, He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work…”
Work is a valuable commodity for human beings.
Oh, I know, we’ve got this love-hate relationship with work in our community. Corporations love to set up shop here in western Michigan, because they know that so many of us are working fools. Most of us work too long and too hard each day. We’re often addicted to work. And yet, at the same time, we love to complain about it, don’t we?
At the 50th wedding anniversary of my parents, I reminded Dad of the little poem he used to quote often as I was growing up:
Early to bed and early to rise
Makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise!
We lived by the first part of that verse, always hoping the second half would come true for us! But it was later in my life that I realized that Dad had edited that poem when he quoted it so often. There was actually a second verse to it that went like this:
But what does it matter how much he wins
If he’s always asleep when the fun begins?
And those of us who are workaholics need to pay attention to that verse as well!
Still, work is a valuable commodity in our lives for several reasons.
For one thing, it’s a way to exercise our bodies and minds. We keep ourselves fit through working. God gave us bodies and minds to use. And Paul says to the Corinthian Christians that those who don’t care for their bodies are dishonoring themselves as well as the God who made them!
For another thing, work allows us to change our environment. It would be hard to live in this part of the world during January, unless we had the capacity to change our environment — build houses, construct office buildings and schools, create shopping malls.
Work is our part in sharing in the creative task of God. He gives us the ability to take his world to the next stages of development. Did it ever occur to you that the Bible begins in a garden, where everything occurs “naturally,” but that it ends in a City, which expresses the culture built by us humans? It’s an interesting thought, isn’t it? God gave us a garden, and then said, “Now! Work with me to turn it into a city!” This is certainly part of our work to take the raw materials of God’s creation, and to turn them into the stuff of culture and of civilization!
A third thing work enables us to do is earn a living. It’s a commodity we can trade in order to gain those things we don’t possess. And that’s a second value that Paul stresses in these verses.
II. The Value of Earning:
He says: “Do something useful with your hands so that you may have something to share with those in need.” Paul encourages capitalism. At least to a point. He encourages the idea that earning money, or gaining income is a good thing. Paul himself worked at a trade. He was a tent-maker. Sure, there were people who supported him as a missionary. But he also worked at a trade so that he could support himself as well. In fact, in one of his letters, Paul boasts to a church that he was not a burden to them — he had earned his own keep.
Sometimes theologians try to make wealthy people feel guilty about their earnings. They say, “God sides with the poor!” And the implication is that God is against the rich. But that’s not the message of the Bible. The message of the Bible is that God sides with the poor in this world against the oppressor!
Now, it’s very likely that the oppressor of the poor is wealthy! But that doesn’t make wealth, in and of itself, wrong!
Nor does it mean that all wealthy people are necessarily oppressors. In fact, some of the greatest saints in the Bible were very wealthy people! Solomon was the richest man who ever lived, and his wealth was a gift from God! Abraham may have lived most of his life as a wandering nomad, but he was extremely wealthy in cattle and substance! Job had more money than he could spend, and more stuff then he could count, and not even the Devil himself could undermine Job’s spirituality! Joseph of Arimathea was a wealthy man. It was his wealth that allowed him to give a resting place for Jesus’ body, the day that Jesus died. Barnabas was a terribly wealthy man! But he used his wealth to feed the poor, and to fund the first missionary journeys of the church!
It’s okay to be wealthy! It’s fine to earn money! In fact, at one point, the author of one of the Proverbs of the Old Testament prayed that God would not allow him to get too poor, because he would be tempted to steal from others! Of course, in that same proverb the man also prayed that if he was rich, he should not forget his dependence on God! (Proverbs 30:7-9)
That’s the danger of wealth. Jesus said it too. He said that it was hard for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Why? Because wealth itself is evil? No! Because riches can make a person forget her need for God! That’s the danger!
Earning money, and gaining possessions are good values. In fact, Jesus Himself preached about that. Remember His parable of the talents? He talked about His father as a master who gave gifts to His servants. And then the master left the servants to manage the business affairs of the estate. The Master himself left on a long journey. But when he returned, he expected the servants to have been busy earning money, and expanding the holdings.
In fact, says Jesus, where one of the servants was too lazy to earn more for the master, that servant was given a dishonorable discharge! He was booted out the door as worthless!
The point is this: earning wealth is seen as a good thing in the Bible!
It’s a way to expand the treasures of the Kingdom of God! I remember sitting in the home of a young business man in California, I was there on a trip having to do with church business. And overnight I was to stay at his home. We had never met before. He and his wife lived in a modest townhouse. Both worked at high-paying jobs in the neighborhood. Late that night we sat and talked. They weren’t able to have children, he said. They had tried, but it didn’t seem to work. They had gone the route of all the medical stuff. And still nothing had happened. They prayed a lot about it all. And some time before they had come to peace with it.
Both of them had high-paying jobs in responsible businesses. And they couldn’t possibly use all of the money they were earning. So they decided that, at least for the time being, they would continue to do what they were doing. They would earn a lot of money. And they would make sure that they opened their home to guests, and made them feel comfortable. That’s how I had ended up at their place. They saw their ability to earn a good living as a new responsibility from God to create care and comfort for others of the family of God.
Earning money, and expanding possessions is a good value.
III. The Value of Owning
There’s a third value that Paul speaks of, and that’s the value of owning. He says that it is good to work and to earn in order to share. But in order to share, you must have something you first can call your own.
Did you ever think about that concept of “owning” something? We think it is cute when children hold their toys up and they say “mine!” We all have things we own. In fact, you might talk with someone who is driving a nice vehicle, and ask if it’s a company car.
He might say, “No, it’s my own!” What does he mean by that? He means, at least in part, that this manufactured metal and plastic is somehow an extension of his identity.
Think of it! What is the “essence” of a person? We talk mystically about a person’s “soul” or a person’s “spirit” or a person’s “heart.” And so we should. But how do we get at that soul? How do we touch a person’s spirit? How do we gain access to a person’s heart? We do it through very physical things. Our identities, as intangible as they are, are housed in these very physical bodies, that have specific shape and specific size.
And we could not express our intangible identities without the physical realities of our world. So it is that what we wear, and what kind of houses we build, and what types of possessions we surround ourselves with are clues to our spirits. Whenever we say about something, “It’s mine! It’s my own!” we’re making a declaration about the kind of people we are.
Don’t ever forget that God made this physical universe as the playground of His people. And don’t ever forget that when God wanted to show us how much He loves us, He took on physical shape and form, and dressed Himself in a particular way.
Don’t ever forget that the physical substance of our world is present in heaven, for the Son of God has vowed never to get rid of the body of earthly molecules He made His own when he came to spend time with us!
There’s a close connection between what we “own” and who we “are.” In my first congregation there were a lot of people who had immigrated to Canada from the province of Groningen, in the Netherlands. They all had a keen sense of identity and its relationship to ownership. Two men in that congregation would never agree to be elders of the church simply because they had come from families in the Netherlands that were laborers, and not owners. They believed that only owners of farms could take positions of leadership in the community. Maybe it was a skewed system of values. Yet they were sensing something important — our possessions often have some relationship to the kind of people we are.
A person who is able, through proper and just ways, to expand his possessions, probably has great leadership talents. Do not despise the poor, says the Bible. But do not despise the wealthy, either!
IV. The Value of Giving
The fourth value that Paul affirms in these verses is that of giving. He expects the people of God to share. He expects those who have possessions to share those possessions. He clearly implies that if you are a child of God, you will make it a habit to give away a portion of your money, your possessions, and your time.
The Chinese Christians have a way of putting it. They tell of a man who dreamed, one night, that he was visited by an angel who took him on a heavenly journey. They came to a place that looked a lot like heaven, but stank like hell.
It was a banqueting hall that stretched out beyond the horizons in every direction. And the tables were loaded with a fantastic array of fresh fruits, and choice meats, and tender vegetables, and the most incredible desserts he had ever seen! And seated at the tables were people of every age, and every nationality. They looked like a gathering of the nations of the world, at the banquet of God. But there was obviously something wrong with the picture, because no one was enjoying the meal! Every face was gaunt and hollow! All the eyes were sunk into the heads like those of starving children!
The clothes hung limp on every body, and where it fell low, rib cages were exposed like washboards.
“What’s the problem with these people?” the man whispered to his guiding angel.
“Look closer!” he was told. Check out their utensils!
And when he did, he saw it.
All of these people sat inches from the finest of foods. But they couldn’t eat any of it, because they were required to use chopsticks to pick it up, and the chopsticks in every hand were four feet long! All those delicious smells! All that delectable feast! And the people sitting at the tables were starving!
“What is this place?” the man asked.
But he knew. He knew. This was hell! With a shudder he turned away, and in his dream the angel took him to another place. At first he didn’t think it was another place, because it looked exactly like the hall of horrors they had just left: long rows of tables, scrumptious foods, and millions of people all sitting there with four-foot chopsticks!
He didn’t want to see this scene again! He winced at the pain he was about to encounter. But suddenly he realized that there was no bitter wailing. There were no cries of pain, or the agony of rumbling stomachs. There was no stench of death.
Every face was beaming. The banquet hall was filled with laughter. There were shouts of delight from every table. It was a picture of heaven at its best.
“What’s going on here?” the man asked his guide. “What makes these people different than in that other place?” “It’s really quite simple,” said the angel. “Here we feed each other.”
Amazing, isn’t it?
Amazing, but true!
The most profound sense of grace in a person’s life is a generous spirit. The Apostle James says that it is the single most important test of what he calls “true religion!” And this is the value that Paul affirms in these few verses.
V. The Character of Theft
It’s in that light that we need to understand what Paul says about the thief ending his career of robbery when he becomes a Christian. These are the four great values Paul affirms: the value of work, the value of earning money and gaining wealth, the value of owning possessions, and the value of sharing. And thievery is anything that denies any of these values, either for ourselves, or for someone else.
Thievery is, for example, when you will not work. Thievery is when you are lazy, and don’t use the talents God has given you to do something constructive in life! Thievery is when you live off others, or off the welfare system of the government when you have the capacity to work. On the other hand, thievery can also be when you retire too soon, simply because you’ve got enough social security to get by. Did you know that our modern forms of social security began in Prussia of the last century? At that time it was decided to give special assistance from the government to those who reached the age of 65, so that they would not have to work any longer, just to stay alive.
Why did they pick the age of 65? Because, in the world of that day, very few people lived past the age of 60. It was thought that those who did make it to 65 would no longer be able to offer anything of value to society! Now, I’m not saying that everyone should work at a job until she or he drops dead. But I do believe that it’s important to consider what we do with our lives beyond 55 or 65.
The consumerism of our society invites us to drop out, and to live for ourselves. That’s a violation of the eighth commandment at the age of 17 or at the age of 77. Thievery is when you will not work, using the talents and gifts God has given you, to make the world a better place!
Secondly, thievery is when we remove from anyone the capacity to earn a living. You know the horror stories of the Old South after the Civil War. The Blacks were no longer slaves. But it was possible for them to find life more cruel under freedom than under slavery. This was so because others often controlled the economic structures of society. So what if they could now work for themselves, if their work produced no income to live from? And the same has been true in the coal towns of the Appalachians, or the mining districts of northern England. People worked from sun up to sun down, but they never made a living! They owed their souls to the company! Those are just extreme examples of it.
But it happens in other ways, as well. While I was in seminary I worked as a radio announcer at a station in Grand Rapids. I’ll never forget the day I applied for the job. I filled out an application form that had the usual questions on it. Then there was this question: “What is the minimum wage you would be willing to work for?”
How do you answer a question like that? We soon found out, all of us who got a job there, that whatever we put for a minimum wage is what we got! And it was different for each person, as each of us was timid or bold. And the worst part of the matter is that this was a business owned and operated by Christians! They did not pay their workers according to experience or skills at the job or hours of the day. They paid their workers the least they could get by with! They were thieves!
Thirdly, thievery happens when someone takes away from another person or society the right of ownership. I think of that this year of Holland’s sesquicentennial. We thank God for the great things done in this community in his name. But there are dark stories to tell as well. Dark stories of the first people who lived in this region, who were taken in bad bargains with the Europeans, who eventually had to find another place to live because what they used for their livelihood was taken from them. Several years ago, when we were living in London, Ontario, that great city celebrated its 200th anniversary. And we had a great celebration then, as well. And our churches got together to have a worship service in the park. And when it was over, a woman came to me and said, with tears in her eyes, “But what about my people who once lived here? What God gave you the right to destroy them, and to take away their homes?
Too often history is written by those who have the biggest clubs. And too often we celebrate our good fortunes on the backs of those we pushed out of the way. However the possessions of others are forcibly taken from them, it is robbery, plain and simple.
There’s a fourth great value of sharing that reminds us of how we can be thieves. To own possessions is a great blessing. But to own possessions and then to be stingy with them is a great curse. Do not be foolish in the manner in which you share your wealth with others. But do not forget that one of the greatest tests of the truth of your religion is your generosity!
In fact, the Bible is entirely clear about this. We must give away a portion of our possessions in order to keep them from possessing us! The blessing of possessions turns quickly into a curse unless you can learn the divine art of giving! Remember what God said through the prophet Malachi?
He said: “You rob me!”
And when the people questioned God as to how they were robbing Him, He said, “You rob me when you do not tithe, or bring offerings for the poor!”
And God said that those who robbed Him and the poor in this way would never experience the full impact of His generosity in their faith and life. They would miss the best of what life was about. Even though none of them would be sentenced to jail for embezzlement, they were religious thieves! And in their crimes they not only robbed others; they robbed themselves of the best they could experience with God and with others.
People are forgotten quickly. Sometimes their memory lingers on if they get a building named after them, or something of the kind. Today we remember Fiorello LaGuardia because one of the airports in New York carries his name. He was a judge, a three-term mayor of New York City, and a congressman in Washington.
It was during the Great Depression that he served as judge. And one day they brought an elderly gentleman into his courtroom, charged with the crime of stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family. The law required a punishment, so LaGuardia fined the man $10. Then, still sitting there as judge, LaGuardia took out his own wallet and paid the $10 fine. And then he did something that people still remember in the courts of New York to this day. LaGuardia addressed the entire courtroom: “Now I’m going to fine everybody in this courtroom 50 cents for living in a city where a man has to steal in order to eat!”
He ordered the bailiff to pass his hat, and collect on the fine. The hat came back to the bench with $47.50 in it. LaGuardia handed the money to the one who had come before him as a thief, and told him to go home and take care of his family. And not to steal again.
That’s a good lesson on the eighth commandment. We’re prosperous people, for the most part. We work hard. We love to earn money. We’re proud of our possessions. And, for the most part, we think we’re pretty generous. But we’re all thieves, too! Could be that some of you are embezzling money at work. Could be that some of you are stealing time from your family. Could be that some of you are cheating on your taxes! Could be that some of you are shoplifters! Quit it! Now! That’s not what characterizes those who know the grace of God!
More than that, we all need to make a better effort at letting honesty, and generosity be the marks of our characters! It was the poor widow giving two copper pennies that Jesus pointed to in the Temple that day. He said she knew what her religion was all about. Around her the wealthy were giving great gifts — Much more than she had brought. But Jesus indicated that they were the robbers that day. They had not yet learned the lesson of generosity and trust that she had.
And, rich as they might appear, they were the poorer for it!
He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his hands, that he may have something to share with those in need!

Share This On: