Protecting property

God says, “You shall not steal” (Exodus 20:15).

Luther explains, “What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not take our neighbor’s money or possessions, or get them in any dishonest way, but help him to improve and protect his possessions and income.”

Salvageable adds: God would not protect our property from others if he did not want us to have property. In one sense, we own nothing. Everything that we have belongs to God and has been entrusted to us for a time. We will not keep any of it beyond the time we die. We are merely managers of God’s property. In another sense, though, what we are managing for God is ours at the moment. Therefore God forbids us to steal—to take from another person what God has entrusted to that person.

Jesus did speak blessings upon the poor and woes upon the rich. He said it is easier to push a camel through the eye of a needle that to get a rich man into the kingdom of heaven. But God does not hate the rich. He blessed Abraham, Job, David, and Solomon with riches, not because he hated them, but because he loved them. Not merely in terms of suffering, but in terms of property, God will not give us more than we can handle. What matters is not how much money you control; what matters is how much money controls you. When you are tempted to steal, to add to what you have in a dishonest way, you are falling under the spell of a false god.

There are many ways to steal. Burglary is done in secret, but robbery involves the threat of violence. Taking something from a store without paying for it is stealing. So is signing a contract to do a job, taking the money, and failing to do the job to the best of your ability. In his Large Catechism, Luther condemned those who trick other people by selling things for more than they are worth, or buying things for less that they are worth. Some people would call that good business practice, but Luther insisted that when one person cheats another in regard to money and property, that person has stolen from the other.

In the positive sense, this commandment puts us under an obligation to help our neighbors. Damaging someone else’s property is stealing; the sinner gains nothing, but the victim loses something of value. Therefore, we should help our neighbors improve and protect what belongs to them. This includes reporting to the authorities a fire or a crime in progress, making sure that our choices do not cost our neighbors money, and teaching children to respect the property of others.

As the commandment not to kill includes care for our own lives and bodies, so the commandment not to steal includes care for God’s property under our management. What we waste or destroy is not our own business; it affects our neighbors and harms our relationship with God. In his Judgment God will ask sinners how they managed the property he gave them for a time. On that Day we will all be expected to give an account of how we handled the wealth and possessions that were in our hands.

Yet Jesus has provided a way for us to escape judgment and punishment for our sins. In his parables he portrays himself as a thief, breaking into the devil’s house, tying up the devil, and robbing him of his possessions. When we steal and sin in other ways, we mark ourselves property of the devil. By his sinless life and sacrificial death, Jesus has taken us away from Satan’s power. Because of the price he paid to claim us, no Judgment remains upon us. This is not license to sin; this is power to resist temptation and to live as God’s people. Because we fear and love God, we will not steal from our neighbors, but we will help them to keep and improve what God has given them. J.

Jesus Christ, identity thief

Earlier this month I heard an interesting sermon upon God’s commandment not to steal. The first part was rather predictable, listing the many ways we rob each other of money, of property, of value, and of time. Most people can probably make a list of the way these things have been stolen from them, and the more honest people can make a similar list of the way these things have been stolen by them.

Of course the point of the sermon was not to scold thieves, but rather to call thieves to repentance so they could be assured of forgiveness through Jesus Christ. The sermon took a shocking turn, though, when the preacher said that to rescue sinners like us, Jesus Christ became an identity thief.

Jesus was willing to describe himself as a thief. He described his future coming in glory as “like a thief in the night.” He also called himself a stronger man, tying up the strong man (the devil) so he could rob that strong man of his possessions (sinners). The way Jesus rescues sinners is not fair; he gives us rewards we do not deserve and takes instead the punishment we deserve. On Judgment Day, as our enemies see us enter the kingdom of heaven, they will stamp and cry and shout, “That’s not fair!” Our salvation is unfair, but God’s mercy and love move him to be unfair for our benefit.

But does that make Jesus Christ an identity thief? Generally speaking, an identity thief pretends to be another person in order to gain things through that person’s name and reputation. I know a couple whose tax refund was delayed more than a year because someone had filed a return using their names and address and Social Security numbers, cheating the government out of money that did not belong to that thief. Identity thieves borrow money or make purchases using another person’s name and credit account; it can take years for the victim to escape those debts and reestablish a good credit rating. Identity thieves can hack bank accounts, emptying them of funds before the bank and the victim know what has happened. Identity theft adds up to millions of dollars wrongly gained by criminals and millions of dollars lost to honest individuals, businesses, and banks.

What does Jesus have to gain by stealing our identities? He does not need money or property; everything in the universe already belongs to him. He does not need a better reputation than he already has to get what he wants; Jesus is innocent of sin, pure, and holy. Tying up the devil is one way to steal sinners from him, but taking the identity of sinners appears to be more than even Jesus would want to do.

Yet “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us” (II Corinthians 5:21). Though he was innocent, Jesus was treated as guilty of all sins. Hanging on the cross, he suffered and died as payment for all the sins of history. His Father abandoned him in the darkness, allowing Christ to know that separation that sin places between God and the sinner. The curtain in the Temple was torn as a sign of the removal of our sins, reconciliation in place of the division that we had caused by our sins.

Jesus has stolen our identities. But, like a careless thief (or, rather, like a generous thief), Jesus has left something behind. He has left his righteousness for us, so we can assume his identity. He stole our identities “so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (I Corinthians 5:21). God the Father looked at his Son on the cross and saw sin. He looks at us today and sees the righteousness of his Son. In Baptism our sinful selves die with Christ and are buried with Christ. In Baptism we are raised with Christ as a new creation. In Baptism God says of us what he said of Jesus: “This is my Son. This is the one I love. With this one I am well pleased.”

Do you miss your old sinful identity? Instead, rejoice that Jesus has taken away that identity. He has stolen it from you to give you what you do not deserve: his identity. Made a child of God, you are now royalty in the Kingdom that will last forever. Jesus did this for you, not because you deserve it, but because he loves you. J