A Dummies Guide to Reality The Limitless Commandment
At last! At last we have a manageable commandment. Do not steal. Done! Open and shut. In reality, this commandment is limitless.
It's not limited by an object attached to the verb. It's just. "You shall not steal" period. You shall not steal time by lazy working or slow working. You shall not steal money by overcharging. According to Luther, this commandment is against avarice of every kind and wanting to get rich quickly (Fusselman, e.chatechism, 1.7). Doesn't that describe you? It does me.
Where are the limits of the 7th Commandment? Not in capitalism that's for sure. We think a free market economy means we can charge whatever the market will bear. Luther thought differently. He said it wasn't Christian to sell merchandise for as high a price as you could but only what was lawful and equitable (Peters, Ten Commandments, 276). He said that the 7th Commandment forbids the taking advantage of the economic cycle and overpricing by merchants and craftsmen (Ibid. 264). Don't be shocked. Isn't that what price gouging laws say? Louisiana had them. Before and after a hurricane things like plywood, gas, and generators were in short supply, the government said if you overcharged you'd be fined for price-gouging and the fine was steep. So if government recognized it, why can't God?
There's no limit to this Commandment in the command itself, in capitalism, or in communism for that matter. Your property is not limited by as much as anyone needs from you. You have a right to own property. "Thou shalt not steal" indicates there is a line between what is mine and what is thine. Luther said of the communism that went on in Acts that it was an exceptional situation that soon turned to poverty so that the Gentile Christians had to help out. It was no example to follow (Ibid. 274). Neither does the beggar at the street corner limit how much you can have in your pocket. You aren't to carelessly or thoughtlessly help every needy person (Ibid. 277).
You know why it's important to see how far-reaching this Commandment is that everyone is sure they keep? Because as we confess in the Large Catechism, "no stolen or ill-gotten possession thrives" (I, 243). You get or keep what's not rightly yours and it's ill-gotten gains. And just as an ill wind blows no good an ill-gotten gain is always a loss. It's like unconfessed sin. It's living and active at drying up your bones and eating your conscience.
Because the 7th Commandment is limitless it exposes the harsh reality of our limitless guilt. Where does it end? Where can it end? I want more, better, different. I feel better when I have much and worse when I have less. And the worst of it all is that I am incurring limitless guilt over what can only perish. I'm the bank robber who has fled into the desert with bags of money that I can't eat or drink. You're the billionaire who lights cigars with 100 dollar bills without missing them, but you're dying "and all your money won't another minute buy." But it's worse. If the way you've gathered, spent, kept money has earned you hell, all your possessions and money won't buy you back out. No, they will burn up and melt as you descend into that ring of fire.
But the problem is you don't feel that guilty and you certainly don't look limitlessly guilty. You folks go to church. You folks give money to church. Even out Large Catechism says that "we must preach this not to Christians but chiefly to knaves and scoundrels" (I, 233). Well two paragraphs before this we say that knaves and scoundrels include those who take advantage of their neighbor in any sort of dealing (I, 224). In his Sermons on the Catechism, Luther says the one who is vexed by his neighbor's increase in wealth breaks this Commandment (Fusselman) and therefore, is a knave and scoundrel to whom this Commandment is to be preached. In our Small Catechism we define knaves and scoundrels as those who don't want to help their neighbor improve and protect his property and business.
We think the Commandment only forbids what man's law would call stealing, but the root it exposes, as with all the Commandments, is buried deep in the rock, hard bottom of our heart. And we don't know it's there apart from God exposing it with His holy Law. People steal when they think they don't have enough or deserve more. People never get to stealing or any of the refined sins against this Commandment without first kneeling at the altar of the god mammon. Do you see? All the Commandments amplify the First so that we may see that our real problem like the Old Testament Church before us is having other gods.
When we are cumbered with a load of care concerning what we shall eat, what we shall drink, what clothes we shall we put on, Jesus says we are living as unbelievers. We just can't seem to walk the middle way. We either have an inflated sense of self-reliance when our bank accounts are full or we have a despairing sense of tortuous care when they're not (Peters, 275). In either case money, things, income, possessions are driving us, compelling us to think wrongly. When we're flush and full, we conclude things are just peachy between God and us and when we're busted and needy, we conclude that God is angry at us. In either case, the false god mammon is in possession of us.
Our guilt is great, limitless really, if mammon is our god. Paul calls covetousness, the wanting of more, better, different idolatry. So a sin against this Commandment is the only one Paul calls idolatry. Why? Because it shows "most starkly that man does not trust God for anything, but expects more benefit from his money than from God" (LW, 44, 108). This is the man who concludes that with his barns full he can take it easy concluding that because he has lots of things to live on he has lots of time to live. He believes that since the god mammon is blessing him he needs nothing more. Jesus didn't call him a rich man, but a rich fool.
The 7th Commandment wants to save you from such foolishness. It wants to disconnect us from depending on the god of this world whom Luther referred to as "'the powerless yet omnipotent Mammon.'" The Seventh Commandment strikes at the root of our earthly existence which in worry and greed clings to what is visible and at hand. This Commandment calls dummies like us to the reality that the god mammon is no god at all being dead and powerless so that we might repent of our worship of it (Peters, 271).
The limitless 7th Commandment exposes our limitless guilt in regard to money, things, and having false gods and so teaches us Christ had to go to the outer limits to save us. The Outer Limits was a 60's ATV show that by pushing the boundaries of reality sometimes confronted you with a rather unpleasant reality about yourself. In his preaching and teaching on the 7th Commandment Luther was particularly sharp and pointed. He says in one sermon, "'Why should I [by keeping silent about their breaking of the 7th Commandment]condemn myself for your sin'" (Peters, 284)? I won't do that either, and you've reached the outer limits when your realize that is exactly what Jesus did for you. He condemned Himself for your sin.
Jesus went to the outer limits of guiltlessness for you. See how many times, how many people, declared Jesus innocent. Pilate did several times. Herod did, and even Pilate's wife did. 3 different people declared Jesus innocent of any wrongdoing. One time Pilate says He hadn't even done anything untoward. 3 different people publicly declared Jesus guiltless. Could you even find one? Can you yourself say it? Jesus never knelt at the altar of mammon even when He had no place to lay His head, no money to pay His taxes, no money to buy food.
Jesus is at the outer limits of guiltlessness even in the face of the limitless 7th Commandment, and yet He is driven, pushed, shoved, beaten, and spat to the outer limits of punishment. "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" is the title of a famous 18th century sermon. Our text is more fearful, in a sense, than that. It's God in the hands of angry sinners. And what it made all the more fearful for Jesus is that He goes bearing our guilt. He went with a guilty conscience, a shamed face, separated from God.
You name what you have stolen, what you haven't helped your neighbor to keep; you think about your desire for getting rich quick and gains that no matter how you get them you wouldn't count as ill-gotten; you think about the time you were vexed by another's promotion, increase in wealth, and gotten gains. And know that each and everyone of those sins you can remember and the many more you have forgotten and the several you can't seem to forget, were paid for by Jesus. Pass not lightly over the physical blows, the crown of thorns pushed down hard on His head, and the merciless ridiculing because Scripture says it is by those stripes you have been healed; you have been forgiven; you have been redeemed.
Jesus went to the outer limits of being without sin and the outer limits of being punished for sins think of it the holy God in the hands of angry sinners and an angry God too to reach the depths of a Barabbas who Scripture called a "notorious prisoner," a rebel and murderer. I'll go one better. Jesus went so far to the outer limits that He reached you who were beyond redemption, beyond salvation, beyond hope. He went right to where you were kneeling before the false god mammon and carried you away.
You are Barabbas. You're let go not at the request of a murderous mob or a scheming Pilate but at the request of Jesus. "Let them go scot-free, forgiven. Declare me guilty them not guilty. Declare Me condemned them absolved." And the Father did that for the sake of the Son's holy righteous life and His innocent suffering and death. There are no limits to this forgiveness and no limits to the changes it works.
Mammon is no longer your god. Yes, you live in your property and labor but you don't live from them (Peters, 276). And you don't live out of your ability to keep this Commandment or to pay for your sins against it. What sinner could ever reach the limits of a limitless Commandment? You live the way Barabbas did out of Jesus taking your place under what the Law requires and out of Him paying for what you owe. There are no limits to these not even outer ones because His salvation is eternal. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Lent Midweek IV (20160302); 7th Commandment, Passion Reading 4