A Fence for Seagulls
Are you familiar with the saying, "That's for the birds"? It's derogatory. Something is not worth considering or unimportant. The 7th Commandment is for the birds, seagulls to be specific; I'm not being derogatory, but accurate. In "Finding Nemo" the camera begins to pan and you hear, "Mine, mine, mine" as a flock of seagulls comes into view.
Let's not start there. Let's start with the fact birds are mindful of fences. They fly along them, roost on them, and nest in the hedges lining them. But the 7th Commandment fence does reflect the seagulls incessant "mine, mine, mine" because it establishes a distinction between yours and mine. In the Army a soldier bringing back to your unit a piece of equipment from another would explain it by saying, "The Army's one big company." That's the communist view of property. Communism has no private property; socialism has private property but the means of generating wealth are communally owned. When God commands, "You shall not steal", He says the seagulls are right: I can have something that is mine and not yours. But what of the communism of Acts 6? "All the believers were together and had everything in common. they gave to anyone as he had need (2:44-45). This is the Communist dictate: "From each according to his ability; to each according to his needs."
Briefly, I can say: read the rest of the NT. You don't find the Acts method used again. Even in Acts it goes bad quickly, indirectly at least, leading to the death of Ananias and Saphira. Luther said that Acts 2 was an exceptional situation that soon ended in poverty and the Gentile Christians having to bail them out. It came to an end with the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.. "'This,' says Luther, is no example to be followed but a miracle'" (Peters, Ten Commandments, 274). Even Marx saw that Christianity was antithetical to Communism. His famous remark that "religion is the opiate of the people" doesn't mean what most think: religion numbs people's senses and dulls their reason. No, because Christianity recognizes the distinction between mine and yours and being content with such things as you have (Heb. 13:5) it opposes the envy, the grasping for more on which revolution depends (Idols for Destruction, 137). Furthermore, private property guards the "'troubled boundary'" between the individual and the state (Ibid., 217). The 4th Amendment's prohibition of unreasonable searches and seizures flows from the 7th Commandment's recognition of the right to private property.
So, what does it really have to do with us individually? Our Large Catechism says that "we must preach this not to Christians but chiefly to knaves and scoundrels" (I, 233). And I would add to birds. To seagulls particularly for they are the most greedy of all birds. Don't believe me? Throw crackers up for seagulls. Watch them dip and dive to steal from each other. Try to get a cracker to a particular bird who is kept on the outside and it's difficult. Watch how close they will come to you whom they fear to get a cracker. They will take it out of your hand and even out of your mouth. "Mine, mine, mine" their calls seem to say ginning up a feeding frenzy while drowning out any thought but mine.'
And you don't think this is us? Where do you think hoarding comes from? Do you think it's no more malignant then stamp collection? Where do you think shoplifting of items that a person can easily afford and may not even want comes from? In some sense Chrysostom, the 4th century church father, saw the lust exposed by the 7th Commandment as the worst. He said that lust of passion, exposed by the 6th Commandment, was planted in us originally for the procreation of children. Anger, exposed by the 5th, was planted in us originally to avenge wrongs rightly. But the lust for things not so: "'Therefore neither is the passion natural to us. So then, if you are made captive of it, you will suffer so much the more vilest punishment'" (Homily XXIII, Second Corinthians, NPNF, XII, 389).
Only the sin of covetousness does Paul equate with idolatry (Col. 3:5). That's because of the iron link forged in our fallen souls between possessions and life thinking that somehow the latter comes from the former. It's like all the lessons from theology to mythology about this have taught us nothing. God says, "Set not your heart on riches" (Ps. 62:10) and we respond, "What?" God says, "Labor not to be rich; cease from your own wisdom about riches" (Pv. 23:4), and we hear the "wah, wah, wah" of adults in Charlie Brown. It's as if Jesus never spoke the parable of the Rich Fool (Lk. 12) who foolishly thought since he had enough riches to live he would, or the Rich Man who went to hell clothed in purple (Lk. 16). It's as if mythology never taught us the foolishness of wishing everything we touch would turn to gold or of the Tantalus of desire standing us in water that receded out of reach when thirsty and below fruit just out of reach when hungry. Even pop culture doesn't hit home. We don't consider ourselves in Dire Straits when we're longing for "Money for Nothing." And neither the cash register ring in Pink Floyd's "Money" nor the reverberating tone of the song warning of desiring ever more rings true to us.
What if God punished us for our outright thefts, getting things in a dishonest way, or failing to help our neighbor improve his possessions and income the way of the Arab world? Would any of us still have our right hands? We'd all be marked for life. A missing right hand would be more of a guilty shame than a scarlet letter we could hide. Or what if like Jean Val Jean, God made us galley salves? Five years of rowing because we stole a loaf of bread. I wish this did happen because then we might know His mercy. We don't know His mercy because we don't know our extreme sin.
Birds are greedy, seagulls especially, momma birds are not. Jesus likens His mercy to that of a momma bird that wills to gather her chicks under the safety of her protecting wings (Lk. 13:34). Pelicans were thought to so love their babies that they would peck open their breast to feed their young. Storks have been known to scoop up water in their bills to put out fire approaching their nesting young and failing that to cover them with her wings and die with them. Jesus actually goes one better He dies in place of us. He's the momma bird in the prairie fire charred black whom the farmer kicks over only to see her chicks run out alive. This is what happened to at least one person in our reading. When given the choice between Barabbas, whom John 18 (:40) calls a robber, and Jesus who is declared innocent by Pilate several times, by King Herod once, and by God Himself through a dream to Pilate's wife, the leaders of the OT church convinced the crowd to choose the breaker of the 7th Commandment instead of Jesus.
You know how "Seinfeld" episodes have a running bit in many of them? "Not that there's anything wrong with that." "I know you said something but I don't know what." The close-talker, the man-hands, and no soup for you." Well, there's a running bit going on here. Barabbas the robber is freed and Jesus is led out to be crucified between two robbers (Mt. 27:38). Then on Easter morning the risen Jesus is mistaken as having robbed His own tomb. Jesus was innocent of ever breaking the 7th Commandment, of even thinking about it. We are Barabbas. We deserve to be imprisoned not just in this life but in eternity for our little thieving thoughts or big thieving ways. We deserve to be caught red-handed and have our right hand lopped off. Like one of the two thieves on the cross, we know we justly deserve crucifixion. Not only do we deserve the wrath of men but that of God Himself. And you know how Jesus was accused of stealing His own body? Have you ever been wrongly accused of theft? I'll bet you blew up quite indignantly though not one of us can say we're totally innocent.
Jesus was totally innocent. You and I are Barabbas. We await death by crucifixion knowing we deserve it. But what's this? They're coming to your cell, unlocking the iron gate, but saying, "Go you are free." You are free for Jesus' sake, the punishment you fear and deserve is going to be suffered by Jesus. Or you're in an Arab country, their holding your right hand down on a wooden block, the sword is raised high and in the next moment, your hand will be lopped off. There it will be. You're hand on the ground. It will be your hand but not your hand. You can't look. You turn away, and then Someone stays the hand holding the sword moving towards your hand. That Someone one is Jesus. "Stop; take My hand not his." "Stop, take My hands, My feet, My whole body and soul, instead of hers. Don't just nail them to the cross send them to the Rich Man's hell. Put me in the tantalizing place between heaven and earth where I will bear all the Divine wrath against sins while shielding sinners under the outstretched wings of My cross."
We've been mercied, as the bishop mercied the guilty Jean Val Jean sparing him from returning to being a galley slave after being free for but one night. We can only speculate how being mercied changed Barabbas, and Jean Val Jean being so incredibly changed is after all just a novel. But you, if you really do know your guilt of seeking life from dead Mammon, of thinking always in terms of "mine, mine, mine", of seeing you're justly in jail, and your hand rightly on the chopping block, then you do know real mercy in Jesus' name. Then what you wrongly sought from dead Mammon, you will seek from the living God; then rather than "mine, mine, mine" all things will be His, His, His; then you'll see all things are in the right hand of God's righteousness which is Jesus. All things includes your past, present, future. Your life, death, and resurrection. Your possession, property, and income and that of your neighbors too are all in Jesus' hands.
The most famous seagull in American pop culture is Johnathon Livingston Seagull. That book made a big splash in 1970. Basically it's Zen Buddhism without the Buddha. However, this truism from it applies: "The gull sees farthest who flies highest." Go back and watch the seagull scene in "Nemo". They're all on the ground not in the air. And as Simon and Garfunkel sang: "A man gets tied up to the ground/ He gives the world its saddest sound." That sound would be "mine, mine, mine". But flying high by God's grace on the wings of Jesus' cross you see all things are His, His, His. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Midweek IV (20200318); 7th Commandment, Passion Reading 4