A Burden We Think We Can Bear
This Lent we have been looking at the Commandments under the theme "Burdens No One Can Bear." Last week we looked at the 6th Commandment which no Christian thinks bearable. Tonight we look at the 7th Commandment which many Christians believe they can bear.
We think we can bear the 7th Commandment because we define it narrowly. "Thou shalt not steal" is only against gross acts of thievery. You shoplift you break the 7th Commandment. You steal office supplies from your employer, and you're guilty. You get too much back in change and keep it, you steal. Obvious acts of theft and maybe lying on your income taxes are about the only things we will let be against the 7th Commandment, and we think we can bear this.
This wasn't always the case. If you had lived in Luther's day on up till Walther's, the first president of the Synod, that is if you had lived from the 16th century through the 19th, when the 7th Commandment was preached, you would have been told that taking interest on money loaned is sinful. You would have read in your Lutheran Witness of 1869: "In Ezekiel 18 God...includes the taking of interest among the grossest sins, such as theft, robbery, adultery, and idolatry; not only does He call it an abomination; but at the end He most emphatically...denies eternal salvation to him who takes interest on money." Walther went to his grave believing this, but he stopped preaching against the taking of interest when he concluded that because of the world's understanding of economics men's hearts were too hardened on this point to hear and repent.
Men couldn't bear to hear the truth about taking interest, so we stopped preaching about it. We've done the same in recent years with gambling. Up until the 1950's and probably 60's, you would hear gambling denounced as sinful whenever the 7th Commandment was preached. Now that the State has declared that gambling is a legal way for the State to raise tax money. You can buy your lottery tickets and go on your gambling trips with a good conscience, and I dare not speak otherwise.
I'm implicitly forbidden from preaching the 7th Commandment the harsh way Luther did. In a sermon on this Commandment he said, "You farmers and townsmen are almost all of you thieves and skinflints." "You servants and workers are also thieves." "Thieves, thieves that's what you are," Luther shouted in this sermon. But I can't say this because hardly any of you believe you are really guilty of breaking the 7th Commandment. You think you can bear up under it just fine because there is nothing left in the 7th Commandment to convict us.
It was just the opposite in Luther's day. Rather than narrowly defining the 7th Commandment, Luther expanded it till it became unbearable. He said stealing included taking advantage of your neighbor in anyway at all. He said that it was the most common sin. Luther looked out on mankind and said, "It is nothing but a vast, wide stable full of great thieves." From the man in his easy chair taking interest to the worker working slowly, Luther saw stealing going on. From butchers who charged too much to shop owners with inferior goods, Luther saw thieves. In fact, the overt sin of stealing, Luther didn't put high on the list. He said society made sure to punish that. The secret thieves in government, business and church were ignored by society. God, however, would see to them.
Here is the difference between the way we think of sins against the 7th Commandment and the way Luther did. We see them as primarily against people; Luther saw them as primarily against God. He begins the explanation of this Commandment as he does the rest: We should fear and love God. We may escape men's judgement against this Commandment, but we will never escape God's said Luther in the Large Catechism: "For every penny you have taken and for every penny's damage you have done you will pay back thirty-fold." "However much you steal, depend on it... just as much will be stolen from you." In a sermon he says: "He who will punish theft is great and angry unto the 3rd and 4th generation." And, "War and famine come to take away what has been ill-gained."
Ah come on. You just shoplift small things. You're just greedy to get other gambler's money who are foolish enough to risk it. You only take from big companies who won't miss it anyway. You're only ripping off the government who charges you too much in taxes in the first place. Your sins against this Commandment just don't seem that heavy. But you're forgetting they are eternally heavy to God. You are forgetting that some of the biggest sinners in the Bible are those guilty of breaking the 7th Commandment.
Think of Achan. The sliver and gold from Jericho were to go into the Lord's treasury as a thank offering. Achan took just some of it, a little in comparison to all that was there. After all it was the riches of an enemy. At worst, Achan thought he was stealing from the enemy, but he was really stealing from God. What sort of a punishment did God give him? Read Joshua 7. Achan was taken to the Valley of Achor with the sliver and gold, his sons, his daughters, his oxen, donkeys, sheep, tent and all that belonged to him. Then at God's order, Israel stoned them to death and burned them with fire. Behold what happens to people who break the 7th Commandment. They not only bring judgement down on themselves but on their families too.
How about Judas? Even before he betrayed Christ, Scripture says he was a devil. What devilish crime do the Scripture tell you he committed? He wasn't a sexual pervert; he wasn't a heinous killer. He was a thief. And Judas wasn't some big bad armed robber or high dollar burglar. He was a sneak thief. He had his hand in the till. He took from the offering plate.
Finally, what type of sinners is Jesus numbered with to show that He is some horrible sort of sinner? Not killers, not child molesters, but thieves. And do note one thief recognizes that he was justly condemned to be crucified for his sin of being a thief. If a thief while hanging on a cross can recognize that his sin of stealing merits such punishment, what does that say of us thieves walking around free who won't recognize this?
The 7th Commandment is a monstrously heavy burden. I can't bear it; can you? I am nothing but what Jesus says I am in tonight's passion reading. I am a dry tree. Dry trees can't hold any sort of burden at all. They easily break. But Jesus, although He hangs on a dry tree is indeed a Green Tree. Jesus is capable of holding up the heavy burden of the 7th Commandment.
We see Him doing this throughout His life. Do you see how Jesus cared for His neighbor? In John 2, his neighbor runs out of wine, and he provides him with hundreds of gallons of wine. In Luke 5, He calls away 4 men from a family fishing business, but he leaves the family netfuls of fish. He sees thousands of hungry people and freely feeds them, and with the leftovers provides for his disciples who were ever-fearful like we are that they would not have enough.
Yes, that's it, isn't it? This burden that we not are going to have enough is greater than the weight of the 7th Commandment. I count up how much I have to spend on milk each week, and I'm afraid. You count up how much prices go up and how your income is fixed. We see our taxes rising and rising and we're afraid that we will need every penny we can scrape together even if that means bumping up against the 7th Commandment. But don't you see? Jesus experienced these fears too. He had no money to pay His taxes, but when the tax collectors came He sent Peter fishing, and from the mouth of a fish His heavenly Father took care of Him. Even though Jesus said He had no place to lay His head, He trusted that the One who clothed the flowers of the field, fed the sparrows of the air, and housed the foxes of the field would provide for Him too. Jesus the Green Tree bore these burdens and so kept the 7th Commandment perfectly.
Yet what happens to our Green Tree? He is stripped even as our once beautiful Christians trees are stripped. Then violent hands are laid upon Him. He is thrown to His back on a rough, dead tree, and He is nailed, impaled, fastened to it. This Green Tree who bore the heavy burden of the 7th Commandment is nailed to a dead cross even as the common thieves on either side of Him are. Here is where every penny we ever stole was paid back. Here is where God takes out His wrath against sinners who've stolen from Him in a thousand ways. Here is where His anger against thieves to the third and fourth generation is unleashed. Here is where the full weight of the 7th Commandment is placed, and it crushes Jesus all the way to hell itself till He screams: My God, My God why have you forsaken Me?
Here is the answer to the 7th Commandment that not one of us can ever bear. The blood of Jesus flows over our petty thefts and our not so petty ones. It washes across years of IRS form 1040 that were less than accurate. It floods over not just our stealing from our mothers and fathers but above all else from our Heavenly Father. The washing away of our sins is so complete that Jesus excuses them as accidents. Just like He said of the Roman soldiers, so He says of us. "Father forgive them for they know not what they do." Sure those soldiers did. They were experts at crucifying people. They knew right where to place the nails on the body, at what angle and how hard to hit them. They knew Jesus was guilty of no crime worthy of death, but Jesus said to forgive them as if they were ignorant. And so Jesus forgives us. He says, "Father forgive them; they really didn't know how heavy their sins against the 7th Commandment were.
But the Green Tree suffering and dying on the dead tree is not just the answer to our sins; it's the answer to our fear of not having enough that lead us to cast our eyes on ill-gotten gains. Paul tells us this Good News by asking us a question in Romans 8: "He who spared not His own Son, how will He not with Him give us all things?" If God was willing to give His only, innocent Son over to death and damnation for our sins, will He withhold anything that we need for life? Does God only answer our fears about eternal life while leaving our fears about this life unanswered?
Friends, if we were the wicked unbelieving, we would indeed have to be constantly afraid of our retirement, milk, and social security running out. We would indeed have to worry about where our next meal is coming from because we wouldn't have a loving heavenly Father providing for all our needs of body and soul. We would have to focus on sowing and reaping, buying and selling, toiling and spinning. These are the things says Christ that the unbelieving pagans must seek after, but not us. The wicked do have to concern themselves with possessions, their's and everyone else's, because they know of no loving heavenly Father who sent His Son to bear their burdens. But we do. He bore not only our sins against the 7th Commandment on the cross, but He bears today the burden of providing for us. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Midweek V (4-5-00), 7th Commandment