Once Declares Socialism and Communism are Wrong
As might be expected the courthouse has never let go of the 7th Commandment. Many of its cases are about property crimes. There's burglary, robbery, armed robbery, petty larceny, grand larceny, fraud, and more. But don't think the courthouse is always a champion of the 7th Commandment. More often then not it does protect property rights, but recent decisions that the law of imminent domain empowers the State to force the sale of property to someone who can generate more taxes has put the courthouse on the other side of the 7th Commandment. However, as of now the courthouse still overall recognizes the right of private property.
That's a good thing because that means our society is basically on the same page as our God. The 7th Commandment establishes the right of private property. By commanding, "Thou shalt not steal," our Lord is making a distinction between what is thine and what is mine. You're not sinning against me because you have property that I have no right to anymore than you are sinning against me by keeping your wife only unto yourself. The hippie communes or the cults of today that have property in common are not closer to God by virtue of shared property.
Don't misunderstand; a group could voluntarily share their property. The apostolic church did this in Acts. But note even there it was by choice. Peter tells Ananias that his property was entirely at his disposal to do as he pleased. The problem comes when property rights are abolished by law. Communism does this by declaring private property is against the law; all property belongs to the group. Socialism does this by declaring all private property belongs to the State.
Some of you might be enamored by the Occupiers and their cry that the 1% ought to be made to share with the 99%. But this group is going down a very dangerous road since they are appealing to government to breach private property rights. Listen to thinkers much greater than I. "There are no societies that are cavalier toward property rights which safeguard human rights. The state that lays its hand on your purse will lay it in on your person" (Idols for Destruction, 134). The State that believes it has a right to private property does not believe there is a law of God above it that has made a distinction between mine and thine.
Now don't overcorrect and drive into the ditch on the other side of the truth. Because the 7th Commandment declares socialism and communism are wrong it does not establish capitalism let alone greed. In our Large Catechism we confess against those who make the free market into a pit of extortion and a den of robbery by selling their goods for as high a price as they please (I, 240-242). One of the times I've been most embarrassed before a layman was in the midst of a drought in the 80s. He had hay from last year which he could easily sell for 3 times as much that year. I pointed out the great profit he would bring in, and this simple country man said: "Pastor that wouldn't be right when it didn't cost me nothing to hold it over from last year." I saw gold; he saw his neighbor.
When I said the 7th Commandment establishes neither capitalism nor greed you probably thought, "Well of course it doesn't establish greed." But we sinners do think that since there is distinction between mine and thine then I can and should get as much as I can. Luther said that we disguise such lust for money by calling it providing for our body and the needs of our family (LW, 44, 107).
The 7th Commandment is warning us from a passion that can feel right but is oh so wrong. Chrysostom pointed this out 1700 years ago. He said God planted sexual passion in us for the procreation of children and the anger passion in us to punish evildoers and protect the innocent. But the passion for money and things was not from God at all. The passion for more, better, different leads to no good thing. It led Eve to the forbidden fruit. "So then if thou art made captive by it, thou wilt suffer so much the more vilest punishment" (NPNF, XII, 389).
Now you can see that you've been fooling yourself. Because you don't shoplift, do return lost money, and don't shortchange the clerk, doesn't mean the 7th Commandment isn't a problem for you. You should be able to see that in our message hymn. Written by Luther 5 years before his Catechisms, do you see what verse 8 focuses on? Stealing is defined as unjust interest, overcharging the poor, and not being generous to those in need. Luther's explanation doesn't focus on money, possessions, and income but on our neighbor.
Wow! We're talking about whole other view of money and things. People in the church are use to being told that their money belongs to God, and then comes the appeal to give it to Him. For Luther, money belongs to your neighbor; God doesn't need it. But how do we get to this different view of money? The legendary founder of Sparta, Lycurgus, found what St. Paul did; the love of money was the root of all kinds of evil. His solution was to ban ownership of gold and sliver and to make iron the only legal tender. Robbery and bribery stopped because who wanted iron?
Such a ploy might work for awhile, but it would only be an outward change. We're talking about addressing the acquisitive principle that as the explanation says wants to "take" or "get" our neighbor's possessions or goods rather than seeing our possessions and goods as being at our neighbor's service. We're trying to address the Rich Fool in all of us and cut the connection we think exists between money and the length of time we have to live. We're trying to put our money under Caesar like Jesus said and render unto Caesar what rightly belongs to him. We're trying to do as Paul said and put our money under our fellow Christian and willingly be defrauded rather than to go to court against him.
I'm doubtful we can turn this corner, or at least that I can help you do it. Remember I'm the one who thought price gouging your neighbor was okay. I'm the one who thinks winning the lottery would solve everything. I'm the one who thinks the biblical Proverb "money answers all" is an answer rather than a warning. I'm the one who lives in dread of being recorded on Candid Camera finding a money laden wallet and not returning it.
I've told you that the 7th Commandment requires a whole different view of possessions and income than sinners naturally have. Where do we go for a whole different view? Surely not the mirror; surely not our hearts. But Jesus. Before He can give us a whole different view of riches, we need Him to give us a whole different view of poverty. 2 Corinthians 8:9 says, "For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich."
First of all, know that what happens to Jesus in the Passion Reading is outwardly because of money. Remember Jesus had challenged the lucrative Temple business; the Church leaders were afraid of losing their cushy positions; Rome was afraid Jesus did oppose payment of taxes. And it was money that brought Judas and Church leaders together against Jesus.
It was all about money outwardly and in a larger sense. Jesus, God over all things, owned everything. Yet He became poor for us sinners. You know how mad you get when someone treats you below your station? God divested Himself of angels and archangels and all the company of heaven to live in a humble way on the earth. Imagine the perfect God confessing your greed and avarice, your petty theft and grand larceny. Imagine God being stripped naked and clothed with purple and crowned with thorns.
And remember He did this as payment, to pay what you and I owe. You are completely wrong if you are feeling sorry or bad for Him. You are insulting His payment if you are saying anything other than "thousands, thousands, thanks shall be dearest Jesus unto Thee." If we went out to eat and you paid for it, would you like it if I pitied you for paying, if I received your gift with guilt? Wouldn't you want me to take your gift, enjoy your gift, not doubting that it was gladly given?
All the poverty going on in our text is to enrich you with forgiveness, life, and salvation and to free you from the tyranny of things, of possessions and income. Jesus became poor that you might become rich. He was declared guilty that you might be declared innocent. A crown of thorns was jammed down on His head so a crown of life might be placed on yours. Crucify! Crucify! rang in His ears so that Live! Live! Might ring in yours. The crowd chose Barabbas over Jesus because God first chose you over Jesus. When all the gold and sliver of the world have melted, when all the diamonds have been crushed to sand, when all the dollars have burned up, the riches you have in Jesus' name will still be there.
Back to the 30 pieces of sliver. It has been calculated that at 3 percent interest if those dollars were sliver they would be worth more than $342,000 for each of earth's 7 billion people. That's far in excess of the actual wealth on all of earth (Idols for Destruction, 108). I can't tell you how my fleshy little heart would rejoice to have $342,000 for every member of my family. But what the Roman's 30 pieces of sliver has bought has enriched me far more than money, health, or happiness ever could. I have riches that are immune to depression, recession, stock markets crashes, and bank failures. I have wealth that is even immune to Sin, Death, and the Devil.
I know you've heard Marx's famous line that religion is the opiate of the people. He was right. He saw that Christian faith opposes the envy, the grasping for more, on which his revolution depends (Ibid. 137). Having everlasting life, the riches of mercy without end, and more grace than you have sins inoculates you against wanting the riches of others. As when Jacob and Esau meant after 20 years apart, while rich, mighty Esau could say, "I have plenty," it was the limping but graced Jacob who could say, "I have all." And so do you in Jesus' name without either socialism or communism collecting or redistributing other people's wealth. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Lenten Vespers IV (20120314); 7th Commandment, Passion Reading 4