“ ‘The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you reside in my land as foreigners and strangers. Throughout the land that you hold as a possession, you must provide for the redemption of the land.

 “ ‘If anyone among you becomes poor and sells some of their property, their nearest relative is to come and redeem what they have sold. If, however, there is no one to redeem it for them but later on they prosper and acquire sufficient means to redeem it themselves, they are to determine the value for the years since they sold it and refund the balance to the one to whom they sold it; they can then go back to their own property. But if they do not acquire the means to repay, what was sold will remain in the possession of the buyer until the Year of Jubilee. It will be returned in the Jubilee, and they can then go back to their property.’ ”  Leviticus 25:23-28

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
“The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!
“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.”  Matthew 6:1-24

Point by Point

  1. We know what Law 8 means: “It’s not yours; don’t take it!”
  2. There was more to it, even then; ownership was different, “under God”
  3. Some of what was “yours” wasn’t; it belonged to others, as expressed in the second harvest, the Jubilee, etc.
  4. The Scriptures in the older and newer Testaments teach that God wants his people to all be in it for each other
  5. When we live as though we are under no obligation to share with others, we make ourselves wretched and blind
  6. The early church expressed the positive side of “You shalt not steal!” as a perpetual redistribution of assets: a common purse
  7. This common purse was present throughout the early centuries of the local churches
  8. It was lost to society in the 5th and 6th centuries but kept alive in the monasteries for a thousand years
  9. Only the peace churches of the Reformation revived the common purse; the rest of the churches remained conformed to the world’s views and ways
  10. Today what is important is that “You shalt not steal!” once again make a positive-break out in some powerful new expression of God’s love

Details, Details

Law-word Eight: “You shall not steal.” This law needs little explanation, right? It is short and sweet. The thing is not yours; do not take it!

Interesting about this law is the difference in what it meant then and what it means in our context. Israel had a very different understanding of property and property rights than we do in our society. In this case I have to say, the ancients had it more right than we do. In Israel, a thing did not so much belong to you as it belonged to God. The legislation which God gave to Israel made it clear;  the people themselves were not wholly free; they were under obligation to God. What they had they were to use and not take from one another. If they possessed something, then they were the stewards of it and they were accountable to God for its use or abuse. Whereas Christians sometimes talk this way (or at least pastors do during fall stewardship campaigns) our society’s ideas of ownership are derived from the Greco-Roman views of absolute property rights in which “possession is nine points of the law.”

This difference, stewardship rather than ownership, showed up in Israel in noticeable ways. For instance, “When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the LORD your God” Leviticus 19:9-10. Notice, in this little law (only a few verses before “love your neighbor as yourself”) God through Moses declared that what grew on the edges of the fields did not belong to the one who had sown the crop; nor did anything that was dropped along the way during harvest. (Try telling that to any Midwestern farmer in the U.S. today, vainly trying to make a living, growing No. 2 field corn!) Much later, Israel, in the Second Temple period was very religious about keeping this “second harvest” law, all the way down into the time of Jesus (see Luke 6:1-5). He and his disciples even took ripe grain from a field under the provision that “foreigner” also meant anyone traveling a long distance could eat from the edge of anyone’s field.

So, the biblical idea of ownership was nowhere near so cut and dried as ours and it was therefore more open to structural generosity than our society’s codified view of things. The ten law-words, as I have said before, were far from just ten suggestions. They formed the basis of all of Israel’s law and the foundation of Israel’s society. Besides the second harvest law, the entire system of Jubilee, the very first bankruptcy legislation anywhere on earth, was based on the idea that all Israel were members of a society together, that some of what anyone earned belonged to others and if they failed to share it, they made themselves wretched and poor in the eyes of God (see, for instance, Deuteronomy 15:7-11; Proverbs 11:24-26, 28, 28:26-28, etc.). The laws of Israel were set up to make sure that the rich never became too rich to need God nor the poor too poor to live without stealing (Proverbs 30:7-9). The law was designed to make sure everyone had enough to live with dignity.

So what happens when we turn all this around and run “do not steal” through Jesus’ greatest commandments?

Love God with everything you’ve got and your neighbor like you love yourself. 

How about:
To love God, others and ourselves, we need to go well outside our comfort zone and make it possible for others to have enough to stand on their own two feet. God is always on the side of the poor, so what are we doing to build a world where no one feels tempted to steal because they are (nearly) homeless or starving or sick?

Ever read or hear the parable of The Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31)? It’s one of Jesus’ toughest teachings. To put it bluntly, the rich guy goes to hell just for not sharing. In the story as Jesus tells it, the guy does not obviously break any of the Ten Commandments, not even “You shall not steal.” But he fails to share the portion of what he has that really belongs to others and so, yes, he had, in the eyes of God, stolen Lazarus’ chance at livelihood and for that, says Jesus, he went to hell.

Was this idea important for Christians after Jesus was crucified, had died, was buried, rose from the grave and ascended to reign at the right hand of his father? Yes. The joyous, Holy Spirit-driven birth of the church at Pentecost immediately yielded, All the believers continued together in close fellowship and shared their belongings with one another. They would sell their property and possessions, and distribute the money among all, according to what each one needed Acts 2:44-45. I remember in seminary being taught that this “experiment in Christian socialism” was an abject failure, leading to the impoverishment of the church at Jerusalem. I have talked to folks from other schools who were taught something similar in their seminary classes. Nothing could be further from the actual truth. Not only did the common purse and asset redistribution typify the Jubilee-keeping, grace-filled church at Jerusalem, but it was also clearly a mark of every place a Christian community was established (see, for instance, the issue of whether loafers should be supported out of the common purse in II Thessalonians 3:6-15 and questions about who should be supported in I Timothy 5:9-16). Sharing and a common purse became a signpost to the established and coming kingdom of God everywhere Christians founded communities.

But then a new problem emerged. What if one Christian community was much poorer than the others? Should those churches who were more well-off share with those communities which were without all they needed to live? Indeed, when the mother church in Jerusalem became poor (not because they practiced the common purse, but because of famine and persecution) Paul sought to have churches which already pooled a portion of their resources set aside each week some money for the impoverished Jewish church of Judaea. In one letter Paul raises this issue head-on: should those who keep common purses in the scattered churches, make another church whole? Paul says succinctly,

I am not trying to relieve others by putting a burden on you; but since you have plenty at this time, it is only fair that you should help those who are in need. Then, when you are in need and they have plenty, they will help you. In this way both are treated equally. As the scripture says, “The one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little” 
II Corinthians 7: 13-5 (GNB).

The repeated “you” in the above passage is not plural: “y’all, y’all.” It is the singular church of Corinth which is being challenged to either raise money over and above what is in its common purse or to share from its common purse with Jerusalem. 

The common purse was a signpost toward the kingdom in the earliest centuries but as society broke down in the fifth and sixth centuries, the common purse became, like much Christian practice, cloistered in the monasteries. Although much lost teaching and practice were revived in Reformation times, only a few groups, the Hutterites and some Mennonites, revived some form of this ancient positivisation of “Thou shalt not steal!” in society. Most Christian communities during and after the reformation remained in this matter conformed to the pattern of this world.

Stealing? I should not steal? Of course not, but it’s about so much more than not stealing. Most of us as Christians probably cannot imagine what it would be like to devote a third or even half our income to a common purse with others in our church and it is not likely a revival of the common purse will happen in a wholesale way any time soon (although in these hard times I could be wrong). Yet, the common purse of the ancient, the monastic and the modern peace churches is merely an expression of what can and has happened when “You shalt not steal!” has been turned ’round from a negative proscription into a positive force, empowered by love.

Our question: How are we expressing that love-force in action which spews from our new hearts and our warmed-up souls? How are we, en mass, showing off to the quizzical and cynical world our generous God and our carefree hearts by making it possible for others to live? It has happened before and it will happen again. God will warm us up. What will perpetual Jubilee look like this time?

Prayer

Oh, Lord, how your Spirit must groan within us when we spout all the right doctrines and seek all the spiritual gifts and make many joyful sounds with our mouths but tightly clench our meagre holdings  fast against our chests. There is no place in your story for tightwad capitalists or power-hungry socialists, not on the positive side of the story, anyway. People who handle money the way we do, Lord, are all on the “goat” side of the great story’s ledger: Caesar, Herod, the Rich Ruler, Lazarus’ Rich Man, the Rich Fool with his barns, the servant who feared to use his talent, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the doctor of the law who defined his neighborhood quite small and tight. We also clutch. We even wince when the preachers ask us for just a little more as our stewardship. Neither we nor they begin to know the meaning of that word, we confess. We belie our changed hearts by the way we, in fear, 401k-hoard and annuity-pile up money and assets against the unknown days ahead. Forgive us, Lord. Though our hearts are new, the old patterns and the “wisdom” of our dying age cling to us ever so tightly.

Do we need a fresh work of your Spirit, Lord? Do we need another 2008-market meltdown to teach us that only in you do we have any security, that, as you have told your society-blinded people over and over, only you deliver, rescue, redeem, save. Give us wisdom as to how we should pray, Lord and how and what we need to see and how we are to again shock the world with expressions of carefree love which the world cannot imagine nor emulate. Help us find our way again toward the generosity-healthy eyes you freely give, even in our frightened, darkened time. We pray in the name of our nearest relative, our rich uncle, the Lord Jesus, our fabulously wealthy king.  Amen.

Trace James

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