"The 8th Promise: Generosity"

Ephesians 2:14-20; Deuteronomy 24:6-7, 10-22

Rev. Dr. Lisa Rzepka

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Introduction to Scripture. Our next reading is from the Book of Deuteronomy. The centerpiece of Deuteronomy, spanning 15 chapters, is a list of laws and regulations covering matters of worship, family life, and the administration of justice. The passage you are about to hear deals with the quality of life expected by every member of the Israelite community as a people in covenant with God. The purpose was that communal life should maintain a basic standard of quality for all of God’s people. A couple of items to be aware of in the reading: A millstone was a simple household utensil for the milling of flour to make bread for one’s household. The prohibition of taking a millstone insured a household’s independence in feeding themselves. Kidnapping refers to the practice of banditry, often involving children as victims, for the purpose of acquiring and selling slaves. Let us listen again for a Word from God.

Deuteronomy 24:6-7, 10-22. No one shall take a mill or an upper millstone in pledge, for that would be taking a life in pledge. If someone is caught kidnaping another Israelite, enslaving or selling the Israelite, then that kidnaper shall die. So, you shall purge the evil from your midst. 10 When you make your neighbor a loan of any kind, you shall not go into the house to take the pledge. 11 You shall wait outside, while the person to whom you are making the loan brings the pledge out to you. 12 If the person is poor, you shall not sleep in the garment given you as the pledge. 13 You shall give the pledge back by sunset, so that your neighbor may sleep in the cloak and bless you; and it will be to your credit before the Lord your God. 14 You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy laborers, whether other Israelites or aliens who reside in your land in one of your towns. 15 You shall pay them their wages daily before sunset, because they are poor and their livelihood depends on them; otherwise they might cry to the Lord against you, and you would incur guilt. 16 Parents shall not be put to death for their children, nor shall children be put to death for their parents; only for their own crimes may persons be put to death. 17 You shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pledge. 18 Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this. 19 When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings. 20 When you beat your olive trees, do not strip what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. 21 When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. 22 Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore, I am commanding you to do this.

As we begin our reflection on the command, You Will Not Steal, think about: Why do people steal?

Some people steal because they are hungry. Les Misérables, Victor Hugo’s great novel depicts human hunger as the reason protagonist Jean Valjean steals a loaf of bread and ends up with a prison sentence totaling nineteen years.

Some people steal because they are addicted. Addicts are feeding a different kind of hunger; it might be gambling, it might be drugs, or it might be an addiction to easy credit fueling an unrealistic lifestyle. In Bible study this week, it was suggested that some people might be addicted to the thrill of stealing and the high of getting away with it. It could be young people shoplifting and bragging to their friends or it could be as sophisticated as the plot to the movie Oceans 11. In that fictitious movie, the protagonist declares three rules: Don't hurt anybody, don't steal from anyone who doesn't deserve it, and play the game like you've got nothing to lose. 

Peter Lawford bought the rights to the 1960 original film, where a group of World War II compatriots pull off the ultimate Las Vegas heist. When Lawford first told Frank Sinatra about the story, Sinatra is said to have joked: "Forget the movie, let's pull the job!" Maybe it was the thrill, or maybe, it was greed.

Greed is the fourth reason people steal. With greed as the motivator, stealing works in two directions, it could be the poor stealing from the rich, or vice versa, the rich stealing from the poor – which happens more often. Because - stealing is as much about method as it is about money. Consider that in this land of opportunity, there are currently rich parents bribing their children’s way into top tier colleges, taking spots for which less financially secure students could have qualified.

A twist on that scenario was reported this week that dozens of parents in the Chicago area have been signing over legal guardianship of their high school juniors and seniors. They give guardianship to a friend, an aunt or uncle, cousin or grandparent, allowing the students to declare themselves financially independent of their families. As such, they now qualify for federal, state and university aid. It’s another method of wealthy families robbing opportunities from families that really need it by manipulating the financial aid process.”[1]

Stealing is as much about method as it is about the money. Between 2014 and 2018, a nonprofit hospital in Memphis, TN sued 8,300 patients, including 160 of its own employees. What makes this especially significant is the medical plan for employees does not allow them to go outside the hospital system for less expensive medical care. Not unusual is the employee defendant, an hourly employee, who is paid only $12.25 per hour. In one particular case, the hospital is suing this employee for more than $23,000, including around $5,800 in attorney’s fees.[2] In Bible Study this week we discussed other predatory methods of stealing like payday loans, home warranties from which it is almost impossible to collect insurance claims, Online University scams, gerrymandering (which both major political parties employ) and is a method of stealing votes – and influencing the economy. Redlining real estate districts in the 60s and 70s kept people of color from living in school districts that offered better educational opportunities and thus kept them in oppressed environments.

We also discussed the widening disparity in CEO salaries in the United States from the average worker salary. The CEO-to-worker pay ratio was 42:1 in 1980. In 2016 the ratio was 341:1. Over the same time period, a typical worker’s annual compensation, adjusted for inflation, for the average private-sector production, nonsupervisory worker rose just $5000 from $48,000 in 1978 to $53,200 in 2014. The average salary growth was $5K over a 36-year period for non-supervisory production employees.[3] If you are like the Bible study group, you may be sitting there thinking – I know these problems exist, what do we as individuals do about it?

Let’s think contextually about the community which first heard this command. The Hebrew people were a nomadic, tribal people living off the land. The function of this commandment was to protect the common property of the people; the water well, the grazing land, the sheep. Protect it from being commandeered by an individual for the sake of personal profit. For the Israelite, all property was owned in common and the welfare of the community superseded all individual appropriations. God was recognized as the owner of the land; the Israelites were, at best, only its caretakers, its stewards. They believed the land and its resources had been “loaned” to them for the welfare of all. To deprive any member of the community of their share…to deprive them of their needs, was to sin against God.[4]

So, stealing in the biblical sense, then, is not so much a private or personal sin as it is a social sin. To take what we do not need, to deprive those in the community of their basic needs or to destroy what is useful to another is stealing. Israel wrote laws, to protect the poor from being exploited by the rich not the other way around. Scripture is replete with warnings against using false weights in the weighing out of grain, or charging interest on a debt, or holding the cloak of a debtor as collateral overnight because he might die from exposure without it. Be careful of your methods…

Which is why, our ancestor in faith, John Calvin admonished in the 16th century the: “harsh and inhuman laws with which the more powerful crush and oppress the weak.” (Winn, A Christian Primer: The Prayer, the Creed, the Commandments, 240) Many people want their politics and their religion to be separate, but that is not how Calvin viewed the purpose of government. He saw government as a structure for good, as such, faithful people needed to be involved in government to root out the systemic evil that manages to find its way into even the healthiest of institutions.

What can we do about cracks in the system that allow predatory methods you wonder? Investigative journalist George Monbiot believes that because we are living with a broken economic model in our society, we need a new story. As humans, he recounts, we navigate our world through narrative stories. Stories are the method we use to unravel complex, contradictory issues. Trough story we try to make sense of life. Isn’t that why we come together week after week to hear the old, old story and see if it still makes sense in today’s world? Does what we are hearing reflect the way that we expect humans and the world to behave? Does the story hang together? Does our story progress as a story should progress?

Innately, we are creatures of narrative, and strings of facts and figures, however important they are, have no power to displace a persuasive story. And when a story doesn’t hang together anymore the only thing that can replace a story is a story. You cannot take away someone's story without giving them a new one. There are a number of basic plots that over time gets used again and again in stories. Monbiot speaks to a tremendously powerful plot in politics and economics and even religion called "the restoration story." It goes like this: 

Disorder afflicts the land, caused by powerful and nefarious forces working against the interests of humanity. But the hero will revolt against this disorder, fight those powerful forces, against the odds overthrow them and restore harmony to the land.[5] 

Sound familiar? It’s The Harry Potter story, The Narnia Story, The Lord of the Rings story. It’s in many stories of the Bible - Think Moses, David, Jesus. In his TED Talk, Monbiot shows how the restoration story rose and fell at different times in American history using economic theories. Then 2008 happened. And guess what. No new story followed the worst economic depression since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Instead, all we hear about are stories of anarchy and mayhem.

Yet - Monbiot proclaims that the story waiting to be told is that human beings have got a massive capacity for altruism. Now that’s a little hard to believe with the news overnight of the second mass shooting in twenty-four hours. Lord, have mercy!

Over the past few years, our basic tendency toward altruism has been confirmed in several different sciences: in psychology and anthropology, in neuroscience and evolutionary biology. True, we all have a bit of selfishness and greed inside us, but in most people, those are not our dominant values. It is more natural for us to be the supreme cooperators. Through cooperation, we survived the African savannas, despite being weaker and slower than our predators - and most of our prey.

We thrived when we followed the urge to cooperate that has been hardwired into our minds and when we utilized our amazing ability to engage in mutual aid. The crucial facts about our humanity is that we possess as humans amazing altruism and cooperation. Monbiot says, “Our story has been broken in that “our good nature has been thwarted by several forces, [with] the most powerful of them [being] the dominant political narrative of our times, which tells us that we should live in extreme individualism and competition with each other. It pushes us to fight each other, to fear and mistrust each other. It atomizes society. It weakens the social bonds that make our lives worth living. And into that vacuum grow these violent, intolerant forces. We are a society of altruists, but we are governed by psychopaths.” 

This is not the good news. The good news is: It Doesn’t Have To Be This Way because we have an incredible capacity for togetherness and belonging, and by invoking that capacity, we can recover those incredible components of our humanity: our unselfishness and cooperation. Isn’t this the gospel story – the story Jesus was trying to tell.

It is an old, old story that still hangs together if we hang together – and not divided. Monbiot’s TED Talk says that “Where there is atomization, we can build a thriving community life with a rich participatory culture.  [That’s Christ’s breaking down the barriers.] Where we find ourselves crushed between market and state, we can build an economics that respects both people and planet.” [That’s Jesus opposing the oppressive forces of the Roman Empire].

Isn’t this the good news proclaimed throughout the Bible and what the the Ten Commandments point us to? God’s promises intend an abundant life for all of humanity and the planet, not just for some. The promise in this 8th command is a promise of generosity for everyone.

In the biblical story: The laws of charity and almsgiving and the distribution of goods are clear in the First Testament: A minimum of one-tenth of one's income belongs to God and should be used to take care of God's people (Gen. 28:22). As our Deuteronomy reading this morning made clear, no Israelite could escape the obligation to care for those who could not care for themselves. You heard about gleaning — the concept that the poor had a right to the un-gathered part of the harvest in the field. Farmers were obligated to leave part of the season's yield behind. The first-fruits of every yield belong to God, as well. The best — not the worst of what a farmer grew — belonged to those in need.

The fourth chapter in Letter to the Ephesians does not only deal with our unity in Christ, it illustrates the need to break down the barriers that keep us from being our best generous selves. That hangs true especially today. So, what can we do today? Be bridge builders. Start listening to each other. Start listening so that trust can be built amongst those with differing views. First, find the commonality in your purpose and your hopes and dreams before you start to try to change the other person or party.

Build trusting relationships by sharing and cooperating on common ground. This trust building work goes a long way toward working on differences of opinion. Here is a question to consider: What is your favorite characteristic of God? Ask for responses. Did anyone think, Generosity? Consider that, underneath all of God’s characteristics is the fact that whatever God offers and gives, it is given with reckless abandon, in other words, with generosity. A society that “will not steal” is simply a generous society. Generosity is communicable – it’s a favorable contagion.

And that’s the promise: As God’s people you are expected not to steal. As God’s people, what God has in store for you is seemingly an impossible possibility, a redeemed community where people will not steal. Let your mind savor that vision. A redeemed community where everyone has what they need, and no one needs to steal - anything. Amen