SERMON TEXT: Thou Shalt not steal
What is your first memory of having stolen something?
I am still a little ashamed to retell the story even now about 40 years after it happened, but for myself, I was in what we called class 1, the equivalent of P1. A boy called Fernando had brought a whole lot of round yellow stickers to school, and shared them with a select group of people. In fact, if I remember, he shared them with most of the girls in the class. There was quite an excited buzz amongst those who got these small rolls of round yellow dot stickers. Thinking back, I felt left out. At the time, all our school bags and cases were kept outside the classroom, and so pretending to need something from my own case, I asked to go outside to fetch it. But instead, I found Fernando’s case, opened it, and took some of the yellow dot stickers for myself, hiding them in my own case.
Wendy shared with me that the first time she remembers stealing anything was when she stole Quintin Bean’s rubber when she was age 6, also in P1. She said his had a picture of a mouse on it and she had a plain old rubber. She felt jealous, and so she stole it from him.
It is interesting reflecting back on the experience. I remember not feeling very nice about what I had done, a little like a dark cloud had settled over me, and the feeling just grew worse when Fernando told the teacher that some of his stickers had been stolen. I hate to confess it, but I never owned up and continued to see those wretched yellow stickers for years to come every time I came across them stashed away in my bottom drawer at home along with all sorts of other useless odds and ends. Looking back, I think that was probably the last time that I can remember blatantly and unambiguously taking something that didn’t belong to me which I knew belonged to somebody else. The lesson was in the experience of what it felt like. It was not an experience that I wanted to repeat.
It is not to say that since then, there haven’t been more ambiguous moments where the things have felt a little more grey or where I have put my own self-interest above others where the lines have been a little more blurred. I certainly can’t claimed to have lived like a saint my whole life since that incident.
What is also interesting looking back at the incident when I was aged 6 in P1 was the sense of being left out. It was that sense of having been excluded from quite a large group of others that was a defining motivating factor in what I did. It is interesting, because it is a fairly well known statistic that those societies which have the greatest gap between rich and poor also experience the greatest levels of crime ranging from petty theft to more serious organised crime. It makes me wonder to what extent at least some of that crime stems from a deep sense of being excluded and left out from the economic spoils that they see others enjoying in abundance.
I have seen it suggested on a number of occasions that theft and crime cannot be solved by policing alone, but also needs to be solved by creating more equitable societies, making sure that fewer people feel like they have been excluded and sidelined from the economic life of society.
Today we come to examine the 8th of the 10 Commandments and as I read out the words of the Commandment “Thou Shalt not Steal”, I sincerely hope that that Wendy and I are not the only ones with memories of stealing something when we were younger? I imagine that we all have a memory. It is a reminder that stealing is in fact quite an universal experience. Except in exceptional cases I would hazard a guess that almost all children need to be taught not to steal.
Except in exceptional instances, most children need to be encouraged to share and not simply take things that don’t belong to them.
It would seem that we almost all have a default self-centred mode of being when we are born into the world. It is quite natural for little babies to have a sense that the world revolves around them and their needs and wants and therefore the tendency to take things and to want to claim them as their own, even if they belong to someone else. Wendy and I see the same thing playing out with our two cats. George is the bed-king. He has a tendency to assume that any bed that he finds belongs to him, even if we may have made it especially for Annie, knowing full well that George already has the best bed in the house.
The same is true of morning treats. We have to watch George with a hawk eye because he has a tendency to wolf down his own morning treat and when he is finished he will assume that he has the right to go on and finish Annie’s treat as well.
If we are honest with ourselves, most of us, except the very saintly, would have to admit, that even when we have been trained in the basics of not taking what is not ours, there often remains a centrifugal tendency to want to receive and get as much as we can rather than to give and share.
In exploring and critically reflecting on the 10 commandments in the wider context of the Old Testament, Michael Nugent is of the opinion that none of the 10 commandments were originally conceived of or understood to be laying down universal laws or values of right or wrong. Rather, he asserts that these were originally tribal laws. According to Nugent, all the commandments, including the commandment not to steal were about protecting the stability and interests of one tribe, the Israelites. The same could be said of the 8th Commandment not to steal because, as he suggests, the directive not to steal only seemed to apply to internal relationships within the people of Israel.
There is much within the Old Testament that can be used to support this view:
In the book of Deuteronomy, the God character through Moses encourages the Israelites to steal the treasures, animals, women and children of enemy tribes (Deut 20:14-15). Michael Nugent also points out that the Israelites also stole the land of other tribes. Their God, as the story is told, told them to drive out all of the inhabitants, take possession of the land and settle in it, and divide it up according to their own clans (Num 33:50-54, Deut 2:31-34, Deut 20:16-17).
While it is clear that this injunction not to steal was not originally conceived of as a universal law within the minds of most Israelites, it was at least a start in the moral development of a rough and often brutal early Israelite people. One could say that in the school of growing to full ethical maturity, we all need to start somewhere. For the Israelite people, their starting point was within their own tribe or nation. Even though the early Israelites may not have conceived of this law as being of universal applicability, I do believe that the seed of universal applicability is surely contained within it.
In fact the universal nature of the law or commandment not to steal can be seen in the fact that such laws and injunctions are not unique to the 10 commandments or the Old Testament. Values and laws against stealing can be found within all the major religions of the world, in Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, and Buddhism. For example, in the 10 precepts of Buddhism, the second precept is the precept not to steal. In fact it is worded slightly differently from the commandment not to steal and is rather understood to abstain from taking what is not given, but the sentiment is the same.
In fact, in my own reflection on the religions of the world, I have to admit that I have found great value in Buddhist approaches to matters of morality, which I believe are complimentary to a deeper more nuanced Christian approach and reflection.
The Buddha, who only ever conceived of himself as a human being who had awoken to the true nature of reality, approached matters of morality primarily from the point of view of suffering, and the endeavour to navigate a path that would reduce suffering, not only for the one on the spiritual path, but also for the rest of society.
From a Buddhist perspective, the injunction or precept not to steal is understood to be important, because it reduces suffering. A Buddhist approach to morality would say that you can test these things for yourself. Steal something, and reflect on what that feels like, and you will find that it is not a pathway that leads to spiritual freedom and wholeness. This was my own experience as a 6 year old and to a large extent it has lived with me ever since. And so, if you want to be psychologically and spiritually free, and to be in touch with a natural and deep sense of happiness and well-being, then these will not be achieved by theft, robbery or deception which will always leave you feeling cut off from others and more and more isolated in the prison of the self.
Freedom and joy come from feeling connected with others and with life. Stealing and taking, and even keeping and hoarding undermine that deeper sense of connectedness, which we in the Christian tradition describe with the word Love.
And so the Buddha might have been in complete agreement with the sentiment expressed in Psalm 84:10 “Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere; I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked.”
In the Psalm, being in the courts of God can symbolise the heart that is open, free and at ease, feeling at one and in harmony with the natural goodness of being alive. Being in the tents of the wicked symbolises being caught up on the prison of the deceptive and manipulative self.
In closing, the opposite of stealing is surely generosity. Whereas stealing is inward looking and self-orientated, looking out for number 1, then generosity is about being outward looking, wishing to reach out to others in acts of care, kindness and blessing.
I started the sermon by asking if you can remember the first time you stole something. I would like to close the sermon by asking you to remember your most recent act of generosity. Who did you give to? How did it make you feel? How did that feeling compare with the feeling of that first memory of stealing?
May we all come to know more and more the inner freedom, openness, joy and happiness that comes as we make the shift, over and over again, from a life centred on ourselves, a life of taking, getting, hoarding and keeping, to a life of generosity, giving and blessing. And in doing so, may we discover the spirit of God welling up from within us