Philippians 2:4-11 (ESV) Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
The Old Testament reading for the Sixth Sunday after Trinity is the Ten Commandments, from Exodus 20:1-17. Within these is the Seventh Commandment, “You shall not steal.” Dr. Luther explains, “We should fear and love God so that we do not take our neighbor’s money or possessions, or get them in any dishonest way, but help him to improve and protect his possessions and income.”
Some of the first people to convert to Christianity were thieves. When St. Paul wrote to his congregation at Corinth, he said that some of them had been sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, practicing homosexuals, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, and swindlers. Then he reminded them that such people cannot inherit the kingdom of God, and that some of the Corinthians had been part of those groups of people who are going to hell. And evidently after conversion they backslid into their previous sins, among which were adultery, drunkenness, and theft.
So Paul reminds them, “[You were those things before,] but you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor 6:11). God had saved them through Baptism into Jesus Christ, so they had no more need of all of those sins, since they had Jesus. In Christ, the Corinthians had received everything that they would ever need in time and for eternity, so they didn’t need to backslide and corrupt the holiness they received in Christ.
Paul frequently called his congregations to repent of backsliding. He expected a clean break from their pagan, sinful ways of life and desired his people to live new lives in Christ. To the Ephesians he wrote, “Let him who stole steal no longer, but rather let him labor, working with his hands what is good, that he may have something to give to him who has need” (Ephesians 4:28). Here we see the positive side of the commandment not to steal – instead of stealing, work hard, earn a living, and then you’ll have something leftover to give to those who are genuinely in need. Paul did not approve of Robin Hoods but said to work hard at whatever it is you do so you can use your income to benefit your neighbor. Paul also said, “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” (2 Thess 3:10) in order to prevent the Christians from taking advantage of the good will of their generous brothers and sisters.
Taking advantage of other people—that’s what Luther said was one of the biggest sins against the seventh commandment. Taking advantage of others doesn’t seem like stealing at first glance. The obvious sins against the Seventh Commandment are robbery, theft, vandalism, shopflifting, extortion, arson, fraud, and kidnapping. Oh, we should also throw in cheating on taxes owed to the government. But think about some of the subtle ways we steal by taking advantage of others. For example, defaulting on loan payments—according to Psalm 37:21, “The wicked [man] borrows and does not repay.” And goldbricking, which is an expression for being lazy on the job. You steal from your employer when you don’t accomplish what you’re supposed to in the time you’re paid for.
The workplace actually highlights how we fail to keep the positive side of the commandment. Remember, Luther said not only to avoid stealing but to help your neighbor “improve and protect his possessions and income.” But in violation of this, how many employees have hindered their employers’ success by shirking tasks at work, or by only doing enough to get by? Studies are published every year estimating the enormous amount of money lost by employees surfing the internet, or talking over the water cooler, not to mention all the other ways we have found to slack off on the job.
You probably can tell by now that the seventh commandment isn’t as narrow as we might assume. Luther goes even further and says that anytime we fail to help our neighbor to prosper, we break the seventh commandment.
Repent. The seventh commandment leaves us condemned before God and man. Its requirements are a burden we cannot bear. We may avoid the most obvious sins against stealing, but we collapse in other places. And we all deserve a thief’s punishment, which is temporal and eternal death. Remember, Jesus was not crucified in between two killers or child molesters, but between two thieves. And one thief recognized 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 about us thieves walking around free who refuse to recognize what we deserve?
Thanks be to God for the forgiveness of all our sins! Jesus said to the repentant thief, “Today you will be with Me in Paradise.” Jesus was dying there between two thieves for their sins, for ours, and for the sin of the whole world, to save us from eternal condemnation for our guilt.
But there’s more! Jesus not only bore our sins against the Seventh Commandment on the cross; today, as our Lord and God, He also bears the burden of providing for all our needs. If we were part of the wicked, unbelieving world, we would sense a need to take advantage of others in order to get by and prosper. The wicked do have to concern themselves with possessions, theirs and everyone else’s, because they know of no loving heavenly Father who sent His Son to bear their burdens. But we do.
So we do not have to take advantage of others, but we are free to take full advantage of God’s grace in Christ—that is, enjoy all the benefits God generously bestows upon you through Christ’s forgiveness of sins, life, righteousness, and salvation. And then you also are set free to look out for the interests of others.
Prayer (LSB 730):
1. What is the world to me
With all its vaunted pleasure
When You, and You alone,
Lord Jesus, are my treasure!
You only, dearest Lord,
My soul’s delight shall be;
You are my peace, my rest.
What is the world to me!
2. The world seeks to be praised
And honored by the mighty
Yet never once reflects
That they are frail and flighty.
But what I truly prize
Above all things is He,
My Jesus, He alone.
What is the world to me!
3. The world seeks after wealth
And all that mammon offers
Yet never is content
Though gold should fill its coffers.
I have a higher good,
Content with it I’ll be:
My Jesus is my wealth.
What is the world to me!
4. What is the world to me!
My Jesus is my treasure,
My life, my health, my wealth,
My friend, my love, my pleasure,
My joy, my crown, my all,
My bliss eternally.
Once more, then, I declare:
What is the world to me! Amen.