The 13th Sunday after Pentecost August 23, 2015
239, 318, 348, 324(6-8)
“You shall not steal.”
Then, six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus was who had been dead,whom He had raised from the dead. There they made Him a supper; and Martha served, but Lazarus was one of those who sat at the table with Him. Then Mary took a pound of very costly oil of spikenard, anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped His feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil. But one of His disciples, Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, who would betray Him, said,“Why was this fragrant oil not sold for three hundred denariiand given to the poor?” This he said, not that he cared for the poor, but because he was a thief, and had the money box; and he used to take what was put in it.But Jesus said, “Let her alone; she has keptthis for the day of My burial. For the poor you have with you always, but Me you do not have always.”
The same thing happens whenever there is a crisis that disrupts civil authority. It happened in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina made landfall. It happened recently in Baltimore when residents rioted against the police. Wherever there is disorder, you can turn on the television and see people looting. There they are breaking into stores and running off with computers, electronics, food, or anything else they can grab. It makes you wonder after awhile, “Will people really steal every chance they get? Does it really come so naturally to “help yourself” whenever a shop door is left open or whenever the power is out and the security system is off? Whenever there is no threat of law enforcement stopping them, will people just take what does not belong to them?” The answer, sadly, is “yes.” This is the condition of mankind since the fall into sin. He is a thief, and he steals—in every culture, across every age, everywhere on the globe.
Even among Jesus’ closest friends there was a thief. There in the midst of the original twelve apostles stood Judas Iscariot. Judas had been made keeper of the money bag—the one who would make sure there was enough to pay for food and necessities as they all traveled with Jesus. Judas kept the money bag, but also made a habit of reaching in and taking coins for himself. Not just once or twice, but regularly. “…he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.” [v.6 NIV]
The sin of stealing stalked Judas. It crouched for him at the door. Even here, during a supper meal that was given in honor of Jesus Himself, Judas is tempted. He watches Mary take “…a pound of very costly oil of spikenard, anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped His feet with her hair.” [v.3]
The woman takes the costliest thing she owns, worth nearly a year’s wages, and gives it as a gift to Jesus on the day before Palm Sunday—the day before He would begin taking His final steps toward the cross—but there is Judas at the table, not thinking of the act of love, nor of what a priceless treasure he had in Jesus, but instead regretting that he had not had an opportunity to steal that expensive perfume. “Why was this fragrant oil not sold for three hundred denariiand given to the poor?” [v.5]
Oh, Judas knew exactly what the stuff was worth, and as soon as the fragrance of it filled the room, he had already formulated a plan for converting it to cash and getting a piece of it. “For the poor? No, that will just be the way I can get it into the treasury where I can get at it.”
This sin chases people hard. It does not want to let them go, and God acts decisively against it. Stealing is something the Lord takes very seriously.
How seriously? Consider this example for the Old Testament: Naaman was suffering from leprosy and sought help from God’s prophet Elisha. Elisha instructed Naaman to wash seven times in the Jordan River, and he was healed. Elisha refused to accept any payment from Naaman, insisting this was a free gift for him from God, but Elisha’s servant, Gehazi, didn’t think much of that arrangement, so he went after Naaman himself and demanded something to ensure that at least his own pockets would be filled. What it did was ensure that he would be struck with leprosy for the rest of his life (cf. 2 Kings 5).
God wrote the seventh commandment, “You shall not steal” (Exodus 20:15) not only onto the tables of stone, but also directly onto human consciences. Everyone knows it is wrong. Stealing is a serious sin that causes a great deal of damage and trouble:
Stealing can take things from others that they badly need.
It can take things away that someone else has worked very hard for, and the loss will bring them great sadness.
You may take something that was going to be given or used in the service of someone else, thus bringing harm and hardship to even more people.
God gives everyone things to manage and take care of in this life. When we take those things away from others, we rob them of their opportunity to glorify God with what they have been given.
Stealing has the potential to lead others away from Jesus too. It is not hard to imagine thefts causing all sorts of earthly troubles for people, making it more difficult for them to learn of their Savior and grow in Him. In this way, the seventh commandment is similar to the fifth. The fifth warns us against taking a life and ending someone’s time of grace prematurely, but stealing can also cause others to be physically harmed and their spiritual lives to be affected because of it. On any scale, when people find out that something has been taken from them, it affects them. They are hurt by it.
God is against stealing, all the different forms of it. Something like bank robbery is obvious, but we do not always think of how our other actions can be stealing from what belongs to someone else. Our catechism has a long list to remind us: vandalism, blackmail, cheating, poaching, arson, forgery, failing to repay a loan, loafing on the job, charging excessive interest, media pirating, making a dishonest deal, and so on. From the graffiti painted on subway cars, to not working as hard as you can for your employer, to keeping more fish than the law allows—it is all stealing because you are taking something away that rightfully belongs to someone else.
We become guilty of stealing whenever we want to take something that doesn’t belong to us in order to improve our own position, or whenever we take something at the expense of someone else.
Who would want to be around a thief? Many would want to keep their distance, but not Jesus. Jesus comes to call sinners to repentance and that is just what He set about to do after Mary poured the $40,000 ointment on His feet. After Judas complained and revealed his thieving heart, the Lord reached out to him in love and wanted to turn him from his wickedness.
Addressing Judas, Jesus said, “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial.” [v.7] That day was close, and Jesus wanted Judas to consider what was coming. Christ would suffer, die, and be buried. This perfume from Mary, in fact, was the only proper anointing for burial that He would really get. By the time the women would come on Easter morning with their spices to anoint His body, He would be risen from the grave. It would be as Jesus had told the disciples, He would be killed and on the third day rise again.
This is what Jesus wanted Judas to be thinking about. “Judas, I am reaching out to you. Look at what I am doing for you. I am going to the tomb, dying on a cross at the hand of my Heavenly Father, suffering the punishment of Hell itself, offering my life to make up for you—to make up for every time you have reached into the money box. You are a thief, Judas, but I am going to be buried in your place so that you can be counted as ‘not guilty’ and enter into eternal life.” Think about Jesus’ death, Judas! This is your salvation! This is your escape from this life of thievery! This is how it will be made right with God!
Jesus reached out to put Judas in mind of His cross, just as Mary was in mind of it. This was why she poured such a lavish gift at Jesus’ feet. It was Christ’s cross that she saw—the death that He was to undergo for her—that caused her to forget about the price of the perfume. Jesus wanted Judas to smell that perfume and realize that the upcoming burial would be for him too.
Surely Jesus had an idea that Judas wanted to get his hands on the money that Mary’s gift would have brought; and yet when Judas claimed he wanted it for the poor, the Lord did not argue, but reached out saying: “The poor you have with you always, but Me you do not have always.” [v.8]
“Judas, I am here for you right now. You will not always have Me standing with you, but you have Me now. Hold onto Me and drop that money bag you love so much. I will rescue you. By my death and resurrection from the dead I will raise you from lowly thief to the heavenly realms.”
Jesus, friend of sinners, is friend of thieves. For this isn’t the only time He reached out to a thief. There was Zacchaeus, the short little man who had climbed a tree to see the Messiah when He came to town. He was a thief—a tax collector who had cheated many citizens, but Jesus reached out to him, and Zacchaeus trusted the Lord’s forgiveness and paid back what he had taken (cf. Luke 19). Then, there is also the thief on the cross, dying next to Jesus. Jesus reached out to Him. “Remember me when you come into Your kingdom,” he said (Luke 23:42).
Jesus reaches out to every thief. That is, He reaches out to all of us. To you and to me, for we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
You can remember times, I’m sure, when you have taken what rightly belonged to someone else, either more obviously or less obviously. Or when you have thought like Judas, “I wish I could get my hands on that somehow.” For this, Jesus reaches out to you too.
He says, “Come to me, you who labor and are burdened (cf. Matthew 11:28), and I will give you rest for your souls. My burial is for you too. It covers your sins too. My resurrection from the dead means that I have paid to God what you stole from Him, the holiness and honor He required. I have covered all your theft.” Jesus went through death for Judas and for you too.
So we find that in the end stealing loses its appeal because we already have the best deal we could ever get. We already have everything for nothing. Forgiveness of our sins through Jesus. Resurrection and life awaiting us when we die. We don’t need to steal anything more, for the One who has done all this for us will surely and freely give us everything we need. Amen.
You shall not steal or take away
What others worked for night and day,
But open wide a gen’rous hand
And help the poor in the land.
Have Mercy Lord! (CW 285:8)
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